COLUMBUS FIRST encountered the chilli in 1492. Less than 20 years after its discovery in America, the frisson of chillies spread from one Indian kitchen to the next like hot gossip. It would in time drastically impact, or rationalize, the commercial prospects of black pepper and long pepper, both of which were almost undifferentiated in destination markets. However culinarily as well as commercially, Indians cottoned on to chillies’ potential faster than the Portugese. So even as the Portugese were negotiating with Indians for a hook in their pepper supplies, they were palming off chillies to India, with the air of being uncertain on what to do with it themselves. While the 16th Century historian Peter Martyr wrote of the chilli: “… when it is used there is no need of Caucasian pepper”, and 16th Century Indian composer Purandaradasa elegised the fruit thus, “Saviour of the poor, enhancer of good food, fiery when bitten … ,” Indians didn’t miss a beat and by the 16th Century, India was the origin of a majority of the chillies that wound their way to the markets of Germany, Britain and Holland.
Like pepper, chillies started out being exclusive to one region. Unlike pepper, chilli wasn’t finicky about soil or climate. The seeds could flourish almost anywhere with little or no care. Pepper generally propagates through cuttings, and requires precise soil conditions, not to mention the assistance of something like the double monsoon (which apart from Kerala, could be claimed by only a few other locations, among them the Spice Islands in Southeast Asia). Incidentally, Mexico which could also boast a double monsoon, was the origin instead of a proletariat challenge to pepper.
Christopher Columbus found the locals of these new lands, would have chilli in every dish. It would factor in their ceremonial offerings and was also used in innovative ways to scold errant children. Christopher Columbus believed this to be the pepper he had been searching for. Landing back in Spain, he was informed that his coordinates were off completely. Not only was the country he discovered not India; his ship’s hull was not filled with pepper but with pods of a plant nobody had asked for. It’s another matter that a century from then, the consumption and cultivation of chilli would be taken up with enthusiasm across Europe.
In time, Mexican cuisine too would take on influences from the East that would become indispensable. Notable among these were the use of rice and tamarind, cinnamon, almonds, raisins, and cumin. Many of these ingredients are combined with Mexican chocolate and chilli in the trademark Mexican sauce dish known as mole.
During his diplomatic stint in India, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz remarked at the uncanny similarities in function and form between Indian curries (from the clear soup like rasams, to the qaliyas) and the varieties of Mexican mole. But the similarities do not end there – there are remarkable parallels between rotis and tortillas, tostadas and papads, quesadillas and samosas, chutneys and salsa. Coconuts have grown in coastal regions of both India and Mexico since millenia, and its exact origin is still disputed. Banana and tamarind are notable gifts of South Asia to the New World. Today, in much the same way many Indians assume the chilli to be native, Mexicans take the tamarind and banana to be their own.
Perhaps because Goa was the entry point of chillies into India (the world’s largest producer of chillies), the major production and trading centres of chilli in India today are located in the Deccan (in particular Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka). The present-day markets of the erstwhile Deccan trade in key local varieties including the bydagi, ellachipur sannam, guntur sannam and hindpur.
- Indian Food, A Historical Companion, by KT Achaya
- Rice: The gift of the other gods, by Karen Hursh Graber (mexconnect.com)
- Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, by Lizzie Collingham
- Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504, by Laurence Bergreen
- (video series) Heat up Your Life – Peppers and People, NMSU media productions
- (video series) The Spice of Life “Chillies”