Mouth, completely incensed in flame, drawing from its corners little wisps of air in attempt to bring some relief; face, blotchy, red; the alternating rush of preoccupied pain followed by ecstatic relief. In one pole, the mind becomes completely preoccupied with the experience of the mouth – it’s like a meditation, or a trance-like state. The burning elation, an ecstatic ritual, loaded with sensual ancientness. At its hottest, most potent, the world slips away and the sufferer is at one with the moment, and then a kind of bliss.
Southeast Asian cuisines are one of many world cuisines that revere the chilli as an ingredient, loved for its sensations, flavor, and medicinal properties. The chilli is as ubiquitous with Lao cuisine as padaek or sticky rice: it has the kind of identification that seems like it stretches back to the dawn of time. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, chilli peppers of all kinds are a fairly recent addition to world cuisines outside of North and Central America.
Columbus brought chillies back to Europe from the New World to a lukewarm reception. He called them Indian Peppers. They wanted cloves and black pepper and he mostly brought them poisonous tomatoes, enigmatic allspice, and torturous red chillies. An esteemed ingredient in the cuisines of Native American cuisines for thousands of years, and an ancient staple of various empires of Mexico and Central America, the chilli pepper was met with a suspicious reception by its European audience. It was pretty though, so it was deemed an acceptable decorative plant for monasteries.
In the 1500’s the Portuguese, the same lovable people that brought you the global slave trade, violent conversions to Catholicism, and almost a century of armed occupation of the Indian Ocean, propagated the spread of the chilli pepper into Asia, where it was welcomed wholesale into many cuisines. It took off in India quickly and spread into Southeast Asia and China within a century. In fact, chilli peppers are so popular in Asia that many myths were introduced to naturalize the plants to that locale, using stories of gods giving people these plants as gifts to make it seem as though they’d always been there.
Today, much of the world energetically consumes these peppers, putting them in everything from sauces, curries, salads – finding a way to eat them almost any time food is eaten.