chili on a chopping board, onions and garlic on the side

The Chili in everyone’s kitchen and the Manila Galleon Trade

How the Manila Galleon Trade spiced up the World’s Kitchens Part 2 of 2

The Spanish paprika in my family’s bean stew, the Chinese chili sauce in asado siopao, and the sili kulikot in Filipino sisig all originated from the chilis of Mexico. The distribution of the chilis to Europe started in the 15th century with Columbus. In the succeeding centuries, the chili in everyone’s kitchen came from Mexico via the Manila Galleon Trade.

The Philippines, China, and Spain — the primary countries linked to the Manila Galleon Trade — were the first to enjoy the chilis of Mexico. As the variety of Mexican chilis circulated around the globe, other countries processed or blended spices into their chili of choice to make their own signature flavors.

Philippine sili in the garden came from Mexico on the Manila Galleon Trade
Sili in my backyard. Filipinos refer to chili as sili. In the picture is sili kulikot or labuyo. The sili featured on the chopping board on the cover of this blog is siling Taiwan. It has less heat than kulikot but more available in the wet markets. All these silis came to us from Mexico.
sili espada, a Phiilippine chili ususally used in soups. Chilis came on the galleon trade.
The sili espada is one of my favorite chilis. It imparts a good amount of heat and a nice flavor to tinuwa/tinola soup. I don’t eat it though, as it t can be choking hot.

Introduced Species

Kulikot sounds very indigenous. And because I grew up hearing its name, I initially couldn’t believe it wasn’t local. But it is an introduced species just like the rest of the crops mentioned in the Filipino Bahay Kubo folk song.

Charles Mann, author of 1493, Uncovering the World Columbus Created, says, “the botanists in Manila chuckled as they wrote down the lyrics (to the Bahay Kubo). Every single one of these age-old traditional garden plants, they said, is in fact an introduced species, native to Africa, the Americas, or East Asia.”

Mexican staples in Philippine Kitchens

Sinkamas, mani, sitaw, and patani came from Mexico. Potatoes, maize, squash, and cassava did too. Pineapple, papaya, avocado, chocolate and more, came to us from Mexico on the Spanish galleons. (Mangoes came from India, in case you’re wondering.)

Birth of the Galleon Trade

In his book 1493, Mann relates the most vivid description of the Galleon Trade that I have so far encountered.

The Galleon Trade was first contracted in 1570 on the beach of Maujao, Mindoro by Juan de Salcedo, grandson of conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. He was in Mindoro looking for Chinese traders.

Chinese junks were in Mindoro at that time on their annual visit to trade for Philippine gold and beeswax. Salcedo invited the Chinese to trade and the merchants came to Manila in 1572.

Why Spain wanted to trade with China

“(The city of) Zaytun, one bay north of Yuegang, was the eastern terminus of the maritime Silk Road… It had several hundred thousand people crammed into the littoral beneath the hills, was one of humankind’s richest, most populous cities. Little wonder that (Marco) Polo’s account inspired people like Colón (Columbus) to dream of going there!”

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

150 thousand tons of Silver

The Chinese traders were interested to trade for silver. The metal was used as currency by China where they had diminishing supply of it. The Spanish had lots of the precious metal, which came from the Americas — from the mines of Potosi, Bolivia. 

American Indians and African slaves processed silver with mercury in harsh conditions. Mercury was mined in Huancavelica, Peru. Silver mining is dangerous and mercury exposure is lethal. Workers at Huancavelica shook from mercury poisoning after working for just two months . Some American Indian mothers maimed their children so they would not be made to work in the mercury mines.

map showing Acapulco, Huancavelica, and Potosi. These are key cities of the Americas in the Manila Galleon trade.
Around 150 thousand tons of silver came out of Potosi from the 16th to the 18th centuries. At a single time, two thousand llamas transported the silver bars.
(Map is a screenshot from Google Maps.)

The Manila Galleon Trade Route

Spanish galleon by Dal-i. The Spanish Galleons were wind powered with sails.
The eastward voyage from Acapulco to Manila stopped over at Guam. At its biggest, the wind-powered galleons were two thousand ton carriers.

From 1572 to 1815, the Manila Galleon Trade connected Yuegong in Fujian, China — to Manila, Philippines — to Acapulco and over the mountains to Vera Cruz in Mexico — to Havana, Cuba — and to Seville, Spain.

