In this article, we will delve into the story of a commodity that revolutionized the world spice trade and transformed Indian cuisine 3 centuries ago. Can you guess which commodity we're talking about? It's none other than the humble Chilli
Before the discovery of Chilli, black pepper from the Malabar region of India ruled the world spice markets for thousands of years. The trade was conducted either overland or through the Mediterranean Sea. However, the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 disrupted the trade routes, prompting the age of exploration led by Spanish and Portuguese explorers. They were driven by the mission to discover safer trade routes to India and establish a monopoly over the spice trade.
While many explorers tried and failed, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama finally landed on the Indian shores in 1498 after travelling around Africa. Around the same time, Christopher Columbus set out to reach India by travelling to the West but instead discovered the Americas and many exotic species, including Chilli.
The crew of Columbus called it "pepper" as it tasted like the black pepper from India, and it later took on the name of Chilli pepper. The name "Chilli" comes from the Aztec word for fruit(Chilli) and has no connection with the country named Chile.
Chilli was introduced to Europe, where it quickly captured the taste buds of Europeans. By the end of the 17th century, the Portuguese introduced Chilli to Goa, which then slowly made its way to South India.
North Indians were introduced to Chillies through the constant raids of Marathas on the Mughals. Legend has it that consuming Chillies made Marathas counter the Mughals more effectively.
Unlike black pepper, which was only cultivated only in the Malabar region, Chillies were resistant to almost all climatic conditions in India. By the end of the 18th century, Chillies were widely grown and had been adopted into Indian cuisines, ultimately pushing black pepper from its position of controlling the world trade.
Here's an interesting fact that you may have overlooked: the words for Chilli and pepper in almost all Indian languages are similar. In Hindi, it's Kali Mirch and Hari Mirch; in Telugu, it's Miriyam and Mirapakaya; in Kannada, it's Menasu and Menasinakayi; in Malayalam, it's Kurumulaku and Mulaku; and in Tamil, it's Milagu and Milagai.
Today, India is not only the largest consumer of Chilli but also the largest exporter of dried red Chilli in the world. Can you imagine Samosa without Chilli and potatoes? It was a reality three centuries ago.
Not only Chilli and potatoes, but there are also many fruits and vegetables such as tomato, pineapple, sapota, and groundnut that are not native to India but are now indispensable to Indian cuisine.
That's the story of how Chilli transformed Indian cuisine and pushed pepper from its position of controlling the world trade. Until next time, let the Chillies keep spicing up your food!