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July 09, 2016

Follow The Journeys Of These Global Vegetables

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

We trace the paths that fruits and vegetables have taken before reaching our tables today

There it sat on our round dining table: sickly green, stout, tuberous and knotty. But our house guests from Europe looked at it lovingly, longingly even, as if it were the Kohinoor diamond, no less. The object of the coup de foudre was knol khol — navalkol in Marathi and gaanth gobi in Hindi. So fascinated was our friend from Venice by the knotted cabbage that we had just eaten — I suppose that is what it means in Hindi — that he asked if he could take one home.

As I write this, the lowly vegetable, which women tend to love and men mostly hate (a gut reaction, if you will), must have reached the city of gondolas, Titians, Tintorettos and palazzos on water — such a long journey for a humble vegetable that the Indian middle class has largely turned its collective nose up at. Low down in the hierarchy of veggies, it rarely makes it to the table when you have a guest over; even though some secretly relish it, as do I. But worry not: this column is not about this ugly duckling of a vegetable. Or, its many avatars.

Pickles and more
Our Venetian visitor shopped so much and so intensely in Delhi that he had to buy another suitcase just to fit in all the spices, chutneys and pickles he had purchased, in addition to, of course, all the Fabindia kurtas and Dilli Haat delights, including Rajasthani cloth elephants and camels. To some extent, clichéd India is what he sought — as do most of the tourists on their grand tour of North India: the Taj Mahal and the bazaars and forts of Rajasthan. The more adventurous and better-informed make their way to the less-exploited Madhya Pradesh — and beyond Khajuraho and its exquisite ‘erotic’ sculptures.

The Italian also strayed from the well-trodden track. It wasn’t only the odd-looking, spiky little green vegetables but a couple of statues of the goddess Lakshmi that he coveted, and had to have. We had to take him all the way to the Lakshmi Birla Mandir, where he attempted to say a little prayer and found the statues. A savvy Italian friend had told him that this goddess would bring him luck and lots of lire.

Undoubtedly, he also wanted to recreate his experience of India for his friends in Venice. Edible India, if you will. Beyond tandoori chicken and samosas — and Madhur Jaffrey. So, he painstakingly asked us for the most quotidian of recipes — ghar ka khana. The stomach has often been considered a good — and short — route to a beloved’s heart; and further, to another civilisation. Adventurous explorers down the centuries who made those voyages fraught with danger from the Old World (Europe) to the New World (the Americas) brought not only precious goods but vegetables and fruit.

Centuries ago, Marco Polo, another Venetian and an explorer, is said to have brought back noodles from China in the latter half of the 13th century. Legend has it that he was responsible for introducing pasta and spaghetti to Italy. These might have eventually travelled to North America — and much later even to India. A few years ago the children of a friend’s cook refused to return to their remote village in Himachal Pradesh because they wouldn’t be able to eat Maggi or Chinese noodles there. Today, they needn’t worry: roadside and chaat stalls dotting the hills and small towns now serve the instant noodles which have made it to our shores, courtesy of a European multinational.

Noodles in Europe
Several scholars, specially the Italian ones, question Marco Polo’s role in bringing Chinese noodles to Europe. Apparently, some rudimentary form of pasta already existed in a few Italian cities, according to them. They even question Marco Polo’s claim to his having been an adviser to the Yuan emperor, Kublai Khan. Perhaps it is Christopher Columbus we need to thank for the globalisation of food. And, for changing the palates of people the world over.

The Spanish explorer mistakenly landed in North America instead of India. Just as well. Imagine, we may not have had French fries had it not been for him. Columbus could have triggered the exchange of goods between the Old and New Worlds — forever altering gastronomical proclivities in Europe and our part of the world, even centuries later. From the New World (Central and Latin America), tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, chillies, maize, squashes, peanuts, cashews, pineapples, chikus — and a lot else — travelled to Europe and Asia.

Where would Indian cuisine be without them? Dull indeed. Aloo parathas and batata vadas? No way. In my city, Delhi, we use the word ‘aloo’ for potatoes. The Mumbaikars say batata — the Spanish and Portuguese use the same word for sweet potato and potato. The Europeans moved between the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, often picking up the vegetables they came across en route. The Moghul Emperor Akbar is also credited with getting European merchants to send Caribbean pineapples to India.

Apparently, even the word achar comes from the Caribbean word axi or achi for chillies. It was probably appropriated by the Portuguese, and ended up here in some form. This makes even achar an imported item. It seems that the indentured immigrants from India who were taken to the Caribbean in the 19th century (to Trinidad and Guyana) took along jars of pickles on their long journeys.

So, what foods originated here? Chillies are just one of the many crossover foods.

I am waiting for news from Venice about how our gaanth gobi fared in Italian cucina. I doubt that it is compatible with pasta.

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