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).

  • The Szechuan/Sichuan pepper was already mentioned in ancient Chinese poetry (詩經, 11th-7th centuries BC) -- English translation here

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:

From Quora:

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.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mark C. Wallace Nov 15 at 14:51
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    An English cookbook, The Forme of Cury, was published in the 1390s, and all hot food was called "cury" from the French word cuire, meaning to cook. – Spice E. Guy Nov 15 at 16:26
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    Moving the comments to chat is not a statement about the validity of the comments. It is an indication that discussion is occurring in comments. – Mark C. Wallace Nov 15 at 16:56
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    @SpiceE.Guy: all hot food was called "cury" --- do you have any source for that? My understanding is that the present English curry is from the Tamil kari. – Kenny LJ Nov 16 at 2:28
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    Seems like this questions is to a large extent prompting discussions of nomenclature rather than history. Perhaps the question should be edited to be more clearly a historical question, such as "Is it true that the Old World lacked plants of the genus Capsicum prior to Columbus' voyages?" – Acccumulation Nov 16 at 23:06
up vote 67 down vote accepted

While it is true that most hot spices originated in the Americas, spicy food was evident in most ancient civilizations and originated from many different regions of the world.

There is both physical and literary evidence for the use spices and spicy food dating back to antiquity in Asia and Europe, as well as the Americas. The Cambridge World History of Food, vol. 1 lists numerous examples, among which are Grains of Paradise, a hot spice related to cardamom (date uncertain, origin: West Africa), Ginger (2nd millennium BC, origin: SE Asia), and Pepper (origin: prehistoric India). Then there is also Long Pepper, a hotter version of pepper (prehistoric, origin: India) and Cubeb (or Java pepper) originating in Java and Sumatra. In short,

All of the well-known ancient civilizations used a complement of typical spices.

enter image description here (click for fullsize)

ABOVE Grains of Paradise came to Europe from West Africa in medieval times. Image source: The Spice House

enter image description here

Long Pepper, mentioned in Ayurveda texts which may have originated in Indian prehistory. Image attribution

There is literary evidence for the use of long pepper from India in ancient Greece, and the Romans used spices in most of the dishes found in Apicius, a collection of recipes. Many of these spices came from India and pepper was

the staple commodity of the Roman imperial trade with India

Source: J. Wilkins, S. Hill, Food in the Ancient World, citing Miller (1969)

Peppers from India were evident in early medieval Europe, and saffron from Greece or the Near East was also used:

If saffron was the most exclusive spice, pepper was the most common in medieval Europe. It was consumed by the rich and those of more modest means, albeit in smaller quantities.

I live in Thailand, and I wondered about the same. I asked this question to several Thais with some knowledge in history. Chili peppers come from the Americas. That's correct. They are imported into Asia. Also correct.

But the peppercorn from the black pepper is native to Asia. This was - and still is - in use before Europeans introduced Chili peppers to Asia. Black, white and green pepper come all from the same plant.

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    And is indeed the most used form of pepper in Europe as well. – jwenting Nov 14 at 9:38
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    I think it's important to recognize that biologically peppercorns like black pepper and chili/bell peppers are completely unrelated plant species in different families Piperaceae and Solanaceae which aren't even in the same Order, and the compounds they produce that mediate their "spiciness" are completely different as well. – Bryan Krause Nov 14 at 19:05
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    To add on to @BryanKrause’s comment, the different compounds also provide rather different forms of spiciness. Pepper has a sharp, but short-lived bite. Similar (in sensation, not biology or chemistry) stories for other Old World sources of spiciness, like horseradish, mustard, or wasabi. The lingering, building heat of chili peppers is, as far as I know, unique to those New World plants—but I would love to see more information on whether or not “as far as I know” is accurate. – KRyan Nov 14 at 23:28
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    @BryanKrause: I think it is a peculiarity of the English language that this confusion even exists. For example, in German, "pepper" is called "Pfeffer" and "chili pepper" is called just "Chili". There just is no potential for confusion there, the word "Pfeffer" (pepper) is exclusively reserved for referring to peppercorns. – Jörg W Mittag Nov 15 at 0:05
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    @JörgWMittag: in my experience at least, it's a peculiarity of only some (not all) English dialects. For example, in Australian English "pepper" refers exclusively to peppercorns, "bell peppers" are called "capsicums", and "chilli peppers" are referred to as "chillies". – Mac Nov 15 at 23:19

Mustard, horseradish, ginger and cumin all grow in the old world and are by most definitions spicy.

