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A multimedia project to discover the untold story of the chili peppers origins and how it transformed cuisine and culture globally.

Connecting humanity and global culture through the food we love to eat.

I'm not a detective, but I am a writer, traveler, and explorer, and this project is about world's most popular spice, the chili pepper, native to South America. It spread rapidly around the world in the 16th century, being adopted into cuisines of cultures as diverse as India, Korea, Indonesia, and South Africa. 

How this happened has never been told. 

This Kickstarter will fund my travel research to write articles, collect data, and, as a final output, write a full-length, popular book. I've already designed a website to document the project and am doing 2-3 hours of preparatory research each day.

It all started when I first learned, six years ago, that chilies were from South America, not, as I always assumed, Asia.

After I accepted that fact, which shook my worldview, I searched long and hard for a book that would tell this story. I wanted to know HOW this was possible. After all, there are similar books for Salt, Potatoes, Chocolate, even Apples, all of which I've now read.

And there are many books on Chili Peppers. On cooking them, planting them, identifying them, but every single one of them glosses over what I see as the most important part. The story, of how the chili pepper became such an intricate part of cultures around the world. They also fail to explore why us "chili lovers" use those chilies in such different, fascinating ways. Korean fermented chili paste, gochujang, versus Indonesian sambal, crushed chilies with garlic, or Indian dry red chili powder. 

And why did countries like Japan or Spain not adopt chilies, despite their proximity to countries that did, or to trade routes between the old world and the new?

An important story in human history was not being told. I realized there would be only one way to find out.

I would have to write this book myself.

There is a fascinating modern angle, as Chili Peppers are, today, spreading to every corner of the world. England, which ignored the chili in the 16th century, now had adopted Indian curries as its de-facto national cuisine. Spicy Korean food is available on every corner in Japan's big cities of Tokyo and Osaka. In America, Mexican food and its use of diverse, delicious chilies, can be found even in the small towns of the Midwest. As globalization breaks down barriers, it is the chili pepper, again, that is connecting cultures through food.

Why is the Chili so poweful, not just to flavor food, but connect and define culture?

There is only one way to find out. A Spicy Quest.

The Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper), the spiciest chili in the world.
The Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper), the spiciest chili in the world.

Why Travel? And why Four Countries?

I want to present a well-rounded, fascinating picture of the chili pepper. Travel is a necessary for this project. While there is a wealth of research I can and am doing from afar, the heart of the story of the chili peppers is in the people who eat it, and the cultures that have (or have not) adopted it and made it an integral parts of their identities. I need to experience, see, and explore to truly tell the global story.

Despite the books out there, the chili pepper's story is a mostly unrecorded history, a process that took place at the lower levels of society, in people's kitchens, and grew into a culinary revolution. 

Proposed Research Countries

  • Bolivia/Brazil – The wild origins of Chilies. The early history and how it was transformed by culture from its birth to its spread and usage in through the empires and diverse peoples of the Americas.
  • India – My own families origin, quite possible the country most closely identified with spicy food. I want to also explore how chilies are used in different parts of India, and how Indian and regional identity is so closely tied to spicy food.
  • Indonesia – The spice islands, far from the origin of chilies, Indonesia created its own unique identity around the chilies. I want to see how in a country with over 400 languages, chili usage also finds amazingly unique and interesting roles on different islands. Can level of spice be a metaphor for cultural difference?
  • Korea - One of the most reclusive, isolated kingdoms in the world, Korea was resistant to trade or interaction with the outside world. The chili pepper, though, broke through these barriers, and was adopted whole-heartedly. It is now heavily used nearly all the countries famous dishes such as kimchi, gochujang, and toppoki.

Each tells a different, but important part of the chili pepper's story.

If I reach $10,000, I will add a 5th country to my research, and I will let funders and supporters vote to decide where I should go.

  • Mexico
  • China (Sichuan and Hunan provinces)
  • Tunisia 
  • Iberia (Spain and Portugal)
  • Bhutan

Research Budget

I envision spending around $2000 in each research country. This will allow me to spend 5-6 weeks in the less developed, larger countries (Bolivia/Brazil, India, Indonesia) and 2-3 weeks in more developed and smaller South Korea.

Approximate Costs

  • Airfare - $500-$600 per site (R/T to South America, and 4-leg flight from US to all three Asian countries)
  • Accommodation - $525 ($15 a day in developing countries, $30 a day in Korea)
  • Food and Transport - $475
  • Incidentals and Research Expenses - $500 (Research materials, Visas, entrance fees to sites, mishaps, communication)

Meeting the Kickstarter goal of $6000 will fund three research visits.

