Thursday, December 1, 2011

Red Peppers Introduced to Korea

The hot and spicy red peppers known throughout Korea are supposed to have originated from South America, specifically from Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. During the great age of navigation, they were transported from Brazil to Portugal and Spain, and through Columbus and others like him redistributed from there all over the world.

But the question arises, how and when did red peppers get to Korea? I have heard via my students since I arrived in Korea that the red peppers were introduced sometime in the 16th century and came from Italy or thereabouts. Historically, there are two beliefs about how they arrived that are a little clearer than the word-of-mouth version I've heard.

The first is that red peppers were introduced from Japan, and this is what Japan teaches in its text and history books. Red peppers are internationally documented as being introduced to Japan in the 16th~17th centuries and they were then known as "the mustard of Japan". Japan teaches and broadcasts that they were the ones who introduced this present-day core Korean flavoring and spice to Korea.

Korea however refutes this ... for more reasons than one. Namely it's refuted because Korea and Japan have an on-going dispute about which country introduced 'culture' to the other. Japan likes to contend that its original ideas and culture were borrowed into the Korean culture, and of course there were periods of historical cultural sharing in various eras between both countries, sometimes with Korea borrowing more and sometimes vice versa. However, Japan would like to contest that the majority of culture Korea claims - artwork, some religious practices, the mastery of Gaya kingdom during the three kingdoms period in ancient Korean history, etc - originated from Japan. Historians even contest this statement as culture has never been known to originate FROM an island TO a mainland but was transported FROM a mainland TO an island, and often, from a logical historical point of view, FROM the nearest mainland (which happens to be Korea) TO the island(s), which are the Japanese islands.

There is further "proof" that the red pepper was not introduced from Japan in the 16th~17th centuries. In a 15th century text, the term 고추 (red pepper) is clearly written in regard to cultural foods present in Korea. For the sake of the cultural arguement though, names and meanings of names change over the centuries so there is a small possibility that the 고추 mentioned in the text could in fact refer to another plant than what is known as "red pepper" today. In any case, the red pepper that is ubiquitous in almost every Korean dish today, was only introduced about 400 years ago, and it has had an amazingly huge influence on what is known as "Korean food" today.

Jo Min-ji and Song Jung-eun did some very nice research to collect this data for their 'Food and Culture' presentation. Quite interesting.


  1. This is a very old post but I was recently curious about what spice Koreans used before the ceyanne pepper arrived so I did a google search and found an article written by several Koreans trying to claim that the native Korean pepper has been in Korea for millions of years.
    Then I found this blog post.

    Now, I mention this because you seem interested and you make a point that these researchers failed to do. The meaning of the word pepper can change widely over centuries. Additionally, they keep referring to gochu as if there is only one kind of pepper but we know that it is simply a plant type. It is possible the gochu they found in the texts could be an entirely different pepper than the one used today.

    They also made a lot of assumptions and seemed like they were accumulating a lot of evidence without actually explaining it in a way to directly refute the ideal Japan introduced red peppers to Korea.

    I'm still wondering though, what is the scientific name for the native Korean pepper?

  2. I've been looking for articles on this subject, and I notice that none of the claims of early introduction of peppers to Korea (or that it is native to Korea) refer to any genetic or palynological evidence.

    1. Seems you are right as my resources allude to pepper (of some kind and of unclear description) in old texts, but this does little to prove the plant now called pepper as the same in the past.