Fifty-four-year-old Li Yongzhi can take the heat. He starts his morning by eating several dried chillies hanging around his home, and brushing his teeth with the spicy fruit in his mouth to "wake him up".

He then eats a breakfast composed entirely of raw chillies and pure dried chilli powder, without flinching. Li said that he ate about 2kg to 2.5kg of them every day, on average.

"If I have no chillies or spicy [food], then I won't be happy," he said. "I can tell you, it's like this – if I have no meat, I'm alright. If I have no eggs, if I have no meat, or vegetables, or anything at all, I'm fine. Let me tell you – this is my god. This is my god. This is my own delicacy."

Li said that other than the taste, he ate chillies for nutrition as they contained a good amount of iron and calcium.

He said he found fame in 2001 at a restaurant in north-west China, where he was dared by the manager to eat three large bowls of chillies with only hard Chinese liquor to wash them down. He accepted the challenge, and local media picked up the story.

Li used to be a construction worker doing odd jobs, but he said he quit in 2007 because he was earning enough money from appearances on TV shows and commercials, as well as chilli-eating contests around the world. He declined to reveal exactly how much he made.

Chilli consumption isn't that popular in China's Henan province, where Li lives, because some people believe chillies can cause oily skin and acne. However, Li's chilli consumption has rubbed off on some members of his family.

"He really loves to eat chillies. Whenever he eats, it just seems like some sort of snack. He really, really likes to eat it," said his daughter-in-law, Hu Wenhua.

"Back when I was in my own home, I never would eat spicy food with my mom. But ever since I married my husband, I would see my father-in law-eating chillies, like every day and now I like to eat chillies too."

Li said he could have developed an immunity to the chilli pepper's heat during his travels as a migrant worker around China. In some parts of the country, spicy dishes are more common.

Li's doctor did not have an explanation for his chilli eating ability. "He can take it, and he's always eating chillies," said physician Li Pengjun, who attends to Li before and after his chilli-eating contests.

"To make a comparison, some people can drink alcohol, and some people can't. So what's the reason for that? Perhaps their body lacks that kind of enzyme which builds resistance to alcohol. This might determine their resistance to alcohol. But for chillies – what exact reason there is [for his resistance to it], this I'm not sure."

The doctor said that Li's massive chilli consumption did not appear to have affected his health.

Li frequently visits Shawoli village's vegetable market, where vendors ask him to test their quality of chillies for sale.

While he currently has a small crop of chillies growing in his garden, he plans to expand soon. He said he and three friends had recently bought 40 hectares of land in a nearby county, where they planned to farm a variety of chillies to sell in China and abroad.