Friday, December 02, 2005

Happy hour: Food for thought

It’s amazing sometimes to find out that a fruit or vegetable that you thought was uniquely or intrinsically a part of your cultural food has been around in your culture for only a while. Given my fondness for food as well as trivia, over the years I continually researched the origin of foods. Much of this might be well known to you, but some of it perhaps might not be, so here we go.

Cereals and grains are of course the bulk of what we eat. They come from grasses, and each of them has a long and proud history. Wheat is an essential part of breads, considered indispensable to European food. But the humble grass originated in Asia, in what’s the Middle East today. The earliest wheat cultivation took place in the regions from Syria through Iraq and Mesopotamia, as early as the Neolithic era, and slowly spread across Europe, and Central Asia, reaching South Asia. Guessing the origins of rice, the world’s most widely consumed cereal, is a lot easier. Rice is native to Asia, with the two major strains, O. sativa indica being native to India, and japonica being native to East Asia. In India of course rice has been synonymous with rich harvests and prosperity for centuries. Maize (or corn), which the average Punjabi will relish in his Makki rotis, is native to central America, and was prominent across America centuries ago, with a place of prominence in Native American folklore and religion. It made it to Northern India just a few centuries ago, but now is common food.

But more fascinating are the roots of tomatoes and potatoes. The humble duo, a fruit and a tuber, have made themselves indispensable to all cultures. Elections in India have been lost because aloo and tamatar prices had shot up due to shortages. But both of them are native to the Americas (those of you who scoff at American food, you have much to be thankful for). Native to central and South America, the tomato was taken by the Spaniards to Asia (the Philippines first, from where it spread across South East, and then South Asia rapidly). Potatoes (and the very distantly related sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas) are also native to South America, and reached India thanks to the Portugese, a mere 500 years ago (or less). In Maharashtra, potatoes are still called batata, from the Portuguese (and Spanish) word for potato, patata (the origin of the word potato). Dum aloo has never been so foreign to Indian shores. The Spaniards first took it to Europe, and within just a few years, it became essential staple food.

India and the rest of South and South East Asia have become synonymous with spicy food. One can’t even imagine a good Indian meal with out “chili” or “mirch”. But amazingly, these “chilis”, what America calls “peppers”, belonging to the humble genus Capsicum and are native to the Americas as well, tremendously important to Native American medicine. They made it to Asia again through the Spanish and Portugese, and took over palates rapidly. They were misnamed “peppers” because they were “hot”, just like black peppers were. But they’re not even related. And ancient South Asians used to spice up their food with black pepper (peppercorns), which is native to South India, and was a source of much wealth for centuries to the Malabar Coast. The word pepper comes from the Sanskrit word for it, pippali, which reached ancient Rome to become piper in Latin, and later pepper on our table.
To any south Asian, mangoes are the kings of fruits (rightly so). And indeed mangoes are native to South Asia (Mangiferous indicus, celebrated in song, epic, panchatantra and jataka folk tales and legend. Apparently, Alexander the Great and his armies gorged themselves so much on this fruit in India, that it gave them severely upset tummies, and Alexander had to ban eating of mangoes in his army camps. The word mango comes from the Tamil mang kai, which was the word for the raw fruit (the ripe fruit is called mam bazham). But the name stuck because the Portugese used to ship the raw fruit (mang kai) to Europe, which would be ripe by the time it reached European shores. They took it to South and Central America as well, where it thrived (though they don’t taste or smell nearly as good). The orange too is native to either India or Indo-China. The word citrus comes from the Sanskrit Santra, while the word orange itself comes from the Spanish word for it, naranja, which comes from the Sanskrit naranga. But this reached Spain long before the Spaniards reached India. Arabs took it to Islamic Moorish Spain, where it thrived. Bananas too are native to Southeast and South Asia, with Alexander (remarkable, how much Alexander took back with him from Asia to Europe) encountering it in India, while the Spanish took it to Central America. So perhaps India is a banana republic after all.

And finally to the world’s favorite drink, coffee (no, it’s not South American). The word coffee itself comes from the Italian caffe, which came from the Turkish kahveh. Native to Arab lands (originally coming from Kaffa in Ethiopia, and then Yemen), coffee was one of the regions most prized possessions. The Turks treated Italians to coffee, who fell in love with it. Export of coffee from Turkey was strictly forbidden, but legend has it that an enterprising European smuggled it out by presenting a lady friend with a bouquet of flowers in which some stalks with coffee flowers and beans were hidden. From there, it was but a short time before the Dutch took it to the Malabar coast, and the Spanish took it to the new world.

And all this finally resulted in providing us with Seattle’s Best coffee, in Starbucks, and many an hour spent enjoyably at the nearest Starbucks outlet on Friday afternoons before happy hour!


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Very interesting.
Yes, many fruits and vegetables that we take for granted we not available even 500 years ago. Pepper was such a delicacy in Europe (it had to be imported all the way from Indonesia) that it was almost like a semi-precious gem. And we cannot forget chocolate (it comes from Mexico).

Sunil said...

yes indeed. Actually, the most important source for pepper (black pepper) was India, not Indonesia. The demand for that (and indigo, which was the only source of the purple dye before chemicals) was very high, but trade was controlled by the Arabs. So Europeans mounted large sea expeditions to find alternate routes to India (and pepper, indigo, diamonds (of golconda) and spices were what brought the East India company to India). This turned out to be good (for them at least) because an incompetent navigator called Columbus landed in America, and tried passing it off as India. But we did get the potato, tomato, maize, and capsicum peppers thanks (in a way) to him and Vespucci and others.

ashvin said...

Very interesting. Indeed, where would Indian food be without Potatos, Tomatos and Chili... (well, atleast I wouldn't know what to cook).

Another New World food that has become staple in other parts of the world: Tapioca. I heard that Kappa was introduced during a time of famine by the King of Travancore; hard to imagine considering how popular it is today in Kerala. This website repeats the claim.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting how all of the stuff you have mentioned have integrated so well in our country. Especially coffee.

In Tamilnadu, offering coffee to guests is considered good manners. "I went to visit them and they didn't even bother to offer me coffee!" some would complain.

It was also incorporating into our traditional food-classification system, "pitta is dominant in coffee, don't drink too much of it."

Sunil said...

Ashvin......i don't think most of us would be able to cook without tomatoes, potatoes, chili....etc. But tapioca is an interesting observation. It's pretty popular in Kerala.....but it hasn't gone too much farther, and is hardly a common staple even in Karnataka or TN.

Srikanth....yes indeed. Can you imagine south india with out "filter coffee"?? Very interesting that it has been incorporated in the traditional food-classification system as well. But too have the others....including (especially) potatoes.

pippala leaf said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
pippala leaf said... always very interesting post. Here is my two cents: The Turkey (bird) is not from Turkey (country). Turkey actually came from Mexico. This bird had been brought to Europe by merchants belong to the Turkish empire. The new bird was therefore called a “Turkey bird”, or “Turkey cock”. Later the domesticated turkey was re-introduced into North America by the British.

apalazzo said...

Actually there are two species of wild Turkey, one North American, one Central American. When the Europeans first came across this bird they thought that it was a type of turkey-cock (actually a Guineafowl) that was at the time imported from the country Turkey to much of Europe.

Wild N. American turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) can still be seen in the wild - even here in Massachusetts (I've seen some myself).

Sunil said...

Madhu...thanks....and it looks like you're a little we see in the mad scientist's comment.

Mike....thanks for commenting (your first time here?). Fascinating that they thought the turkey was from Turkey!!

Yup....those wild ones are still around......wonder if they taste any different (or are you not allowed to find out?).