Nancy Qian, economist who has studied the Columbian Exchange (2018):
There really was no spicy food in the world before the Columbian Exchange.
Denver Nicks, author of Hot Sauce Nation (2016):
Before the Columbian Exchange, there were no chilies outside of the Americas. Which is to say, when Christopher Columbus set sail for India in 1492, Indian food wasn’t spicy. Thai food wasn’t spicy (in the sense of “spicy’ as in the heat-pain that chilies impart). There was no spicy Chinese food.
Highly-upvoted comment at Cooking.SE (2018):
More interestingly, chillis are also new world crops. Therefore all those hot, spicy, Thai, Indian, Malay and Filipino foods are actually modern - invented after the Portuguese or Dutch introduced chilli peppers to Asian cultures
Crash Course (2012):
until 500 years ago ... Indians lived without curry, which contains chilies, a New World food
The Awl (2017):
All Spicy Food Is From Latin America.
To what extent is the above claim true?
To me, it seems "obvious" that spicy food has a much longer history in Asia than just to 1500 and that the chili plant isn't the only way to achieve a spicy flavor. I also easily found the following examples:
The Japanese wasabi - according to this page, "The first Japanese medical encyclopaedia called 'Honzo-wamyo'” was published in A.D. 918 and it states that “wild ginger” (Wasabia japonica) had been grown in Japan for at least a thousand years"
One journal article claims that the Korean chili pepper gochu has been cultivated for at least 1,500 years. However, this journal article has been criticized by several commenters below (now moved to chat) and was also recently thoroughly debunked by wotan_weevil at Reddit - Ask Historians (I found this only a number of days after first posting this question).
But perhaps wasabi, gochu, and the Szechuan pepper were rare examples and for the most part the claim of this question's title is true.
Several have correctly pointed out that the word spicy is unfortunately quite ambiguous in English. For example, cinnamon and nutmeg are spices, but are not what I mean by spicy in the current context. In other languages there are words for what I am thinking of in much more unambiguous terms --- picante in Spanish, 辣 in Chinese, or pedas in Malay.
Perhaps there is a more scientific term for this that someone knows of. (I am aware that there is something called the Scoville scale, but this seems to measure only capsaicins which seem to be present only in chili.)
I have also found the following fruitful discussions on other sites:
From Reddit - Ask Historians:
- "What was Indian food like before contact with the New World?"
- "What was Asian cuisine like before the Colombian exchange?"
- What did "Old World" cuisines that are today known for their spicy foods taste like before peppers were imported from the Americas?
- What is the history of curry? Who invented it? How did it spread? Is it really a British thing and not Indian?
- Hot peppers originally came from the Americas, but India, Thailand, and large parts of China are famous for their spicy foods. How did they arrive, and how long was it before they became an integral part of the cuisine?
The top answer at this last discussion quotes Achaya (2000):
We had a glimpse in the last chapter that chillis are not really Indian. These wonderful materials were brought to India from Mexico, perhaps in the late 16th century. They took a little while to catch on, but in about a hundred years, the use of chillis spread to every part of India. Before that, it was pepper that was used to give the pungency that is so characteristic of Indian food. In one of the sections of the Ain-i-Akbari, written in 1590, there is a list of 50 dishes cooked in Akbar's court: all of them use only pepper to impart spiciness. In most Indian languages, the name for the chilli is simply a variation of the earlier name for pepper in the same language. For example, in Hindi, we say kalimirch (black pepper) for pepper and harimirch (green pepper) for chilli. In Tamil, the word for pepper is milagu and that for chilli is milagai (= milagu-kai (pepper+fruit)). In Kannada, the words are karimenasu and menasinkayi. Try this exercise in your own language.
It is not difficult to understand why the chilli so quickly replaced pepper in our cooking. While the pepper vine grows almost only in Kerala, chillis can be grown in almost every backyard, or cultivated in fields, all over the country. Thus, they were easily avaliable everywhere at a low price. All the many varieties that we know come to us from Mexico and none of them was developed afterwards in India. These include the green chilli, red chilli, long red chilli, very small and very hot green bird chilli, and the large mild capsicum. To make chillipowder, the long bright-red variety with thin skins can be dried in the sun, and ground either with its seeds to give more pungency, or without it to give a milder chilli-powder. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the humble chilli from Mexico really revolutionized the food of India.