Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Colour and the chilli

Published on Sep 30, 2022 11:47 PM IST

Europeans brought chillis to Africa and Asia where they became staples. But why did the chilli never become a major part of any European cuisine?

Most of the foods that came from the New World entered the European diet; except for the chilli
Most of the foods that came from the New World entered the European diet; except for the chilli

Are you familiar with the Portuguese dish carne de vinha d’alhos? I thought not. It consists of pork in wine vinegar and garlic. The Portuguese have made it for centuries. It became the mainstay of sailors’ meals because they would preserve pork in barrels when they set out on their voyages. When they were hungry, they would reconstitute garlic by marinating it in red wine or vinegar and cook it with the pork.

Doesn’t sound that exciting, does it?

Now, consider what happened to the same dish when the Portuguese arrived in Goa. They did not have access to red wine or wine vinegar. So they used palm vinegar. But because their dish seemed inferior to the local cuisine, they began tarting it up with spices and with ground, dried red chillis.

The Hungarians use paprika from India via Turkish merchants, but they use it many centuries after the chilli came to Europe
The Hungarians use paprika from India via Turkish merchants, but they use it many centuries after the chilli came to Europe

The dish finally came to life. And it may be the most famous Goan dish in the world today. Of course, we don’t use the Portuguese name.

We call it vindaloo.

The story of vindaloo seems to capture the central paradox of the journey of the chilli. The Portuguese did not discover chillis in Goa—they were unknown in Western India then. It was the Portuguese who introduced the chilli to Goa, using plants that had recently been discovered in the Americas.

Once they got to Goa, the Portuguese added chilli to their cuisine: which suddenly improved
Once they got to Goa, the Portuguese added chilli to their cuisine: which suddenly improved

Though the Portuguese had the original dish, the garlic, the vinegar and the chilli, nothing much happened till they reached Goa. It was only then that someone had the bright idea of adding chillis to flavour their traditional dish.

What is it about the chilli and some societies? Food historians will tell you that the chilli spread all over the world because of the influence of the Portuguese.

It is not always a pretty story. In the early years of the 16th century, the Portuguese took the chilli to Africa. At that stage, Africans (like Indians) enjoyed pungent flavours, such as the melegueta pepper, which they used to spice up their food. So, they loved the chilli and even today, the peri peri sauce that the Portuguese introduced to their colonies is popular in Africa.

Spanish chorizo (which may now use chilli) is mostly mild and the chilli component has been upped only over the last few decades
Spanish chorizo (which may now use chilli) is mostly mild and the chilli component has been upped only over the last few decades

If the story ended there, it would be fine. But then, it got nasty. Once the Portuguese realised that chillis were an in-demand commodity in Africa, they began using them as currency. More specifically, Portuguese slave traders began paying for their human cargo partly with chillis rather than gold. Because the slave trade operated in large sections of Africa, (not just the parts that became Portuguese colonies), the chilli spread far and wide.

Nobody seriously disputes that white people (Europeans) brought the chilli (which had been secured after a partial genocide of the native South American people) to Africa and Asia. But here’s the thing: why did it never become an integral part of European cuisine in that case? Most of the foods that emerged from the New World (chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes etc.) found their way into European cuisine.

But not the chilli.

You can tell where the Portuguese travelled because they took the chilli with them
You can tell where the Portuguese travelled because they took the chilli with them

It remained a rarely used flavouring, useful for buying slaves or planting in the colonies. Why were white people willing to use all the new flavours they found in the Americas—except the chilli?

I have been trying to find an answer to that question. But nothing I have read seems convincing. Even in the US, though the chilli did eventually work its way north from Mexico and it turns up in Tex-Mex cuisine, it is hardly a staple in that country.

The Spanish, the Italians and the Portuguese, who had first claims on the chilli, rarely added it to their cuisine. They do use some chilli in southern Italy (in such areas as Calabria) and some Italian pastas do use a little chilli (aglio olio pepperencino or arrabiata) but these are relatively recent inventions, dating back mostly to the 19th or 20th centuries, at least three centuries after the chilli first arrived on their shores. Even Spanish and Portuguese chorizo (which may now use chilli) is mostly mild and the chilli component has been upped only over the last few decades.

There are chillies in Penne Arrabiata but it is a relatively recent invention
There are chillies in Penne Arrabiata but it is a relatively recent invention

The Hungarians use paprika, but they got it many centuries after the chilli came to Europe. And they got it from India via Turkish merchants. And no Asian would regard Hungarian goulash as being particularly spicy or hot.

On the other hand, the chilli spread all over Asia. Nobody is quite sure how it happened. There was not enough contact between the Portuguese and the Thais to explain how the chilli became a staple of Thai cuisine. The case of China is more complicated. The chilli is not popular in the coastal regions where, you could argue, Portuguese ships would arrive with cargoes of chilli. Instead, it is popular in landlocked Hunan and Sichuan where there was little or no contact with the Portuguese. Food historians tie themselves in knots trying to explain how the chilli got to Hunan and Sichuan where it is a defining characteristic of the cuisine.

More curious is the case of Japan. We know that Portuguese ships sailed regularly from Goa to Japan. And we know that the Portuguese taught them how to make tempura. (More likely Goan cooks on the ships taught them how to make bhajiyas.) But there is almost no chilli in Japanese cuisine.

Some statistics suggest that the average family in Bhutan consumes one kilo of chilli every week. It must have the highest per capita consumption of chilli in the world
Some statistics suggest that the average family in Bhutan consumes one kilo of chilli every week. It must have the highest per capita consumption of chilli in the world

There are many alternative explanations. One, favoured by Korean scientists, is that some varieties of the chilli grew wild in East Asia anyway. Yes, the Portuguese did bring American chilli species to Asia but by then, the Koreans had some experience of the flavour from their own chillis. There is apparently DNA evidence to support this claim. If it is true that we had chillies in East Asia then it would explain not just Thailand but also our own North East where nobody had heard of Portugal when they started adding chillis to their dishes.

Another view is that chillis only appeal to people who live in warm climates. That’s why Europeans did not take to them. This sounds right but the theory collapses when you think about it. When winter comes to Korea, they don’t give up on chillis. What about Bhutan where some statistics suggest that the average family consumes one kilo of chilli every week? Bhutan is not a hot country but it must have among the highest per capita consumption of chilli in the world.

Frankly, I don’t have an answer to the question. It is true that white people are beginning to enjoy the chilli but for the most part, it is a freak show. Chilli-heads compete to see who can eat the hottest chilli. There is no real introduction of chilli into the local cuisines. When chillis are consumed, it is usually in the form of sauces. And many of those sauces come from non-white countries: the Caribbean, Africa, South America or even Thailand whose Sriracha has been bastardised in America.

So, as politically incorrect as this may sound, there is no getting around the fact that chillis are not really meant for white people. Yes, white people procured them by slaughtering people of colour in South and Central America.

And yes, they brought them to Africa and Asia. But they were no more than couriers.

You need a bit of colour to know what to do with the chilli. It sounds a little racist, I know. But it’s true.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, October 1, 2022

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories related to Netaji Subhas Bose’s death alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?

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