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10 American native plants that changed Chinese food culture and habits

American native plants

The introduction of American native plants in China. The voyages to the Americas by Christopher Columbus represent a ‘point of no return’ for the history of humanity.

From this moment on, the world became larger, the old world met the new, though this process wasn’t painless.

But this contact has very quickly conditioned and transformed culinary traditions, and customs not only in Europe but in Asia and Africa as well. The habits of the people of the old world changed forever by the introduction of these plants imported by the Spaniards.

Let’s see how some of these plants have transformed Chinese food culture and habits.

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American native plants in China

Chili & Bell peppers


The chili peppers were introduced to Asia by the Portuguese traders. Lisbon was an important port for both Portuguese and Spanish ships sailing to and from the Americas.

Chili is a vital ingredient in Hunanese, Sichuanese and Yunnanese food

It was introduced in India by the Portuguese towards the end of the 15th century. Today China is the world’s largest producer of green chilies.

Chili is a vital ingredient in Hunanese, Sichuanese, and Yunnanese food.

Hotpot (火锅)

Some of the most famous spiciest dishes are the spicy Hotpot (火锅 – The hot pot has a long history, traced back to the Jin Dynasty, 1115-1234, but over time chilis and other American native food plants like tomato, potato and pumpkin were introduced), the Sichuanese Ma po tofu (麻婆豆腐), the Hunan fried chicken with Sichuan spicy sauce (麻辣鸡丁; 麻辣雞丁; málà jīdīng), and the hot and sour soup.



The tomato originated in Central and South America. Its use as a food originated in Mexico and spread throughout the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, may have been the first to transfer the tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in 1521, although Christopher Columbus may have taken them back as early as 1493.

Tomato Egg Stir Fry
Tomato Egg Stir Fry (蕃茄炒蛋) with green bell pepper.

The Spanish distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in America and later they took it to the Philippines, from where it spread to southeast Asia. In 2014, China was the largest producer of tomatoes, accounting for 31% of the total.

Salad Tomato (凉拌西红柿)
Salad Tomato (凉拌西红柿) is a favorite dish in Beijing.

Tomato Egg Stir Fry (蕃茄炒蛋) and the Salad Tomato (凉拌西红柿), are two popular dishes in China.



Maize was first domesticated in southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. After the arrival of Europeans in 1492, Spanish settlers consumed maize, and explorers and traders carried it back to Europe and introduced it to other countries.

The earliest reference to maize in China is found in the 1555 edition of the
history of Kung-hsien, a district in western Hunan. Maize was first brought to Peking as a tribute by western barbarians, a generic ethnic term which during the Ming period was referred to the various tribesmen who inhabited the vast western frontier area stretching from Gansu to Yunnan.

“Although the overland route of introduction of maize is well proved, the
possibility of a maritime introduction cannot easily be ruled out. For the
Augustian monk, Martino de Herrada, in 1577 witnessed maize cultivation
in Ch’iian-chou in southern Fukien (cited in Laufer 1906, II:236). T’ien
I-hhg, a scholar of Hangchow, testified in 1572 that maize was already fairly
common in his native district (Liu-ch’ing jih-ha, 1572 ed., ch. 26, pp. 8a-8b).
Although T’ien said that maize originated from the western territories, it is
extremely doubtful that maize was introduced to the southeast coast from the
Yunnan area, because of the almost complete lack of reference to maize even
in the seventeenth-century local histories of the inland Yangtze provinces
east of Szechwan.” The systematic cultivation of maize on the hills and mountains
of the inland Yangtze region did not begin until the eighteenth century.
It was impossible for maize to have reached the southeast coast from Yunnan
in a few decades without leaving any traces in the vast Yangtze interior. Since
the peanut, tobacco, and the Irish potato were all first introduced to the east
coast, and the sweet potato was probably introduced by both maritime and
overland routes, it is very unlikely that maize should have been brought into
China only by way of India and Burma.

