It’s a weapon! It’s a food!

They put it in kimchi. They put it in soups and stews. They put it in sauces. The way Koreans put red chili-pepper powder — or in many cases whole or sliced chilies — in so many different dishes has made the lowly chili a virtual symbol of the Korean nation. Kimchi and chilies are to Korea as bluegrass and fried chicken are to Kentucky.

With chilies so prominent in the food here, you might think that they have been part of Korean life since time immemorial. Many people, Koreans included, are surprised to learn that chilies are relative newcomers to this part of the world, dating back barely 400 years. Chilies are among the multitude of new foods introduced to the rest of the world only after Columbus, when the Europeans began returning to their homeland with plants they'd learned to eat from Native Americans.

Red chilies

Nicely ripened, sun-dried red chilies

No one is absolutely certain just when or by what route the chili came to Korea, but the consensus is that it arrived sometime during the Japanese invasions in the 1590s. Scholars are sure that it was the Portuguese trading vessels that brought this hot pepper to the East, but which direction it took when entering Korea is in question. A Japanese book called the Honchoseijidanki says that Toyotomi Hideyoshi brought chilies back from his expedition to Korea, but nowadays most scholars feel pretty confident that it went the other way, being brought to the peninsula by the Japanese invaders. Portuguese vessels had already visited Japan at that time, but not Korea. There is, nevertheless, some possibility that chilies were brought in by Portuguese soldiers among the reinforcements sent by Ming China to help Korea fight off the invaders. We may never know for sure.

One thing we do know is that Koreans did not immediately take to using chilies in their food. It's not that they didn't like hot food — it's recorded that they spiced up their food with black pepper and mustard. Apparently they just didn't think of it for more than a century. Throughout the 17th century, chilies were used only to make a kind of liquor, but by the early 1700s people had started using chili in at least a few types of kimchi. The Economy of the Countryside, a book published sometime just before 1715, contains 15 kimchi recipes, two of which list red pepper powder as an ingredient.

Korean chili powder

Korean chili powder

Though they weren't eating chilies right away, Koreans did find another useful "application" for them: they used them as a weapon. They would throw chili powder in the face of the enemy during a surprise attack or get upwind of the enemy position and burn chilies, causing the enemy soldiers to flee, coughing and weeping from the irritating smoke. I can vouch for this method: the bangatgan (방앗간, the mill where they grind grains and peppers) in my neighborhood market caught fire once, emptying the streets of people most expeditiously.

Once they did start experimenting with putting chili powder in the kimchi, Koreans quickly discovered that it helped control the fermentation process and prevent spoilage, so they could use less salt. Soon there was a proliferation of new kimchi recipes, and the invention of lots of other dishes that call for red pepper powder soon followed.

Cabbage kimchi, the most common type

There are lots of different kinds of kimchi, but the kind with napa cabbage as the main vegetable ingredient, shown here, is the most common.

What Korean cooks didn't realize about this spicy new ingredient was how healthful it was. Chilies are loaded with vitamin C. Even just a couple of ounces of hot pepper contains more of the vitamin than a healthy adult needs in a day. Also, the red pigment in chilies can be converted by the body into vitamin A. Chilies that have been fully ripened may have as much as ten times more vitamin A than green ones. One tablespoon of the powder has more than half the amount recommended for an adult. Of course, not many of you are going to throw out your vitamin supplements and start downing yummy spoonfuls of raw chili powder, but if you generally eat Korean food, you're probably getting more than your share of these vitamins anyway.

I used to think the Korean recommendation that you fight a cold by drinking soju (소주 燒酒) laced with red pepper powder was just an old wives' tale, but it turns out to be a pretty good prescription, after all. The soju relaxes you and may help you sleep, while the red pepper powder irritates the mucus membranes of the nose, throat, and bronchial passages, causing them to secrete more water, thus loosening up the mucus, making it easier for the sufferer to clear away congestion by coughing or blowing his nose.

Today we have weapons of war much more sophisticated than chilies or chili powder, but as you can see, we can still use chili as a weapon against disease, and I'd venture to say that its culinary possibilities are far from exhausted.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 21 February 2000.