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    This answer could be improved by reference to the documentary record of the past (citation and quotation). – Samuel Russell Nov 14 at 12:38
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    While they are "spicy" I don't know if this falls into the classification of what the OP is looking for. They are specifically looking for peppers and related foods that burn the mouth when consumed. None of the above really do that. – ggiaquin16 Nov 14 at 21:06
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    @ggiaquin16 horseradish do burn mouth when consumed. If you haven't noticed, you have never consumed real horseradish. – 9ilsdx 9rvj 0lo Nov 15 at 8:59
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    @9ilsdx9rvj0lo: while I agree with your comment in general, the kind of "hotness" from horseradish is different from, say, jalapeños (it also goes into the nose / sinus). But I agree that ultimately it is a matter of semantics (or biochemical definitions of the molecules which cause the sensation) – WoJ Nov 15 at 10:16
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    @WoJ Radishes definitely go "into the nose". This whole question sounds a bit silly to me because where I'm from (Central Europe), peppers weren't really used for "spiciness" much. Pretty much all the "traditional" spicy dishes don't involve peppers at all, and the ones that involve peppers usually use rather sweet peppers, not chilli (there are exceptions, though). I think a big part of the problem is that people are familiar with their kinds of e.g. radishes that don't sting much. A lot of cultivation aimed to make things like onions and radishes sweeter. – Luaan Nov 15 at 10:58

Answer to question as originally posted:

This is more of a language use problem, in several ways.

The first comment is correct in stating that capsaicin containing dishes (these are the "hot, spicy") are very popular in Asia now. But in Asia it was impossible for those dishes to contain capsaicin before Columbus. The whole genus Capsicum was simply absent from Asia before 1500. Many Asians are oblivious to the fact and surprised to learn that chili-pepper is not like black pepper originally native to Asia.

Even a few scientists seemed to have been surprised by that, at least sometimes, as is evidenced for example by the misleading taxonomic classification of a hot bonnet pepper, named Capsicum chinense, that is not really "from China":

Despite its name, C. chinense or "Chinese capsicum" is misleading. All Capsicum species originated in the New World. Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin (1727–1817), a Dutch botanist, erroneously named the species in 1776, because he believed they originated in China due to their prevalence in Chinese cuisine after their introduction by European explorers.

The blog post uses even less precise language, as first of all those dishes in Asia alluded to originate from Asia. And more importantly second: it drops the signifier 'hot' and equates 'spicy' with 'capsaicin containing'. But that is a peculiarism of usage, ambiguous in itself and not universal to all variants of the English language, differing by regions.

From a sister site:

Difference between “spicy” and “hot” I make a distinction between "hot" and "spicy" food ("hot" not referring to temperature). I consider "hot" food the kind that "burns" and "spicy" food that has lots of flavor, but that may or may not "burn", but has some "heat" to it and is flavorful.

I've been told that there is no real difference between the two and that I'm crazy for thinking that Tabasco sauce makes something "hot", while something like curry, ginger, or cumin makes something "spicy". Please help me out a little here with a little clarification.

Or as Wikipedia put it:

The terms "pungent" and "pungency" are rarely used in colloquial speech but are preferred by scientists as they eliminate the potential ambiguity arising from use of the words "hot" and "spicy", which can also refer to temperature and the presence of spices, respectively. For instance, a pumpkin pie can be both hot (out of the oven) and spicy (due to the common inclusion of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mace, and cloves), but it is not pungent. (A food critic may nevertheless use the word "piquant" to describe such a pie, especially if it is exceptionally well-seasoned.) Conversely, pure capsaicin is pungent, yet it is not naturally accompanied by a hot temperature or spices.
As the Oxford, Collins, and Merriam-Webster dictionaries explain, the term "piquancy" refers to mild pungency and flavors and spices that are much less strong than chilli peppers, including, for example, the strong flavor of some tomatoes. In other words, pungency always refers to a very strong taste whereas piquancy refers to any spices and foods that are "agreeably stimulating to the palate", in other words to food that is spicy in the general sense of "well-spiced".

Going from that wikipage to corresponding entries illustrates that this problem is largely absent from other languages, but there are others around the fruit.

The problem is entrenched and likely to persist.

It's a genuine inadequacy in English vocabulary, with no simple fix:

"Hot" is ambiguous
"Spicy" is also ambiguous (certain kinds of cake, for example, are spicy but not hot)
"Piquant" is not frequently used, so could seem pretentious.

