Tuesday, June 8
Some of you may remember that my husband and I were in Tokyo for my birthday earlier this year. I had this leaflet from that trip - it's a mini-catalogue of all the little sweet treats on offer at Joel Robuchon's Marunouchi boutique (honest, it's called La Boutique de Joel Robuchon). What really struck me about the leaflet was that traditional French pastries (which you'd normally imagine being carried in hand-made baskets held against the hips of Commercy maidens frolicking in valleys) were all cutesied up and packaged, wagashi-style, in finely calligraphied wrappers and boxes. Here, I thought, was a fusion of French confection, Japanese daintiness and Anglo-Saxon commerce, all boxed up and ready to go. Many people might think all this globalisation is a recent phenomenon - gone are the days when madeleines were from France, wagashi were from Japan and only the Protestants practised Capitalism. But does that neat, bite-sized categorisation tell the whole story? I think not.
So, now we will finally tell you the story we promised, about Brazil, the chili and India. In the age of discovery in Europe, the Portuguese were great travellers and traders, sending voyages to the East and West. Although the Europeans got slightly distracted by the jewels and precious metals they came across on these voyages, initially (at least) one aim was to find spices. The Portuguese had been travelling to India since 1498, when Vasco da Gama first established a sea route to the Sub Continent. By the 1520s/1530s (please don't hang me on the dates), there were Portuguese trading posts all along the coastline on the Bay of Bengal. Before this, people all along that coast (and inland) used only pepper to spice things up (food-wise). But the Portuguese brought a number of things with them from the New World, amongst these the red chili from Brazil. In the 5 centuries since then, the red chili has edged pepper out as the fiery spice of choice, and pepper-based dishes have been relegated to the side lines. The methods and ingredients of Indian cuisine are incredibly varied across the length and breadth of the country, but ask any Indian what identifies their food and sets it apart, and you will be told it's the chili. So what do we call the chili in India? Is it a 'Brazilian' immigrant? A foreign invader? Is it 'Indian'?
And here I'm reminded of people who ask me where I'm from. When I say "I'm from Singapore", I sometimes get a look of disbelief and the classic follow-up "But where are you originally from?" If only I had the time to tell each of them, patiently, the story of the humble red chili...