Sunday, March 25, 2007

Agriculture in South India - 2

In my previous post on the same topic, I had speculated that tapioca could have been the staple diet of tribal Malayalis. Recently, I came across a propagandist paper written by a Malayali Christian that has details about various crops introduced by the Portuguese in India. Unlike the other content of the paper, I hope that is a fairly accurate account. Of course, tapioca is also one of those crops.

Change in dietary habits:

I read the hilarious studies that talk about how dietary changes affecting modern day Indian population because of so-called western influence. Probably, they have considered the food habits of Indians in early 20th century as something that has remained unchanged for couple of millenniums. Now, let us look into South Indian food habits of the last 500 years after the entry of Portuguese.

List of crops:
Let me list out the crops from South America that have been introduced by Portuguese.

1.Chillis: This is a wellknown import. I always wondered how widespread was the usage of black pepper, a native South Indian crop, that ensured a wholehearted adoption of this spice for that 'heat' or 'pungent' sensation. Nowadays, black pepper has very limited use in South Indian cuisine.

In my opinion, our cuisine might not be very hot 500 years back. I can understand usage of black pepper in non-vegetarian dishes but usage in vegetarian dishes sounds improbable. At least, some of such traditional dishes would have continued to the present day. But I hardly see any. But chile pepper is extensively used in vegetarian dishes. That being said, it appears our popular vegetables are not what they used to be 500 years back.

2. Beans: Another very popular family of vegetables is the Portuguese introduction.

3. Gourds: This is pure propaganda, I believe. Only South American candidate in this family is 'bottle gourd', I suppose. If this is true we have changed our side dishes completely in the last 500 years.

4. Ground nut: The most common oil in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh is extracted from this nut. I wonder what oil these two regions have used 500 years back. And what oil Tamils use?

... the rest of the plants include,
cashew, sapota, yams(popular), cacao, maize(this does have some popularity in North Karnataka), pappaya, guava, sunflower, bread fruit, sweet potato, passion fruit, anona species, pine apple, tobacco along with tapioca.

Non Portuguese introductions
I think tomato, cauliflower and cabbage were also introduced in the last 500 years.

Then what are our own vegeatables, I mean for the last 2000-3000 years? lady's fingers, probably some of the gourds like bitter gourd*, ash gourd, ridge gourd and snake gourd, gherkin, cucumber, eggplant, few leafy vegetable and few beans like red gram, black gram, horse gram etc...Of course, rice has not been replaced as the preferred cereal grain though I think our ancestors were initially wheat eaters.

Overall, though there are popular old Indian vegetables still in our cuisine(when I started to write this post, I wanted to prove almost 80-90% of the vegetables were introduced in the last 500 years), there is a strong influence of the new world vegeatables in our present cuisine. In fact, only our non-vegetarian dishes have remained unchanged. I have not come across a new animal being added to our plate.

* Bitter gourd is one of the main reasons that I suspect 'gourds' might not be one of the Portuguese introductions. One of my favourite vegetables is also part of Tulu folklore. We Tuluvas have a saying 'kaMcala ittaMDa eMcala uNNOli'. I think explanation/translation needs little background of South Indian food presentation. People have this notion that if you are having a meal then you are having rice. Or rice is the maincourse. The purpose of all other dishes(vegetable or meat) is to enable easy and sensuous intake of rice. So, you can come across statement like "If you have pickle, that is enough. I can have my meal". That Tulu saying essentially says, if bitter gourd is there then you can have your meal.

I had a bitter dispute about sweet potato with one of the commenters of this blog. I came across this article that claims Polynesians found South America before anybody and introduced chicken there. Now the question is whether Polynesians sailed to India and introduced sweet potato and also whether they sailed to China and introduced peanut. Or is that just one of those studies?


Ravi Mundkur said...

You have introduced a very interesting line of thinking on the evolution of our food habits during the last 500 years.
I was always thinking that sweet potato was an ancient Indian item, since Ramayana mentioned Rama and others eating roots in the jungle.If sweet potato is also an imported item what tuberous roots those Ramayana fellows were eating in those times?

Manjunath said...

According to Wikipedia article sweet potato is native to Americas.

I checked Dravidian names for sweet potato. And only South Dravidian-I(Tulu, Kannada, Tamil, Mal) branch has original name for this root. If we can find the names in other branches(SD-II, ND, CD) too then probably we can say it is native to India(or South India). However, it is not the case.

Tribes in Central India still eat roots they pick from the forest areas. May be those roots are native to India and Valmiki might be describing those roots.

Balasubramanian said...

At the outset I wish to accept my limitations to write a comment on any subject. I am a retired spetuagenarian interested in all the happenings around me. I am a silent admirer of your blogs, But not mastered any subject on which you write. As a Tamil Brahmin and strict vegetarian by birth I can try to help you to solve certain queries on the food habits of South Indians before the advent of European and American vegetables.

