The other day, cruising around the internet led me to some interesting, coincidentally related articles.
The first–the one I was actually looking for–was about how chiles got to India. I’ve talked here about how chile peppers became central to the cuisine of Sichuan, China, via the Spanish Philippines in the late 1500s. But the Spanish never really did significant trade in India. Did the chile get there overland from Sichuan, or perhaps via Southeast Asians trading in the Philippines and then on West? Nope. Score one for the Portuguese, it turns out.
According a Time Magazine article,
Portuguese traders carried it to settlements and nascent colonies in West Africa, in India and around East Asia. Within 30 years of Columbus’ first journey, at least three different types of chili plants were growing in the Portuguese enclave of Goa, on India’s west coast.
The Portugese had gotten a non-interference agreement for West Africa and the coast of Brazil as a result of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. They conquered Goa in 1510 and established a presence in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, in modern Thailand, in the same timeframe. The Portuguese presence in Thailand mainly served as a jumping-off point for Portugese conquest of the Spice Islands, the source of cinnamon and cloves, but it also had a very clear effect on the future of Thai cuisine.
This article, which is also more accurate than the Time article about where all the different species of chile peppers originated, goes a bit deeper on the history of chiles in China as well. They actually arrived in China before the Spanish took control of Manila, though who took them there from where is unclear. However, it’s clear enough from Chinese sources that the chile, along with other New World plants, was a significant portion of Chinese trade with the Philippines in the early-to-mid 1600s, and the new foods formed part of Qing imperial policy for recolonizing Sichuan.
So given that Spain and Portugal were so instrumental in spreading chiles all over the Eastern Hemisphere in very short order, why are they relatively rare in European cuisine? They would certainly have been cheaper than black pepper, which at the time had to be obtained at great expense from the Far East.
This NPR article posits that that was the problem: that the increasing availability of spices from both Southeast Asia and the New World actually made highly seasoned food less appealing as a marker of status to the upper classes. In Roman and medieval times, combinations of sweet and savory, and sweet and sour, were common at least in upper class cooking. Black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves were expensive flavorings that feature in a number of high class medieval recipes. One book I’ve read indicates that records of saffron purchases show up in English royal expense rolls in the 11th century. But outside of Spain, which shares several culinary techniques with Moroccan cuisine, most of those pairings went by the wayside in the high Renaissance. To me, the NPR article doesn’t satisfactorily explain why the chile pepper didn’t catch on with the less well-to-do the way the potato and the tomato did. But it’s an interesting article in other ways about changing tastes–not to mention philosophies of medicine–in the Imperial age.
And finally, I came across a very interesting podcast on Tudor England’s ties with the main Islamic powers of the day–the Ottoman and Persian empires, and the Kingdom of Morocco. It seems it was an explicit diplomatic policy under Elizabeth I, meant to be used as a hedge against the Catholic powers of southern Europe. The diplomatic relations fell apart under her successor, James I, but the commerce established as part of the diplomatic initiative simply gained steam as England began to acquire its own colonies abroad.