surreal chili photo by pepperazi, via Flickr
Sri Lankan food makes me cry sometimes. We always had SL dinner while living in the states, but it was largely devoid of the burning pain. I used to wonder if this made me less Sri Lankan, but I don’t think it’s so. Apparently chillis are of South American origin and were only brought here by European colonizers. Those bastards! SL cuisine (and Indian methinks) was ‘traditionally’ more bland and flavoured by large quantities of black pepper. This means that all the popular Indian and SL dishes are of less than 500 years vintage. Pol Sambol, Kottu (less than a century), Vindaloo, Hyderbadi Biryani, etc. I suggest we stop eating spicy food and using roads immediately.
Capsicum has been known since the beginning of civilization in the Western Hemisphere. It has been a part of the human diet since about 7500 BC (MacNeish 1964). It was the ancient ancestors of the native peoples who took the wild chile piquin and selected for the many various types known today. Heiser (1976) states that apparently between 5200 and 3400 BC, the Native Americans were growing chile plants. This places chiles among the oldest cultivated crops of the Americas. Capsicum was domesticated at least five times by prehistoric peoples in different parts of South and Middle America.
Chile is historically associated with the voyage of Columbus (Heiser 1976). Columbus is given credit for introducing chile to Europe, and subsequently to Africa and to Asia. On his first voyage, he encountered a plant whose fruit mimicked the pungency of the black pepper, Piper nigrum L. Columbus called it red pepper because the pods were red. The plant was not the black pepper, but a heretofore unknown plant that was later classified as Capsicum. Capsicum is not related to the Piper genus. In 1493, Peter Martyr (Anghiera 1493) wrote that Columbus brought home “pepper more pungent than that from the Caucasus.” Chile spread rapidly across Europe into India, China, and Japan. The new spice, unlike most of the solanums from the Western Hemisphere, was incorporated into the cuisines instantaneously. Probably for the first time, pepper was no longer a luxury spice only the rich could afford. Since its discovery by Columbus, chile has been incorporated into most of the world’s cuisines. (Boland, Purdue)
One thing I wondered was why people ate capsicum in the first place. It doesn’t seem like it would catch on that quickly, what with the blinding pain. My explanation was that capsicum worked well as a ‘rice puller’. That is, I can eat tons of plain rice with just a bit of Pol Sambol. I’d say my favorite meal is basmati, pol sambol and maybe dhal. An egg if I’m lucky. I always figured that some spice would help you get the most of an otherwise unpalatable meal. Was looking around Google Print and not working when I found the following reference in The History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat.
Chillies and sweet peppers contain a great deal of Vitamins C and A. The chilli still helps American Indian to compensate for the poor vitamin content of their diet. Because of the ferocity of the chillies the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas used them in their techniques of torture. They also provided a poison in which arrows were dipped, and the same substance was used to poison reservoirs of water for fishing; fish which died of it were well spiced before they were even cooked. The chilli also has aniseptic powers, and its powder must be dusted over suspect food, or even used to fumigate a room.
Finally chilli peppers have become typical of all exotic gastronomy, and one wonders what those culinary traditions would have done without it. It is as if Italian cuisine were to be deprived of that other American fruit, the tomato.
It’s odd that capsicum was so widely adopted in South and East Asia, but not in the original point of contact – Europe. I guess because it’s a tropical vegetable and grows naturally here, so much so that we forgot where it comes from.
This post is partly in reference to a comment Jack Point left on the arrack poem.