And to illustrate the regional variations, from a recent chat:

ME: Do you use 'spicy' in that way? Is that not more like "hot". Re-checked a couple dictionaries and it is always just listing 'copious amounts of spices'.
TED: Yes, I do. Something with lots of Oregano in it is not "spicy".
ME: Then I am quite sure there is also one of these maps that picture this as a regionalism? Clearly something with Piper nigrum or Zingiber officinale is also spicy/hot. But indeed I find it very strange what is called *-pepper around the globe. WP describes capsaicin as pungent…

Equally:

In English 'spicy/hot' doesn't always mean 'with chillies' as many people find even weak "French" mustard to be 'spicy/hot'.Mustard can be considered 'spicy' in England but standard English mustard is not spicy due to the addition of chillies, it is the mustard seeds themselves, they are Brassicas and do not contain capsaicin.

Most spices are really just flavourings and do not contain capsaicin. Asking for no chilli should still allow you to have a flavourful dish without the pain but some people may mistake no chilli for no spices but at least your food will be warmer than the ambient temperature and not contain chilli rather than at, or cooler than, the ambient temperature and not contain chilli.

So Asians used pepper and other spices well before Columbus. Then they were introduced to capsaicin containing plants and allspice. Asian dishes are from Asia and contained spices before the columbian exchange. Another exchange to observe is that the very word "spicy" changed its meaning by that and for some refers exclusively to chili-pepper dishes.


Oxford English Dictionary

hot:
- Of food or drink: prepared by heating and served before cooling. - Of a food, drink, spice, etc.: having a taste or smell characterized by a burning sensation; pungently spicy; acrid, biting. Also of a taste or smell (occasionally in figurative contexts).

spicy:
- Having the characteristic qualities of spice; of the nature of spice.
- Flavoured or mixed with spice.

The most intriguing part about this is that in English the familiar Piper nigrum (black) pepper gave its name away to all these spicy-hot chili peppers and variant spellings and meanings, because of their similarity in tongue sensations. All while Columbus had set sail to find trade routes for the spices, now in some parts of the world only those dishes containing plants discovered after Columbus are called spicy? Quite a carrousel indeed.


Answer supplement to updated question

Now that it should be clear that spicy should logically mean containing lots of spices/herbs/aroma/taste/zing/hotness:

The claim is correct if spicy is equated with capsaicin, and the claim is correct if it is assumed that nearly all popular spicy Asian dishes with their recipes from today would be missing a crucial ingredient without Latin Americas gift to the culinary world.

However, we were nitpicking with language, let's be serious about the history of spicy food in Asia:

Etymologists believe that “curry” originally came from kari, a word in Tamil that means sauce or gravy. The history of this preparation goes back more than 4,000 years to the Indus Valley civilization, where people often used stone mortar and pestle to finely grind spices such as fennel, mustard, cumin and others. In fact, excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro have unearthed pottery fragments with traces of turmeric and ginger, belonging to the period between 2600 – 2200 BC, thus making curry (or at least the predecessor to curry) one of the oldest food items in the world. As pointed out by historians, the curry was often eaten with rice, which was already being cultivated in the area.

Sumerian tablets that have survived also talk of a similar food recipe for meat in some kind of spicy gravy and served with bread, as early as 1700 BC. The Apicius cookbook of the 4th century AD contains many meat recipes that were cooked in a similar fashion, with the use of ingredients like coriander, vinegar, mint, cumin and so on. Authored in the 1390s, The Forme of Cury is significant for possessing the earliest reference to the word “cury”, though it was taken from the French term “cuire” for cooking. With the arrival of the Portuguese in Goa in the 15th century as well as the Mughals in India in the early 16th century, the curry recipe underwent multiple revisions.
Realm of History: 9 Of The Oldest Food Recipes From History Still In Use Today

If we just put aside the dubious language definitions completely. And if we put aside the equally dubious chemical reductionist stance of the scoville scale that measures pungency just by casicin content. Then we can still trust our senses. Going by purely organoleptic categories, it might become clear that even the isolated until 1788 Australians used plants like pepperberry, mountain pepper to spice up their food.

Example to add to the wikipedia entry:

Tasmannia lanceolata is the tree that produces the Tas- manian pepperberry and leaf. Dr Konczak says ‘It is a very aromatic native pepper which was developed under the Antarctic climate’ when Australia was attached to Gondwanaland.

Or a spicy recipe devoid of American or Asian spice:

600 g kangaroo tenderloin
250 ml beef broth jus
6 quandongs
50 g riberries
50 g desert lime
4 rosella owers
50 g muntries
2 tsp 7 spice
400 g warrigal greens
2 tsp butter
1 cup mixed beach herbs (salt bush, barilla, beach mustard, beach banana)
John Newton: "The Oldest Foods in the World. A history of Australian native foods with recipes", New South: Sydney, 2016.

