The “red-pepper spirit” of China’s inland Hunan province has long been celebrated as giving birth to rebels and revolutionaries like Mao Zedong — and giving a whole new meaning to the term Red Army. In Beijing now, numerous home-style places cash in on the association and compete with one another to add more and more burned chili pods to their bony chicken dishes. But more than any of the restaurants in grim Changsha, Hunan’s capital, that are heavy on local honeyed hams, I recall a pit stop at a roadside stand for steamed pork buns, where I was nonchalantly handed a condiment sauce brewed up in an old jam jar, its lid punched with holes. As red as any political banner, and thick with potent seeds, this had to be the hottest form of “salsa” I’d ever dared dip into — a potent concentrate of all Mexico could offer and more.
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