From peppers to potatoes, from tomato to chocolate, more than half of the foods eaten around the world today originated in the Americas. Had the Americas gone undiscovered, Italians would eat their pastas without tomato sauce, the Belgians would not be enjoying their potato chips, French pastries would not be made with chocolate or vanilla, and Chinese cuisine would be made without peppers or nuts.
Archaeological evidence suggests the cultivation of potatoes first began north of Lake Titicaca, Bolivia some 7000 years ago. The word, ‘papa’ comes from the indigenous language, quechua, and it simply means, ‘tuber’. The Spanish conquerors took it to Spain. In the beginning, it was not well accepted and was served as food to animals like pigs and to prisoners of war. The potato appears in France in the 18th century. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette grew them in their fields. From the royal European palaces, the potato conquered the world. Without a doubt, the potato is one of the most widely used foods in the world. There is practically no country in the world that doesn’t use the potato in some way. It has made its way from the humble tables of the pre-Columbian indigenous Peruvians to the five star restaurants of the planet.
Together with the potato, corn is a plant that is a symbol of pre-Hispanic culture. The word, ‘maiz’ (corn) means, ‘reason for life’, according to the Nahuas. In the “Popol Vuh”, sacred book of the Mayans, we find another relationship between the people of the south and corn. The Mayans say that the Gods first created humans from mud, but they dissolved and returned to soil. Finally, they turned to corn, ‘ixim’ and made the perfect human. The indigenous pre-Hispanics used not only the fruit of the corn plant, but also the other parts of the plant. They made honey from the stalk, used the leaves as wrappers for tamales, and used the corn cob for firewood. Corn was known in Spain in 1492, and from there it spread around the entire world.
Tomatoes are originally from South America, where thousands of years ago they grew wild in the Andes. The early tomato was much smaller than what we know today. No one knows how it came to Central America, but evidence shows that it was domesticated. The Aztecs called it xitomatl’ or ‘tomatl’ which means ‘the fat one’. The Spanish conquerors took it back to Spain and quickly incorporated it into their diet. Since the 18th Century it has become a popular food around the world.
The Americas have given the world many important foods, but none more fascinating than chocolate. For many, chocolate is not a food but a passion. It is said that the Aztec emperor Montecuhzoma so craved ‘chocoatl’, the sacred beverage made from cocoa beans, that he consumed fifty golden goblets of it a day. The first cocoa trees probably grew in Central America. The Mayans and Aztecs treasured chocolate. In both cultures, ‘chocoatl’ was consumed during religious rites and was also considered to be a potent aphrodisiac. Hernando Cortez brought chocolate to Spain in 1519. By the 17th century, the lust for chocolate had spread throughout Europe. The world famous and exquisite Belgian and Swiss chocolate would never have existed without the discovery of the use of cocoa by the pre-Columbian cultures.
HEART OF PALM
The palm, Bactris gasipaes, commonly called Peach Palm, is a tree with many uses. On one hand it produces a delicious fruit called ‘pejibaye’, and on the other we get ‘palmito’, or ‘heart of palm’. Palmito is considered to be an exotic gourmet food by many, and as such is quite expensive. The main consumer worldwide is France, which uses it in their exquisite French cuisine.
Bactris gasipaes was a palm variety that was widely and intensively cultivated in Costa Rica when the Spaniards landed about 500 years ago. It was so valued by the indigenous that lived in the region of Talamanca, they considered it more important than corn and yuca (cassava, manioc). As such, Godinez Osorio wrote in his notes in 1575,”…their main dish is palm grapes which is a fruit they call, ‘pejiballes’.”
The avocado has been on the Earth for about 50,000 years. It grows all over the Americas, from Mexico south to Peru and Chile. The Spaniards found this marvelous fruit when they conquered the Aztecs, who called it, ’ahuacatl’. In the language of the Incas, ‘quechua’, it was called, ‘palta’, which today is still used by several countries in the southern parts of the continent. In his book, “Summary of the Natural and General History of Indians”, published in 1526, the Spanish conqueror Fernandez de Oviedo described the avocado for the first time. With its soft, smooth meat, this marvelous fruit is another of the invaluable treasures that the ‘New World’ gave to the rest of the palates of the planet.
BELL PEPPER / SWEET PEPPER
Christopher Columbus came in search of gold and spices, especially the precious black pepper, craved in the courts of Europe. Confronted by the powerful peppers that grew in the Americas, nothing better occurred to the Spaniards than to give the name, ’pimienta’ (technically, black pepper) to the hundreds of varieties of peppers, that included the fat ones, that is, bell peppers, or sweet peppers (chile dulces) that are not spicy and are originally from Central America. This has lead to a lot of confusion that has lasted until today. In English, the term, ‘pepper’ is used for black pepper as well as for bell peppers, sweet peppers, and spicy peppers. What is certain is that the peppers that were sent to Spain in the 16th century were well received, and their cultivation spread all over the Mediterranean.
For a very long time, there existed a strong debate between botanists over the origin of zucchini. Thanks to the work of culinary historians, it has been shown that the point of origin of the zucchini is Central America. In fact, zucchini is one of the indisputable leaders of pre-Hispanic cuisine. Acceptance of zucchini in Europe took a long time. Until the 17th century, the Spanish peasants preferred to give it to their animals as forage. These days zucchini is indispensable in the European kitchen, like in ‘ratatouille’, the delicious and famous French stew.
The origin of papaya is found in Central America extending to the Caribbean coast. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the West Indies Islands, he found a plump, meaty, milky, delicious fruit that was part of the diet of the natives. The troops of the famous conqueror, Hernan Cortez, found papaya in southeastern Mexico when, after a festive celebration given by a Mayan chief, the indigenous people offered them a ‘beautiful golden fruit’. According to Cortez’s chronicles, the Mayans called the fruit, ’apapai’. The Spanish brought the fruit to the Philippines toward the middle of the 16th century. From there its cultivation extended to Thailand, Vietnam, India, and later the rest of Asia. Muslim sailors were responsible for extending its cultivation to Africa by the end of the 17th century.
Pineapple originated in South America, specifically from the region of Parana between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Indigenous sailors from the Caribbean brought it to the islands of the Atlantic and the Caribbean. They called it ‘ananas’, which in their language meant, ‘excellent fruit’. Then Portuguese and Spanish introduced it in Europe where it was very well received as a tasty and exotic fruit which soon became a symbol of wealth and status. It was so costly and exclusive that for special occasions, specialized stores rented it to beautify the store.
These days the pineapple is truly the queen of tropical fruit for consumers in Europe and the United States.
Naturally we would associate the coconut with the Caribbean, but surprisingly, when the Europeans arrived in America, this fruit did not exist on our coasts. There were palms, but not all palms are coconut producing palms. It is said that the partners of the Portuguese, Vasco de Gama called the palm, ‘coco’ when, in 1498, they found it on the coasts of India. A noble fruit of multiple culinary uses, coconut is a refreshing fountain of surprises.