The Spanish galleons never went to China because the Chinese emperors disallowed Europeans to come. According to Mann, the Spanish court concluded that China was too big to conquer.

The Chinese junks came to Manila where the Chinese traders built the world’s first China Town. Manila became a critical link in the birth of the global economy.

The Columbian Exchange: Silver for Silk and Porcelain

Chinese junk by Dal-i Chinese sailboats that sailed from Fujian to Manila for the Manila Galleon Trade.
The Chinese junks originated from Yuegong, Fujian. Prior to the Galleon Trade, the Fukienese crossed the sea rather than go inland to trade. Current day Fil-Chinese are mostly migrants from Fujian.

On the other end of the Galleon Trade, silk, cotton, iron, sugar, flour, chestnuts, oranges, lacquerware, tables and chairs, cattle, horses, and anything the Chinese thought would be salable were loaded on the junks.

The traders packed rice and water in between porcelain plates. The rice paste would keep the plates intact during the 10-day voyage between Yuegang and Manila. During the trip, the junks were wary of Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, and other pirates.

On their homeward voyage, the Chinese merchants smuggled American crops. 

Sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava were among the Mexican crops that sustained a subsequent population boom in China. Chinese farmers destroyed forests to plant these food crops and tobacco — also an American crop. The planting of single crops on a field resulted in devastating floods.

Chinos in Mexico
In the early 1600s, Japan instituted a closed country policy which stranded some Japanese warriors in Manila. These Japanese migrated to Mexico where they became the first foreigners allowed to carry weapons. They became guards at the silver trail. Eventually, more Asians — Thais, Vietnamese, Malays, etc. — boarded the galleons to work in Mexico. The Spanish called them collectively as chinos.

from 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

Filipinos in the Galleon Trade

The giant galleons were built in Manila Bay. Filipinos also provided sailors to man the galleons. Many of these Filipinos would never come home to the families who missed them. They jumped ship in Acapulco, unwilling to endure another trip on the Pacific.

Too much Silver

Spain used its silver to pay its debts, finance its wars, and build its empire. But as more silver flowed into Spanish coffers, the more the value of silver plunged.

In China, silver was the solution that turned into a problem too. The empire had based taxes on the weight of silver which diminished in value as its supply increased.

(Aside from the economic effects of the Galleon Trade, Mann also talks about other effects in his book. He includes the transmission of disease and environmental degradation.)

The Homogenocene: the Old and the New World come together

The Ms. Universe pageant is a showcase of migration and coupling of different peoples. Today, it also shows more acceptance of diversity. Ms. America in the 70s was Caucasian. In 2022, Ms. America, who also won the Ms. Universe crown, was half Filipino. With many contestants having mixed parentage, the pageant reveals that we live in a world that is increasingly coming together.

Columbus linked the Old and New Worlds together and the Manila Galleon Trade accelerated the world wide-connection. Mann says Columbus’ voyages marked the beginning of a new biological era: the Homogenocene. It is defined as the homogenizing or mixing of unlike substances to create a uniform blend. More and more, we will be seeing Ms. Universe contestants who have the similar features.

And it’s not only happening to humans but to food and culture as well. Here’s a Philippine example: in a visit to Tagaytay, my son pointed out that a lot of the stuff sold at the pasalubong or souvenir centers were the same stuff we see at home.

Cook prepares Ilocano empanada. The empanada is a Spanish dish brought to the Philippines.
The Ilocano empanada is now local in Cebu. Of Spanish origin, the empanada has different faces in the Philippines. This orange one is assembled in front of you, deep fried, and served with vinegar.

The International is now Local

At home in Cebu, different types of food have become available including the Ilocano empanada. International food proliferate too. There are Japanese, Korean, and Indian groceries. The international aisle of supermarkets have Thai sriracha and Peruvian peppers.

There is a Spanish grocery here now. I can no longer use the excuse that Spanish chorizos are unavailable and that’s why I’m putting Chinese chorizos in my fabada. So, this time, I cooked fabada with the expensive faba beans and a Spanish chorizo. We enjoyed it.

bowl of fabada, a stew made of beans and pork chorizo
I use an equal portion of beans to pork hocks in my fabada. Aside from adding chorizo, some cooks add bacon, spare ribs, and ham bones to their dish.

After a week, I cooked a version without chorizo and I used P150/kilo white beans. We also liked this cheaper dish. When we ate the left overs of the cheaper version, we had Chinese and Spanish chorizos on the side. We wanted to see which was the better chorizo for this dish.