We can get the help from the Food items prepared for Shraddha (Shrardham) ceremony, which has not changed for generations.On these special days we use only traditional food prepared in the old methods of cooking. We do not use chillies or refined sugar, Neither we use Potatos, beans, tomato, bottle gourd, ash gourd and red pumpkin. Onions and Garlic are strictly avoided. Instead we use Bitter gourd, Raw banana, banana stem, colocasia, snake courd, cluster beans, local cucumbers,sweet potato, ginger, raw mango and black pepper.

As for oil, Tamils use only Til/Gingelly oil (Nallennai in Tamil)for cooking and bath.

Interestingly the Purohits who come to perform the ceremonies consume a lot of Ghee, Honey and Curd. It may be bacause they have a lot of energy loss due to Chanting Manthras for hours.

My Grand mother used to say the roots which grow underneath earth are meant for animals and should not be eaten by humans. That was her logic. She used to consume big chunks of Ghee and gur without fear of cholesterol problem, and lived hale and healthy life upto 86 years.

This is a subject that needs further research.

Balasubramanian A.

Manjunath said...

Thank you very much for your detailed comment.

we use Bitter gourd, Raw banana, banana stem, colocasia, snake courd, cluster beans, local cucumbers,sweet potato, ginger, raw mango and black pepper.

I had assured Ravi(@ that sweet potato was native to Americas. Now, your list puts a question mark on that. But it looks like the only exception as the rest confirms my list.

Now, if Tamil Brahmins are fond of sweet potato that settles the issue. If not, we need further research on this.

My Grand mother used to say the roots which grow underneath earth are meant for animals and should not be eaten by humans. That was her logic. She used to consume big chunks of Ghee and gur without fear of cholesterol problem, and lived hale and healthy life upto 86 years.

I think last word is not heard yet on traditional Indian ghee, oil etc... Initially, coconut oil was blamed for everything now it is being praised for reducing the heart diseases. Probably, even Ghee helps in increasing the "good"(HDL) cholesterol. Maybe, it was the secret behind your grandmother's health!

Balasubramanian said...


Further to my previous comment I wish to add some more information about Sweet Potato. In Tamil Sweet Potato is called "Valli Kizhangu" or to be specific "Sarkarai Valli kizhangu" meaning "the tuber of the sweet vine". "Valli" in Sanskrit and Tamil is the name for vine or creeper. In fact Sweet Potato is a Creeper or running vine. Tamils call Tapioca or Cassava as "Mara Valli Kizhangu" meaning "the vine tuber from the tree"!

Interestingly while searching the internet for more information on Sweet Potato I came across comments by one George F.Carter Geographer summerizing on botanical evidence on Transoceanic voyages as below:
"Sweet Potatoes: A New World plant that has been known in Polynesia for at least 500 years, but the South American Name for Sweet Potato (Kumara) turns out to be a Sanskrit word from India, which is most perplexing."

Maoris of New Zealand also call Sweet Potato as "Kumara" and by which name only it is known in New Zealand.

Thus it my opinion that Sweet Potato is very much the native of India.

Balasubramanian A

Manjunath said...

Unfotunately, George F. Carter has not given the etymological derivation how he arrived at that conclusion. Also, we have consider that George F. Carter is/was geographer and not a linguist. I posted this query to one of the Linguistics forums and my message promptly got rejected with the following message.

the similarity between "kumara" and "kumara" is undoubtedly purely
accidental. It is not infrequent that non-related languages have words
that sound alike but have different meanings. There is no semantic connection between
the two words. They just look alike, that's all.

However, sweet potato is indeed a mystery plant. But only mystery is how it reached Polynesia from South America. I have not yet seen any article that claimed it's native to India. Considering so much contoversy (along with peanut, which though native to Americas was cultivated around 1500BCE in China) surrounding this plant, Indian origin should have been discussed in some of the articles. But that is hardly the case.

Maju said...

Wikipedia claims that beans are primarily original of SE Asia in early Neolithic. Lentils and broad beans are known since Neolithic times in West Asia and the Mediterranean (afaik lentils are the most popular legumes in India too). Chickpeas are also from the Old World (and again another popular legume among Indians, among which is known since old). The only American beans are alubs and green beans.

Cabbages (including cauliflower) are originary from the Mediterranean, it seems, and, while it may have been a Portuguese introduction, it may also have arrived earlier via West Asia. Yams are cultivated in Africa and Asia since maybe 8000 years ago - they don't seem any recent introduction at all.

Tomato is indeed from America, like so many other widespread vegetables (chili, maize, alubs, etc).

I'm pretty sure that you don't eat tobaco anyhow :p

You are right on gourds, I think. They were widely spread through the Old World, specially in tropical regions.

Manjunath said...

In my place, Karnataka, beans is always 'green common beans'. Other beans have native names.

I am not sure about Yams. The only yam I know is Elephant yam which is beleived to be native to SE Asia.