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    This language focused response could be improved by reference to the entry of the concept of hot as in culinary spice into English. OED3 ought to have first (located) use with a quote. – Samuel Russell Nov 14 at 12:42
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit I know. They were all over the place, those people. But the genus Capsicum was absent from Asia before 1500, or what do you read into what you quoted? – LangLangC Nov 14 at 13:07
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    @LangLangC For sure, although I think much like chili peppers are such an integral part of Indian and SE Asian cuisine, tomatoes are pretty central to Mediterranean cooking. Though I am also invariably putting an American bias on world cuisine. Neither region had either until quite recently, historically speaking. – Bryan Krause Nov 14 at 17:57
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    @jamesqf That's an interesting personal observation, given that capsaicin activates exactly the same receptor, TRPV1, that provides the primary sensation of hot temperature (piperine from black pepper and similar also does, but it less specific). Good point of potato and corn as well. I think in general people don't appreciate just how much cooking worldwide was affected by new world crops. – Bryan Krause Nov 14 at 18:34
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    Since this answer was first posted, I have added the following to my question: "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." // I hope my question doesn't have to hinge too heavily on the inability of the English language to adequately describe a certain taste, flavor, or sensation. – Kenny LJ Nov 16 at 1:45

Spicy and related words can definitely describe the sensations provoked by various food items. The words seem used most often to describe the substance capsaicin, present in chile peppers. In that sense, assuming there are no capsaicin-bearing Old World plants, the claim is true. In the sense that peppercorns and so on are spicy too, it is false.

Demonstrably false.

While it is true that the Capsicum genus (as in chili and the like) comes from Latin America, the Piper genus ("pepper" in its various forms) as well as ginger is native to Asia. Their use in Europe predates the Columbian Exchange by over a thousand years (pepper being rare, but known and available via the Silk Road) and at least 3,000 years (probably much more) in Asia. Ginger has a long history of being used for making spicy food in lack of pepper (which obviously means pepper must have been known).

I wouldn't be able to tell how long exactly pepper has been known, or available in Europe (but surely since at least the Tang dynasty since there's written records on trade with the Byzantine Empire), but Óc Eo provides evidence of trade with Rome even before the second century, so...

That aside, the mere name Piper is a dead giveaway since it's a Sanscrit word. Sanscrit has been spoken during the last 3,000-4,000 or so years in what region again... Latin America? Well, no. Look farther east.
The German translation of "go jump in the lake" which re-translates literally to to "go where the pepper grows" (= India) is a similar hint.

I think people are correct when they mention the ambiguity of the term in English, but I think I know what you mean. In Spanish, the spicy sensation of chilli peppers are called "picante". Other "spicy" (as from spice) flavors, such as mustard, we wouldn't call them picante although in English some people might say it's spicy. We would say they are "especiado" (literally means spicy, tastes like spices) but not picante.

I believe picante chilli types of flavor all come from the Americas. Asian chilli are not exactly "picante", although for something so abstract as flavor it's difficult to make exact classifications.

  • “Asian chilli are not exactly "picante"” — I think this is wrong: the stuff that makes chilli spicy is chemically identical. – Konrad Rudolph Nov 15 at 9:29
  • It's very difficult for me to give an answer to this claim being a 100% sure of it being correct, but in my personal experience Asian spicy food (Chinese) gives me a different sensation than what I would call picante as I know it. It makes your tongue dance and it's hard to stand if you are not used. I suppose that the key here is that these classifications are cultural. The feeling caused by American chilli is different and "that" sensation is what we call "picante". Asians call the sensation caused by their own chilli with their own adjective. I guess it then got mixed up in translation – F. S. Nov 15 at 9:38
  • I need to clarify that I haven't tasted that many Asian chilli. In fact I have only tried one thing that remotely resembles such a thing and it's Sichuan chilli. Everything else fall under the category of spices and I wouldn't call them "picante" – F. S. Nov 15 at 9:42
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    Ah that explains it: Sichuan isn’t a chilli at all, it’s a peppercorn. It’s biologically unrelated to chilli and has a different flavour chemistry. – Konrad Rudolph Nov 15 at 9:43
  • Since you seem to understand this topic well, let me ask you if there are native Asian chilli bilogically similar to American chilli and and I guess that will settle it. And if there are please recommend me some so I try. I'm in fact on the way to China again and I want to taste them – F. S. Nov 15 at 9:47

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