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Story and Photos by Dr. Gerald Schmidt
Some people just have strange interests. This winter break, I went to some of China's best-known tourist destinations: Hainan's Haikou and Sanya, Yunnan's Kunming, Lijiang, and Dali, and Guangxi's Guilin, Longji and Xingping. However, not much of my time was spent looking at the usual sites. Rather, I had my eyes on small fields, plants in the crags, and in the markets, hunting for signs of chile peppers.
Admittedly, finding chile peppers is not particularly difficult in much of China's cooking. Sometimes, it's rather the opposite: a dish like La Zi Ji—basically, spicy chicken—consists of chicken pieces hidden in a heap of sliced, fried chile peppers (see recipe below). Still, it is a hunt: the more ubiquitous to local cuisine that peppers are, the more difficult it becomes to find out specifics about them. Large fields looked nice, but could easily be grown from commercial seed stock. I was looking for landraces, varieties that are more specific to a locale, grown and re-grown from seed that the farmers themselves keep. These are the ones that tend to get lost when large-scale production for the market comes to dominate. When this happens, the work of generations of farmers growing and selecting plants to fit local conditions and local flavors disappears.
Stop 1: Hainan. There's a reason this popular tourist island is called “China's Hawaii.” In Sanya, around Dadonghai Beach, it could just as well be called “Russia's Hawaii.” I hadn't seen quite as many signs in Russian last year, when I lived in the (formerly Soviet) Latvia, in the Baltics. The beach was nice, though. Anyway, no chiles there, except in restaurants. The simple reason for that, though, is that Sichuan cuisine can be found anywhere in China—famously rich in peppers, whether it be the spicy chicken mentioned above or just a dish of cabbage interspersed with whole small chiles. The aim of Sichuan cuisine is not to blow the eater away, and if it is from a decent cook, there are different levels and kinds of pungency. Wuzhishan, a smaller town in the mountainous part of Hainan's interior, was a disappointment, as I walked over fields and saw no peppers.
Haikou, the provincial capital, provided the rescue. The hostel was not really close to the sea, and the sea was not Sanya's polished beach. There was also a sign advising not to go swimming (which Chinese people don't often do, anyway). It was close to a local market, though. A saving grace: some peppers could be found there. Interestingly, quite a few were obviously Capsicum frutescens, like Tabasco peppers, but were mainly sold in their not-quite-ripe, green-orange state. Usually, peppers are sold either ripe—red or unripe—green, and those are other, larger kinds. The real surprise came as I departed: Hainan habanero chiles were for sale in the airport shop. Oops, so Hainan is where China's habanero is grown? Admittedly, that's a more recent import—or actually, a chile pepper grown for export, because worldwide demand for habanero is rising and Mexico can't keep up.