One of the major growing areas of the chilli in China lies in Zhecheng, Henan, a few hours southeast of the province’s capital, Zhengzhou.

Chilli is a spice and vegetable that many Chinese grow, or at least buy fresh, for their own cooking. It is also used at food-industrial scales, though, and therefore needs large-scale production.

China is always good for strange contrasts and odd contradictions, but Henan feels particularly good at that.

Henan

If the province’s name does not ring a bell, does not lead to any immediate associations, it is not particularly surprising. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai are known; Yunnan is a definite tourist destination. Henan is landlocked, less developed, less exciting.

At least, it is so until you hear about some of the places and some of the history:

Luoyang, Anyang, Kaifeng and Zhengzhou used to be Chinese capitals; all lie in Henan.

The Shaolin temple – yes, the one with the Kung Fu monks – is in Henan.

Laozi (Lao-tse) was born in Henan.

The Yellow River (Huang He) flows through Henan; the fertile loess plains made it a birthplace of Chinese civilization – and one of those places that regularly suffered from flooding. And fighting in the various wars for control over China, as well.

Zhecheng, Henan, in Early Morning Sunrise

Flat Fields

Going by car from the airport in Zhengzhou to the “chilli city” of Zhecheng made me feel like the next exit off the highway could be to my hometown in Austria, east of Vienna. Like that part of Austria, which already belongs to the Hungarian Plains, the countryside is flat.

Agriculture dominates, at least as far as one can see, with large corn fields, some alleys of poplar trees, some other crops in between. If I am not very much mistaken, there were some paulownia (kiri tree) plantations, which are still hard to find in Austria (although there is some experimentation with them).

Zhecheng

Our arrival was only after sunset, and Zhecheng presented itself like many provincial Chinese cities: With some rather taller buildings along wide roads, lit up in neon (or perhaps, those are LEDs like now).

Two of the buildings that most drew attention: The pagoda standing between two lakes – or actually one lake and one dry lake bed. Not sure why, but it had been drained. And the hotel, which was rather taller than the buildings around, and lit up even more gaily.

We were not there for a hotel or any of the usual sights people visit, though, anyways. We wanted to see about the chilli!

Zhecheng Chaotianjiao "Facing-Heaven Chilli"

The Chilli in Henan

The situation with Henan and the chilli is fascinating – and telling for some of the ideas around the chilli that are common in China.

Henan has a considerably drier climate than the chilli-loving southwest of China. With more sunlight and less humidity, it is much easier to grow chile peppers here – and, according to Chinese belief about the health effects of hot and spicy foods in relationship to the climate, it is much less necessary to eat chilli.

Pointers to both aspects were easy to find…

Chilli Cultivation

The growing is going well, indeed.

Partial Aerial View of Zhecheng Chilli Planting Base

Fields

A few miles outside of town, agricultural areas begin. Towards the north, the chile pepper base of Zhecheng.

The major crop here is chilli. Chaotianjiao.

Zhecheng Chaotianjiao "Facing-Heaven Chilli"

Chilli Varieties

Chaotianjiao, “facing-heaven chilli” with its erect-growing pods makes for a great sight on those acres upon acres of chilli. It was impressive to see. From ground and air.

This being a chilli-growing hotspot, there was also breeding and trading going on – and the impressions from those made for fascinating sight and insights, as well.

Breeding base meant that lots of different varieties were being grown. Most grown, in such a typical departure from the rest of the chilli world, all Chinese.

“Foreign” chilli are an utter rarity in China – just as Chinese chilli are hardly known outside of the country.

On the other hand, China is big and diverse. Thus, it has a lot to offer itself – and so, in an experimental greenhouse, Hainan’s huangdenglong habanero and Yunnan’s shuanshuanla “ghost pepper”, for example, were being trialed.

Experimental Chilli Field in Zhecheng, Henan

The Strange Case of the Sanyingjiao

Strictly speaking, the point about there being no foreign chilli is not entirely true. By now, the varieties being grown here are local developments and of this place, existing in quite some diversity.

Originally, the famous sanyingjiao of Zhecheng apparently came from Tianjin (sometimes, especially in regards to chilli from there, still written as Tien-tsin). And that chilli was introduced from Japan.

The sanyingjiao of Zhecheng has its origins in the Japanese santaka!

Zhecheng as Chilli Trading Place

The celebrations hid the usual trading in Zhecheng. Which, in places like this, offers quite the fascinating views…

All the chilli growing – which at the time of our visit was being celebrated with both a conference (which was a reason for our visit) and a local festival – is all the more fascinating because Henan, indeed, does not have a tradition of chilli use in its cooking.

Henan Cooking

One of the most famous Henan dishes, hulatang, is spicy unlike most of the cooking of the region. And spicy unlike any of the famous spicy cuisines in China.

Henan's "Pepper-Spicy Soup" Hulatang

Hulatang “Pepper-Spicy Soup”

The thing is that hulatang is a thick soup, more like a porridge. Very filling. And not to be underestimated in its pungency.

It is “pepper-spicy,” hu-la, as in black pepper-spicy, however.

There was also a locally famous beef noodle soup we tried.

With freshly made flaky bread on the side (or ripped up and soaked in it). The soup and the bread, and the combination of both, were excellently aromatic. There was, as always and everywhere, some chilli to go with it.

Zhecheng Niuroumian Beef Soup
Henan Bread and Pickled Chaotianjiao

Extra for us, there was also some of the local chaotianjiao, pickled. Which was funny, because it was rather more spicy than such accompanying chilli would be in the traditionally spicy cuisines of China.

This seems quite a usual occurrence: Where the cuisines are traditionally spicy, the spice levels are oftentimes not quite as high. Where the chilli is not usually eaten so much, when it is, it is often of even higher pungency.