The History of Chilli as Poison Gas…

Chilli is a potent spice; that much is well known. It is well-enough known that cooking with chilli can be a cough-inducing affair – and there’s a good reason why the Hunan kitchen is always a separate room and the ‘stovetop’ typically right at a window… if not on the balcony.

What’s less well known but keeps drawing attention is the history of chilli smoke as something of a poison gas. In some of its guises, it outright takes the prize for having been a means of war, long before the industrialization of war that came to a first dark flowering during WWI (the beginning of which now lies 100 years in the past), in others, it’s been rather less destructive.

One of the chilli’s traditional uses that somehow keeps attracting people’s attention is that as an educational means.

Codex Mendoza 60r, Chilli as punishment
Detail from Codex Mendoza: Aztec children’s punishment w| smoke of burning chiles

Among many a cultural group where the cuisine is spicy, eating hot chilli is a sign that one has grown up into adulthood, but the toughness associated with the chilli had another, very different, context among the Aztecs, as well: Male children who didn’t want to listen were punished by being held over the acrid smoke of burning chilli (female ones only had to kneel in front of it…). Supposedly, this punishment was still practiced among the Popoloca in Southern Puebla in the 1960s.

Chilli was also among the things that were given as tribute to the Aztec kings.

Empires being as they are, tribute payments didn’t always go without grudges, though, and so it happens that we get to an outright chilli gas chamber: In the 1450s, the people of Cuetlaxtlan in the Northeast of the Aztec empire revolted against their overlords, killed their Mexica (Aztec) governor – and when messengers arrived to ask why the tribute hadn’t been paid, the local lords locked them into a room into which they led the smoke of burning chilli until the messengers were dead…

More usually, though, the smoke of burning chilli is considered rather more healing. To people, anyways.

Look at any book on incense, many of the reports about indigenous and otherwise traditional spiritual practices, and the smoke of some special substances is a sign straight to the gods. Hardly a substance more special than the chilli, but it’s smoke is a rather differently potent thing even when it comes to spiritual connotations:

In Southeast Asia and the Himalayas, as apparently among some indigenous groups in the Americas, there are places where the burning of chilli is considered a practice that will drive away evil spirits.

From Bhutan comes the great example of such burning pepper smoke being used to keep negative influences away from the stills lest they destroy the, uhm, potent spirits being brewed within.

Normally, of course, we’re just happy – if happily coughing at times – about the smell of frying peppers emanating from the kitchen, promising that good food is on its way 😉

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