The Reflective Indian

India – History and Society – for those who wish to think and learn for themselves

Chillies and India

Indian food has grown tremendously in popularity across the globe in particular in Europe and North America. Chicken Tikka Masala is reported to second in popularity only to the traditional fish and chips in Britain.

To most of the world, the hallmark of Indian cuisine is the use of spices and chillies. Indians themselves consider chillies as an integral part of their food. Perhaps, most including Indians would be surprised to learn that chillies first made their way to India less than five hundred years ago. Prior to the arrival of chillies, the two main ingredients used to spice up Indian food were the long pepper (grown in Bengal in East India) and black pepper (grown along the Western Coast, in particular in the Malabar in Kerala).

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks had led to considerable disruption to the spice trade. Black pepper accounted for over ninety percent of the spice trade and was a very valuable commodity in Europe. Black pepper was used to enhance otherwise bland dishes served on European tables. Therefore, the fall of Constantinople led to prices steadily rising as supply could not match demand. In fact, Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry suggests that the price of black pepper doubled between 1496 and 1499.

The rise in pepper prices made the potential discovery of a sea route to India even more lucrative. Columbus left Spain seeking India and found himself in the Caribbean. This led to the discovery of the New World with an array of vegetables, fruit and staples that had never been encountered by the rest of the world before. Amongst what Columbus encountered was Capsicum. Mistakenly, Columbus and colleagues called the members of the capsicum family as peppers and the name has stuck to date.

A few years later, the Spanish encountered in Mexico for the first time, what we now know as chillies. These chillies soon found their way into the food the Spanish immigrants cooked in North America, and were used to flavour pork and other meats. Soon, chillies were being grown in Spain.

Where Columbus had failed, the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama navigated his way to India, meeting the King of Calicut (modern north Kerala) in May 1498. The Portuguese did not have much of interest to the local chieftain, but they did return to Lisbon with plenty of black pepper. Further expeditions followed. Within 30 years, the Portuguese had overcome Arab opposition and had mastery over the Arabian Sea routes from East Africa to the West Coast of India. Goa, on the West Coast of India, to the north of the Malabar Coast, became the capital of the Portuguese even as they founded multiple ports along the West Coast of India, right from its southern tip to modern day Gujarat.

It is believed that chillies first arrived in India, probably in Goa, in the 1530’s. It is believed that within decades, Indians from all parts of India were experimenting with the new chillies often called Goan mirchi or Brazilian mirchi. Within a few more years, the chillies had replaced the more traditionally used long peppers. Chillies were easy to grow, smaller in size and stayed fresh for longer as compared to long peppers. Indians adopted them with great enthusiasm. The rest is history. 

Please use the links below to learn more:

http://www.indianspices.com/

The Indian government and police use chilly gas to combat militants!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/23/india-chilli-bhut-jolokia-terrorism

Article in Deccan Herald (English newspaper in Bangalore)

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/125427/grand-old-red-hot-chilli.html

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