Tracing the spice route
About the only foodie-related fact that annoys Indians more than the origin of the samosa (we did not invent it, the Middle East did) is the suggestion that chillies are a colonial contribution to our cuisine. When you tell people that there were no chillies in India till the Europeans got here, they look disbelieving. And when you point out that as chillies were only discovered in the Americas, they could not possibly have been an indigenous food group; they ask the obvious question: if Europeans gave us the chilli, then why are there no chillies in European cuisine?
Well, it is not as though all European cuisine is chilli-free. When Indians say ‘chilli’, we think of the hot red chilli that is a distinctive feature of our cuisine. But the chilli family is vast (there may be thousands of varieties) so it extends far beyond the red chilli.
You will find so-called ‘peppers’ (near to what we prefer to call capsicum) in Italian cuisine. The Hungarians are proud of the paprika, the chilli that is the mark of their cuisine.
The Spanish love chillies. The Pimiento de Padrón – a bright-green chilli from the town of Padrón in Northeast Spain – has travelled around the world in recent decades as part of the global tapas craze.
But yes, it is true that Europeans tend not to like very hot chillies. Food writer Colleen Taylor Sen suggests that “a taste for spices evolved over the centuries in hot climates because they contain powerful antibiotic chemicals that can kill or suppress bacteria or fungi that spoil foods... The antibiotic effects are even stronger when ingredients such as chillies, onion, garlic and cumin are combined.”
So, people in hot countries like hot food, while those in cold countries like blander food.
If we took to the chilli because, like residents of other hot countries, we like spice, then what did we do before the Europeans discovered the
Well, that’s easy to answer. In Indian food (if it is done right!) the chilli is just one of the many flavouring ingredients. All of our other spices are native to India. Centuries ago, we were especially proud of our pepper. Not only did it provide the heat in Indian cuisine, it was so popular in Europe that we would export it to Rome, Venice and other European trading centres where it fetched an enormous premium.
When Christopher Columbus set sail, he was not looking for America, but for India and its spices. When he landed in what we now know was South America, he was so confused that he called the people he encountered ‘Indians’. He also thought that the chilli they used in cooking was a kind of pepper, creating a second confusion in nomenclature that persists to this day.
Even food historian K. T. Achaya, who usually managed to find South Indian origins for all of the world’s foods, was forced to concede that till Columbus got to America and thought that he had discovered a new kind of pepper, nobody in India had the slightest idea what a chilli was. “There is no mention whatsoever of the chilli in Indian literature before the 16th century,” he noted, perhaps a little sadly.
As Achaya also pointed out, no Indian language had a word for chilli and when it did finally reach our shores, we fell back on Columbus-like confusions with pepper: mirch in Hindi and milagu and milagai in Tamil, for instance.
Nobody has any exact record of the arrival of the chilli in India, but it is believed that the Portuguese fleet commanded by Vasco da Gama brought seeds for the plant to Goa. This is where they were first planted, and they then spread to Bombay where they were called Gova Mirch.
Lizzie Collingham, the noted food historian, says that one mark of how quickly Indians accepted the chilli was the alacrity with which Ayurvedic physicians, usually unwilling to accept any ingredient that had not been around in the Vedic age, incorporated chillies into their system of medicine.
Within a hundred years of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India, we had cultivated the chilli so successfully that India actually became a net exporter of chilli powder and dried chillies. Traders began to take Indian chillies to the West along with our pepper, nutmeg and other spices. (This ingenuity may explain why India was one of the world’s richest countries in the pre-colonial era.)
According to Collingham, the chilli export was controlled by the Turks who bought chillies from the west coast of India and took them to Black Sea ports and their own country and from there, to Northern Europe – England, Germany, Holland, etc.
This is what led many Europeans to regard the chilli (which is actually a vegetable) as just another Indian spice, a belief that still persists. Moreover, says Collingham, the Turks introduced the chilli to Hungary when they conquered it. So the famous paprika of Hungary is really an Indian chilli. (In botanical terms, it is closely related to the Kashmiri mirch or the Bedgi chilli of South India.)
So while colonialists may well have introduced a South American flavour to our cuisine, the genius of India lies in the way we made it our own and gave it to other cuisines, to countries where nobody had heard of Columbus or Vasco da Gama.
Where else did we take it?
That’s the big one. The official version, found in every textbook, is that the Portuguese took it around the world. There is the example of the peri-peri chilli, which they planted in their colonies in Africa and which led to the creation of the famous hot sauce and later, to Nando’s and Barcelos. In Goa too, the peri-peri masala is the building block of the Catholic cuisine.
The Thais also use a variation of the peri-peri chilli, though it tends to be called a bird’s eye chilli. (Birds play a large role in its dispersal.) Did they get it from India? After all, we were cultivating it all over the country.
The conventional wisdom is that they did not. Apparently, the Portuguese sent an envoy to the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya soon after Portugal captured the port of Malacca (now in Malaysia). We are expected to believe that this short-lived, and minimal Portuguese presence in Thailand was enough to convert the Thais to the joys of the chilli.
There is a similar problem with the chilli and China. It is hard to think of Sichuan cuisine without the chilli. But who brought the chilli to Sichuan? One theory is the standard “European traders brought it with them” version, but Sichuan is not on the coast. So, which European traders got there and how and when? A second theory is that it reached overland, perhaps via Burma which, to me at least, seems a little more convincing.
The Spanish have their own theories about the arrival of the chilli in East Asia. They dispute the version that involves the Portuguese getting the plants from Bolivia and taking them around the world. They point out that they had strong links with Mexico (ruled by Spain) and the Philippines (also ruled by Spain). They say that they brought Mexican chillies to the Philippines and that it was from there that the chilli spread to the rest of Asia.
I don’t see how we can rule this out. But we are still left with the Bhut Jolokia problem. Of late, this chilli has been much in the news for its potency: it can repel elephants, fell terrorists etc.
But I have never read a good explanation of how it got to Nagaland and the hills of the North East. There are no stories of colonialists taking it to those regions which were cut-off from the rest of India in that era.
Nor is it likely that the few missionaries who braved the journey carried a Bible in one hand and a chilli in the other. Moreover, the Naga chilli is part of the botanical species capsicum chinense, not capsicum annuum, like most other Indian chillies.
So how did this breed develop? And how did it grow wild and to such potency in those hills, a long, long way from South America or even Goa?
We don’t know. Like many things about the spread of the chilli, this one too is a mystery. But what is clear is that the history of the spread of the chilli in Asia has, so far, been written by self-glorifying Europeans.
Perhaps it is time for us to do some research of our own.
From HT Brunch, July 16, 2017
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