The prominent difference is that the Chinese is sweet while the Spanish is sour. The verdict: each chorizo has its own charm. Let’s just say that using Chinese chorizos is another way to enjoy this Spanish dish.

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Spanish chorizo, faba beans , and paprika
Beans, chilis, and the
Manila Galleon Trade
Go to Part 1

End Notes

Family Cooking tip: when cooking tomato based sauces or dishes like bacalao or spaghetti: simmer the tomato sauce until the red color turns orange.

Finally, I would like to thank the original native Americans who domesticated the tomato and other crops we enjoy on our table today. Their agricultural labors have truly spiced up and enriched our kitchens.



2 responses to “The Chili in everyone’s kitchen and the Manila Galleon Trade”

  1. Proud Malay Avatar

    It’s too bad that commentary like this buries information about the Malay archipelago under layers of colonial propaganda.

    (You don’t talk about your own people. No one ever does. It’s as-if ancestors died for nothing. You laid every people but your own.)

    In other words, instead of talking about what the world received from the quote unquote Philippines, we delight in exalting everyone else’s culture but our own.

    We delight in calling ourselves things like “truly international,” “wonderfully global,” “Spanish influenced,” “receiver of gifts from Mexico,” “early Chinese trader,” –

    Anything but who WE are. No. We absolutely do not have to promote Mexican avocados or American hot dogs.

    We can begin with talking about the Banana being birthed in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines. We can talk about how WE influenced trade with the Chinese as far back as the 9th century when we were a trading center who connected with the arab world.

    We can talk about – why Milagrosa rice has a Latin sounding name (hmm – because maritime southeast Asians under Spanish rule were mandated to take on and hispanicize their surnames) – why did Thailand of all places get credit for Milagrosa rice? Perhaps it was because secrets were learned and coveted (absconded with) from the Philippine Rice Institute…?

    We aren’t Latin – so maybe we could self promote and self love instead of bury
    ourselves. We have a rich Pre-colonial history. Are you stumped about it? Maybe look to the Malay archipelago and ASEAN nations – or tribes of southern Taiwan? Southern China Fujian region / Hokkien people. Maybe stick with Asia? Because the majority of people on the archipelago are more a s i a n than make believe latino. My God.

    Words matter. Words influence. Words create illusion.

    If I were to start my tale with:

    My friend Chucho and I walked barefoot into the Mercado to fetch a couple of chunchinerias during our merienda when I turned to him and said, companero fix your sombrero. At a las cinco y media, mama will arrive at the Casa in our Pueblo. Arriba! Arriba! Mas rapids! Rapidamente, Jose, Chacho, Maria, Manuel, Carlito, y Carmela.

    Words like the ones used above – connote a scene indistinguishable from one in Mexico, Guadalajara, El Salvador, Guatemala ….

    In other words – that ain’t my culture !!

    You can colonial mentality into the grave until you’re blue in the face BUT I like to see the promotion of southeast Asian identity. Not the subversion of my identity, not the erasure of my identity, not some BS excuses that “we’re truly global,” “we’re (not) mixed, (we’re not),” “we are a truly international people,” (which in translation means – we’ve been extincted (made extinct), “we are a crossroads of MANY MANY DIFFERENT people,” (no, we absolutely are not). We are Malay just like everyone else in the maritime southeast Asian geographic.

    Thanks for promoting the colonial “Latin” confusion for people living abroad (promoting ethnic dysphoria and colonial mentality).


    1. Dang Avatar

      In talking about chili and beans, I hoped to bring the discussion of the Manila Galleon Trade to the dining table.

      I’m glad you brought bananas up in your comments because I had initially written about bananas in this blog. I edited it out because it made the blog longer and I felt that it belonged in another blog altogether. But here are some of the things I wanted to say about the banana: bananas were thick on the ground prior to Magellan’s arrival. Antonio Pigafetta was wowed by what he called a fig. On picnics, I like to slowly barbecue my saging Saba to allow caramelization. And then I pair it with ginamos (fermented fish) sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and chili. I am also perfectly fine with eating saba ripe and uncooked. Incidentally, ginamos is Asian and onions are most likely Asian too. Tomatoes and chili are from the Americas, so this dish is quite a medley of influence and flavor.

      As to the topic of Southeast Asian identity, I hope to blog about it soon.

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