Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Curious Case of Peppers

There are few stories that is hard to believe, one such is the story of the expensive black pepper(Tamil: Milagu), the diminished usage of long Pepper(Tamil: Kandanthippali) and the rise of Chilli Pepper(Tamil: Milagaai). These 3 commodity's history and even their etymological namings in various languages are interwoven. The spice trade route in the high seas estabilished by the portuguese in 1498 paved the way for this.

My interest in the Black Pepper was kindled by the Malayalam film "Urumi" and did some reading on Peppers. And so the story of Peppers unfolds. Prior to the Age of Discoveries, Black Pepper was native to Southern India(malabar region) and long pepper was grown in the North Western regions of India and these two were the only commodities to make the Indian cuisine hot. The european world prior to the age of discoveries used long pepper(imported from Northern India) for spicing up their cuisine as black pepper was very expensive and hard to import from South India. As the Romans thought both black and long pepper is from the same plant, they termed both as piper(actually derived from Tamil/malayalam root Pippali or Tippali) which became pepper in English.

When Vasco Da Gama estabilished the sea route to south India in 1498, Black Pepper almost became like the Dollar currency in FOREX of these days. With the continuous flow of Black pepper to Europe, long pepper's stock was going for a nose dive :) It was during this time that the Columbian Exchange happened wherein the commodities, culture etc were exchanged by the Europeans with the Americas after the Columbus discovery of America in 1492. Now the third contender chilli Pepper (a native of America) entered the scene.

The Europeans and Indians so far had known only Pepper as the source of Hotness in cuisine, therefore when they encountered Chilli, they named it based on pepper too, thats why it is called as chilli pepper (Tamil: Milagaai - Milagu(Black Pepper) + Kaai(Unripened fruit)) How intuitive!! When chillies entered India through the portuguese, it took us by storm it was far easier to cultivate than long pepper and all the cuisines made earlier with long pepper(the spiciest one at that time) was substituted with chillies. Probably is this the reason that we look up on anything foreign with awe, irrespective of whether they are the best in class or not? Right now, the only dishes in south India that I know that makes use of long Pepper is Kandanthippali Rasam and Deepavali Marunthu.

That sealed the demise of Long pepper with chilli pepper and black reigning the supremacy across all cuisines. Looking back in retrospect, the traders around the world in the 1400's and 1500's were responsible for so many things associated with our cuisines/apparel/culture etc, Its hard to believe that we never knew about Potato, Tomato, Capsicum, Beans, Chilli, Custard Apple (Sita Pazham), Corn, Guava, Groundnut, Sweet Potato, Pumpkin, Pineapple, Papaya prior to 1500s. All these cam from Americas through Europe. I wonder what were we eating during that time?

Some traces of foreign introduction of some vegetables and fruits are still evident in our life, for eg, During some festivals, rituals and Mangali ponduthal there is a rigid rule of what should be cooked. The curry would always be Vazhaikaai(Plantain) / Kothavarangaai(Cluster Beans) / Katharikaai (Brinjal) / Poozhanikaai (Ash gourd) / Avaraikaai (Broad Beans) / Podalangai (Snake Gourd) curry and all of them would be seasoned with coconut and not fried, Maanga(Mango) pachidi, Vazhaikaai (Plaintain) chips which clearly are made only with the indigenous vegetables and probably the rules were devised when the other vegetables existence was never known. These vegetables are also referred to as Naatu kaai (Country or local vegetables). Some vegetables and fruits never got a proper Tamil name(eg, Carrot, Beet root, Apple) and some got names referring to their history (eg, Pumpkin - Parangikaai : Parangi(Foreign) + Kaai(Unripened fruit)) Also, even though we embraced potato, tomato, guava et all with open arms, still in our house we avoid eating Pineapple, Papaya and Custard Apple giving it a suspicious look :) I hope someday there is mass production of Indian vegetables here in US, I miss the kothavarangaai, Avarakaai, Poozhanikaai, Podalangaai. I am tired of buying the same old Potato and Tomato everytime in the grocery store!!


Arun Ponniah Sethuramalingam said...

Interesting and very well written post!

Bharathi Mohan said...

Un naaku setthu pochu nu ninakuren....