The taxi driver driving me from suburban Chicago to the airport was chatty (and loud and voluble) in the manner of most American taxi-wallahs. He quickly zeroed in on my nationality and after perfunctory discussions on the situation in Afghanistan, popped a question to me. “Sir, where in India I can source Ghost Peppers from?”
Ghost Peppers? Ghost? Peppers? Never heard of them, I wondered.
I said flatly, “No idea”.
He persisted, “Sir, hot peppers, very hot peppers from India. Ghost Peppers.”
I knew peppers, and I knew ghosts. But never heard of them together. And I told him so.
He was at his wits’ ends, and tried his luck again. “Sir, those vegetables. Green or red or sometimes yellow too. Very hot!
And suddenly the penny dropped! Hot= teekha, pepper= mirchi, ghost= bhoot. Yes, I had indeed recently read about this chilli from Assam, “Bhut Jholokia“. Only a few months earlier some scientist had established it to be mirchi-est of all mirchis in the world, beating hollow the then world record holder from somewhere in South America.
The taxi wallah, it transpired from the chat during the rest of the drive, was a serious foodie. One with a special interest in peppers. He peppered me, pardon the pun, with so much interesting trivia on peppers that I was rather sad when the journey ended at the airport and I had to part company with the taxi driver.
He would love this book “The Illustrated Foods of India A-Z” by K. T. Achaya.
This book will delight all foodies. No doubt about that. A collection of around 600 food terms explained in great detail and with scholarly precision. Starting with Achar, moving to Falooda, then Jain food ambience, Laddu, Paan, Tamarind ending with a rather un-foody Zakat which I suspect has been included to round this “A-Z” book with a “Z” word. The author delves deep into the origin of the food, the historical references, archeological significance, different usages in different parts of the country and so on.
So, it transpires that the ubiquitous our very own aloo (potato) is not of Indian origin. It arrived from the South American shores much after the Mughals. It was it initially accepted only by the Europeans and then the Muslims and the Hindus only at the end.
And there were no green chillis before the 16th century in India. (kali mirch or black pepper was the pungency-inducing spice in those days. Guess where the green chillis came from. Good old South America! Introduced to India by Vasco da Gama or European voyagers of similar vintage. (Poor South American chillis, they had to get beaten by the Indian chillis, like the English cricket team getting thrashed by the Indians.)
And horror of horrors, the author has even figured out that our beloved idli is probably of Indonesian origin!
Mr Achaya, and I quote from the blurb, is “…a renowned nutritionist and an authority on Indian food, pursued scientific research in the areas of oilseeds, vegetable oil, processed foods and nutrition….” Some googling revealed that the venerable scientist wrote extensively researched papers. Sample this: “The fatty acid and glyceride structures of Indian buffalo milk and depot fats, and some characteristics of eastern animal fats” published in 1946 in a British journal. So you can expect a lot of research, a lot of erudition and a lot of reliable information in this book.
The author has dug deep into ancient and medieval literature like the Vedas, Arthashastra, Ain-e-Akbari aming many others in his quest for information. He gives the correct technical names. Like Musa paradisiaca being the name of a popular variety of bananas. And he goes into deep technical detail sometimes. Sample this one about the popular (not so popular with many) bhindi.
“…..It was poetically called lady’s finger in colonial India and Okra in America. “Abelmoschus esculentus” is of African origin (et tu Bhindi? says Santosh Ojha), and though perhaps a late entrant into India, is a popular mucilaginous vegetable, cooked in dry or wet form. It is a polyphoid with 65 chromosomes, 29 from one genome and 36 from………”
But let me hasten to add that this detailed explanation is not the norm all through the book but the style certainly is scholarly and serious. Thousands of little details are scattered through the book which will appeal to anyone with just a little more than a passing interest in food.
I love food, I love trivia and I love books. And I am very happy possessing this book.
The one small quibble I have is that perhaps the publishers could have released a colour edition. This is a book on foods, and black and white pictures (and there are many of them in this book) do not present foods in an interesting manner. Maybe the publisher, Oxford University Press, will consider this suggestion sometime soon.
PS: Another great food book I read recently and would highly recommend is “Curry, A tale of Cooks and Conquerors” by Lizzie Collingham. This traces, chapter-by-chapter, the history and romance around dishes like chicken tikka masala, biryani, vindaloo, chai and curry. The author, a British historian, has done painstaking research.