  • $8000 - Fully fund all four sites
  • $10,000 - Full fund all four sites + vote on a fifth research site!
  • $12,000 - Fully fund five sites and allow me to purchase a better camera to provide more multimedia content, and flexbility to do research and writing full-time and have the book finished sooner.

Ethical Spending

As a lifelong environmentalist and dedicated human rights activist, when I travel, I do it in a way that leaves the world a better place and promotes social good.

Guidelines I will follow while traveling to ensure your donation has a positive impact in the places I visit for my research.

Local Accommodation - Stay with families or at locally owned guesthouses, not multinational chains.

Low-Impact Consumption - Eat only locally produced, ideally sustainable foods, use recyclable or eco-friendly products, borrow or reuse wherever possible.

Fair Pay - Pay a local living wage to any translators or local assistance I require.

Green Transport - Choose the most environmentally friendly form of travel – train, bus, public transport – wherever possible and purchase genuine carbon offsets otherwise.

Thus, I hope that this project can not only connect the world through food, but also, in a small way, help develop communities and promote sustainability in research practices.

Book Proposal

So, what will the book look like? Here is my proposal, one that will provide a framework for my research both here and abroad, but will likely undergo major changes as I discover new and fascinating attributes about chili peppers.

Conclusion

My career goal is to tell stories that connect humanity, and I have been doing this as a part-time freelance writer. So this project is not just to Kickstart a fascinating idea but my whole career. If I get funding, this book will become the first of many similar, fascinating adventures about the world and human culture. That is why I've dedicated so much time to research, and setup a multimedia website, and why you can be sure I'll work hard on finishing this project. Everyone I've spoken too really loves the idea, and I already have several people around the world ready to help.

Who would have thought that an innocuous comment at a breakfast in Malaysia would turn into an ambitious project that might define my life? But right now, it is still just an idea. Support this project, and Kickstart a fascinating story and my dream career.

Even if you can't support A Spicy Quest financially, do follow the project on Twitter, Facebook, and on the project website.

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

Field research is no vacation, and I have no illusions that it will be. I conducted similar, exhausting work in Uganda and South Africa as part of intense projects during graduate school. I thrive in those situations; I am a doer, someone who is always seeking information, who hates TV and passive learning and prefer active, experience based knowledge. That being said, I must travel to finish this project. The truth is, a vast amount of information, especially in developing countries, is not available in books or archives, but in oral histories and people's actions. It is that which I plan to capture and share.

I am already reading 2-3 hours of academic journal articles and history books a day, just to learn the background information of chili's origin and characteristics. When on location, I will have to set up meetings with locals and researchers, hire translators in those places where I don't speak the language, deal with levels of bureaucracy, spend days in archives sifting through information, and determine what information is true and what is not. I expect it to be more than a full-time job, with many 12-14 hours days, and am ready for the challenge.

I also know what I learn during the research process will likely drastically change my own understanding of the chili pepper. Thus, I am going forward with an open mind, ready to accept criticism and learn. That is why I am calling this a Quest - to understand and to connect people around the awesome power of the ubiquitous chili pepper.

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  • Pledge $5 or more
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    1 backer

    You are helping discover why the chili pepper is so adaptable to different climates and produces so many varieties globally. To anyone who donates $5 or above and provides their address, I will send you an personal, unique postcard from one of the research countries.

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  • Pledge $25 or more
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    3 backers

    Ever wonder why Korean food is so spicy, while nearby Japan (historically) disdains the chili? Help me find out! In addition to a postcard, you also get a copy of the finished e-book where you can read the fascinating answer yourself.

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  • Pledge $75 or more
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    1 backer Limited (9 left of 10)

    Few fruits are used in such diverse ways as the chili pepper. Fermented or powdered, made into pastes and sauces, used as a marinade, the list goes on and on. In thanks for your support, in addition to a postcard and the e-book, I will send you a unique, chili product made by a local, sustainable producer in one of the research countries. You'll have to tell me how spicy you want it!

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    Add $10 USD to ship outside the US
  • Pledge $100 or more
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    3 backers Limited (7 left of 10)

    The chili was the original globalizing force, spreading and transforming cultures in the initial decades after global trade began in the 16th century. It is a story about humanity. As a century supporter, in addition to everything above, you will also get an autographed, print copy of the book upon publication.

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  • Pledge $250 or more
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    0 backers Limited (10 left of 10)

    You are awesome! The chili pepper's story WILL be told! As a premier supporter, in addition to everything above, you will also get a mention in all versions of the book and on the project website.

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Funding period

- (22 days)