by Hari Balasubramanian
The Indian subcontinent is well known for its spices, and one of its stellar contributions is the ubiquitous black pepper. Native to South India and Southeast Asia (see unripe green fruits in picture), it’s been around for thousands of years, making its way very early to Europe and other parts of Asia by trade. Black pepper and the related long pepper may have been the most prevalent hot spices east of the Atlantic. That was until Columbus blundered onto the Americas in 1492, inadvertently connecting the Americas – which at the time had a unique ecological and cultivation history because of its isolation – to Europe, Africa and Asia.
In the newly globalized world since 1492, American ‘peppers’, better known as chilies, began to make their way to the rest of the world and took hold quickly. Indeed, all the chili peppers that the world uses today, without exception – from the mild bell peppers used primarily for their deep flavors to the hot ones that Indian, Thai, Chinese, Korean and other cuisines take for granted – all are descended from the varieties cultivated for millennia by pre-Hispanic farmers in southern North America (Mexico primarily) and northern South America (Peru and Bolivia have many varieties). The fiery habanero, which scores high on the Scoville Heat Scale, is originally from the Amazon from where it reached Mexico.
While traveling in Oaxaca (southern Mexico) last week, I saw and tasted the dizzying variety of chili peppers, small and large, fresh, dried and smoked, each imparting a different color, flavor and odor to the salsas, the region’s famous moles, and other Mexican classics such as poblano rajas. At one restaurant dozens of dried chilies, types I had never seen before, were patched to the wall.
Etymology provides some interesting clues. The word ‘pepper’ apparently has its roots in a South Indian word pippali, referring to the long pepper plant, whereas ‘chili’ is from Nahuatl, a pre-Hispanic Mexican language (Nahuatl, though diminished since the Spanish conquest of 1521, is still spoken in Mexico). The word for chilies in Tamil, my mother tongue, is milagai – a modification of the word milagu, the word for black pepper. It makes sense that this new entrant and competitor for creating heat should be linked by name to its older rival. Both milagu and milagai now co-exist in South Indian cuisine. The introduced chilies haven’t diminished the use of the peppercorns at all. Indeed, the potent garam masala, a signature mix of spices widely prevalent in India – Abbas has a recipe for it in his new book – uses only peppercorns for heat and not chilies.
All said, it's hard to imagine Indian cooking without chilies today. If somebody had asked me about the origin of chilies in high school or college, I would have claimed them as Indian without a second thought. It was a huge surprise when I learned, in my mid twenties, that chilies were introduced, that before the 16th or 17th centuries, they were not part of the cuisine at all! K.T. Achaya, the author of The Story of Our Food notes that “in one of the sections of the Ain-i-Akbari, written in 1590, there is a list of 50 dishes cooked in the [emperor] Akbar's court: all of them use only [black] pepper to impart spiciness.” Similarly, the red chili paste and sauces that you find in so many Korean dishes and Thai curries are relatively recent. Of course, chilies are not unique in this regard. The same idea applies to tomatoes, potatoes, a lot of grains — the list could go on and on.
It is fascinating how things that were once foreign can integrate so seamlessly and become so familiar that they now feel ‘native’, as if they were timelessly associated with a place and people.
A very happy new year to everyone! My 3QD essays over the last two years are all collected here.