Perhaps the truth is that in the history of dissemination of food plants
there are many possible channels, such as traders, travelers, emissaries, and
government officials, which have left little or no record. It is foolish to believe
that a certain plant can be introduced into a new area only once, and then
only by a certain route. A new plant may score an immediate success in one
region and remain neglected in another for a considerable time. Sometimes
only through repeated trial and error can a new plant strike root. Sometimes
a new plant may actually be introduced more than once. The peanut, for instance,
which had been introduced into Fukien and Kiangsu in the early six-
teenth century, was re-introduced into the Fu-ch’ing county of Fukien from
Japan during the early years of the K’ang-hsi (1662-1712) period (Fu-ch’ing
hsien-chih, 1747 ed., ch. 2, p. 18b). The sweet potato, though first introduced
into Fukien in the mid-sixteenth century, was independently introduced into
the sacred Buddhist island of P’u-t’o, near Ningpo, sometime before 1607″ from The Introduction of American Food Plants into China, by Ping-Ti Ho, The University of British Columbia

Chinese corn soup

Chinese soups with corn are widespread in China. Corn in Chinese cuisine is not used as a single ingredient but accompanies other ingredients to give flavor, taste, and color to different types of soups. Often the corn cob is cut into pieces to decorate the dishes. Street vendors sell grilled corn cobs. Corn flour is normally sold in markets to prepare bakery or pastry products.


images of peanuts-china

The peanut is a legume native to South America. The initial domestication may have taken place in South America and then spread to the rest of the continent. The oldest known archeological remains of pods, found in Peru, have been dated at about 7,600 years old. Many pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Moche, depicted peanuts in their art. Cultivation was well established in Mesoamerica before the Spanish arrived.

Kung Pao chicken images
Kung Pao chicken, 宫保鸡丁

The conquistadors found the plant being offered for sale in the marketplace of Tenochtitlan. The peanut was later spread worldwide by European traders, and cultivation is now very widespread in tropical and subtropical regions. In Asia, it became an agricultural mainstay and this region is now the largest producer in the world. Kung Pao chicken, 宫保鸡丁, Gong Bao jiding, is the most famous peanut-based Chinese dish.

Potato & sweet potato


The potato is native to the Andes. The potato was first domesticated in Peru and Bolivia between 8000 and 5000 BC. Potatoes were introduced to Europe in the second half of the 16th century and later to Asia by the Spanish. The potato was the staple food of most Pre‑Columbian Mapuches, “especially in the southern and coastal territories where maize did not reach maturity”.

China is the largest producer of potatoes in the world accounting for the 25% of the world total

The potato diffused widely after 1600, becoming a major food resource in Europe and East Asia. Following its introduction into China toward the end of the Ming dynasty, the potato immediately became a delicacy of the imperial family. China today is the largest producer of potatoes in the world accounting for 25% of the world total.

Spicy and Sour Potato (土豆丝)
Spicy and Sour Potato (土豆丝)

Spicy and Sour Potato (土豆丝), Potato and Pickled Mustard Green soup (洋山芋咸菜汤), Potato “stewed” with eggplant (土豆炖茄子), Yunnan-style hash brown (ganbei yangyusi, 干焙土豆丝 or 干焙洋芋丝), and the beef and potato curry (咖喱牛肉土豆) are popular dishes in China.

Yunnan-style hash brown
Yunnan-style hash brown (ganbei yangyusi, 干焙土豆丝 or 干焙洋芋丝)



Except for three species in South America, all Helianthus species are native to North America but the commercialization of the plant took place in Russia. Archaeological remains date sunflower cultivation back to 3000 a.C. in New Mexico and Arizona.

The plant was taken to Europe by Spanish explorers sometime around 1500 and it was called “the Indian sun” or “Golden Flower of Peru made of gold”. By the early 19th century, Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres of sunflower. In this period, two specific types had been identified: oil-type for oil production and a large variety for direct human consumption. No one has determined the exact time when the sunflower was introduced in China.

In many Chinese restaurants, sunflower roasted and salted seeds are served before the meals


The sunflower was recorded for the first time in China in 1621. In 1846 Chinese botanist Wu Qujun illustrated sunflower in his book “The textual research about the plants and their names”. Wu indicated that “the roasted seeds are fragrant and can be eaten after stir-frying. But one becomes dizzy if one eats too much. The roasted seeds of sunflower, like the seeds of pumpkin and of watermelon, are sold in the provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou“.

