This book is an exemplary study of a key component of cuisine in China today—the chile pepper—the history of which turns out to be full of surprises relevant to several areas of social and cultural inquiry. The author draws on the concepts of “cultural biography” and “identity food” in the service of answering a clearly formulated and significant question: “How did chile peppers in China evolve from an obscure foreign plant to a ubiquitous and even ‘authentic’ spice, vegetable, medicine, and symbol?” (p.2) This question drives most of the narrative, with an unexpected range of answers appearing in chapters dedicated to the timing and geography of the chile’s dispersal in China, its use for cuisine, its place in pharmacopeia, and twists and turns in chile aesthetics and discourse. Thus, we learn that “Chinese gardeners, farmers, cooks, medical practitioners, and writers integrated the new plant into their cultural contexts, adapting it...

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