Since sunflower is a resistant plant, it was grown all over China. The sunflower was cultivated as a food snack until the second world war. The production in China increased gradually from 1978.

In many Chinese restaurants, sunflower roasted and salted seeds are served before the meals. China is the third producer of sunflower seeds after Ukraine and Russia.


The pineapple is indigenous to South America and is said to originate from the area between southern Brazil and Paraguay. The natives spread the pineapple throughout South America, and it eventually reached the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, where it was cultivated by the Mayas and the Aztecs. Columbus encountered the pineapple in 1493 on Guadeloupe.

He called it piña de Indes, meaning “pine of the Indians”, and brought it back with him to Spain.

Sweet and Sour Pork (Gulaorou 咕老肉)
Sweet and Sour Pork (Gulaorou 咕老肉)

The Spanish introduced it into the Philippines, from where it spread to southeast Asia. One of the most famous Chinese dishes is the Sweet and Sour Pork (Gulaorou 咕老肉).

Yunnan Style Pineapple Rice
Yunnan Style Pineapple Rice (菠萝饭)

The Yunnan Style Pineapple Rice (菠萝饭) is a specialty of Xishuangbanna province.


Source: wikicommons

The dragonfruit is native to America, probably Mexico, where it is also known as pitahaya or pitaya roja. The name in Chinese is 火龍果 (huo long guo, fire dragon fruit). It has been rumored the fruit was introduced in Vietnam by the French.


Source: wiki commons

Cacao has been cultivated by many cultures for at least three millennia in Mesoamerica. The earliest evidence of use traces to Mexico and Guatemala, with evidence of chocolate beverages dating back to 1900 BCE. In fact, the majority of Mesoamerican people made chocolate beverages, including the Maya and Aztecs, who made it into a beverage known as xocolātl, a Nahuatl word meaning “bitter water”.

Christopher Columbus and his son Ferdinand encountered the cacao bean on Columbus’s fourth mission to the Americas.

On August 15, Columbus encountered two 150-foot canoes propelled by slaves tied to their stations by their necks. One of these boats was captured without incident.

It turned out to be filled with trading goods, including stone axes, cotton clothes, and copper bells from Yucatan Peninsula. A description of the meeting was recorded in 1503 by Columbus’s con, Ferdinand:

“For their provisions they had such roots and grains as are eaten in Hispaniola …, and many of those almonds [the cocoa beans] which in New Spain [Mexico] are used for money. They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen”.

Hernán Cortés may have been the first European to encounter it, as the frothy drink was part of the after-dinner routine of Montezuma. While Columbus had taken cacao beans with him back to Spain, chocolate made no impact until Spanish friars introduced it to the Spanish court.

Chocolate introduction in China was recent, and it was driven by large chocolate corporations in the 80s. However, chocolate is still an exotic food, and to the Chinese customers, chocolate should be produced in the European way, not by a Chinese company.



Tobacco has long been used in the Americas, with some cultivation sites in Mexico dating back to 1400–1000 BC. Following the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas, tobacco became popular as a trade item.

Hernández de Boncalo, a Spanish chronicler, was the first European to bring tobacco seeds to the Old World in 1559 following orders of King Philip II of Spain. Tobacco smoking, chewing, and snuffing became a major industry in Europe and its colonies by 1700.

Heqing smocker
Chinese man smoking, photo by Dominique Musorrafiti

Within the Chinese guanxi system, tobacco is still a COMMON gift acceptable on any occasion, particularly outside of urban areas

The China National Tobacco Corporation (中国烟草总公司) is by sales the largest single manufacturer of tobacco products in the world and boasts a monopoly in Mainland China generating between 7 and 10% of government revenue.

Within the Chinese guanxi system, tobacco is still a common gift acceptable on any occasion, particularly outside of urban areas.


Images: China-underground | CinaOggi: Matteo Damiani, Dominique Musorrafiti | Wikimedia | Baidu

Topic: American native plants in China, Christopher Columbus contributions to culture, Chinese food culture, Chinese habits, Chinese spicy food, Chinese spicy food origin, Columbian Exchange,American plant food, native American plants,Chinese food dishes

Last Updated on 2023/05/24

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