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One of the things associated with Indian cuisine is heat from chili peppers. Yet, chili peppers can only have been introduced to Asia from their Central and South American homeland after the Spanish conquests of the 1500s.

What was Indian food like before this time? Did heat come from elsewhere or were Indian people eating bland, boring food? Or have I got my food history completely back to front?

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    Wikipedia does say "It was introduced in India by the Portuguese towards the end of 15th century." so I don't think your history is too far off. – Cascabel Jan 9 '16 at 0:38
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    Don't forget that India was where things like black pepper and most other spices came from ... so there would have been lots of flavor, and maybe some heat (although not from capsaicin) – Joe Jan 9 '16 at 1:31
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    It should also be noted that some curries do not depend on chilli for heat, but use pepper and other spices (probably as an influence from the middle east) for heat. cumin, coriander, black pepper, nutmeg, garlic, shallots, ginger, turmeric, star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, daun salam leaves etc were/are all present in India. Some or all of these could have travelled or have been present in India before chilli. – Adrian Hum Jan 9 '16 at 5:12
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    Heat from black/white pepper tends to be underestimated... piperine is usually rated as about 100000 on the scoville scale, and black pepper is said to be 5-9% ... Also, raw ginger or garlic can pack some punch depending on variety... – rackandboneman Jan 27 '16 at 10:51
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Hardly - pepper was exported from India before chillis were introduced. Some linguistic subgroups still use it in preference to chillis, and certain dishes use it in preference to (or in addition to) chillies.

Ginger's also native (or at least an early import) to India (and while not always used in 'traditional' cooking), I do believe that garlic and ginger were as well.

Many other spices - one of the cinnamon varieties, cardamom and quite a few other spices were native.

While fairly well known, chillis aren't essential to cooking.

Oddly enough, the 'source' I used to try to reverse engineer what are 'native' and what aren't is the traditional funeral anniversary or 'thevasam' menu. While essentially vegetarian, it would use mostly native produce and spices. You can find an example here, though specifics tend to differ with cultural groups or even families

  • How confident are you that the spices used on that menu weren't added at some point in the last 500-1000 years? That's plenty of time for them to become traditional. (I'm sure plenty of things are native, of course, just curious.) – Cascabel Jan 28 '16 at 18:33
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    Reasonably so, but not completely. My answer's entirely based off anecdotal/cultural knowledge, though a quick check on wiki confirms these are plausibly available reasonably far back. That said, we're pretty hidebound on things like this. If my mother was answering this, she'd probably back it up with references from classic tamil literature. I'd probably still consider this plausible. – Journeyman Geek Jan 28 '16 at 23:22
  • "While fairly well known, chillis aren't essential to cooking." - but how are you going to be a revolutionary? – rackandboneman Jan 18 '18 at 12:41
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The recipe 'thevasam' in the link is authentic ( but regional ) pre-columbian exchange cuisine, made with ingredients from species largely native to the indo-malayan ecoregion, and is pretty much reflective of Indian cuisine before the columbian exchange.

I study crop dispersal, as I had an agricultural background from South India.

Other heat giving ingredients would include Xanthoxylum spp. (timur) - relatives of sichuan pepper, long pepper, roasted garlic, ginger, mustard, cinnamon, cloves - all native or widespread in South and South-East Asia well before the columbian exchange.

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There are evidence of the use of chili pepper in Asia centuries before the Columbian Exchange.

The thirteenth century stone inscriptions from the Bagan period of Myanmar (formerly Burma) documented the use of chili pepper as either donation or payment towards the cost the construction of its many pagodas.

Farther to the east, Korean researchers (Yang et al., 2017) also concluded that it would be genetically impossible for Mexican chili (aji) to evolve into Korean red peppers just in the time frame in the historical misconceptions that “Red peppers (chilies) were introduced to the country through the Japanese invasions of 1592–1599.”

References:

  1. Myanmar Language Commission (2009). "Bagan Period". Sarkoe-Abidan: Myanmar Stone Inscriptions and Ink Writings. Yangon, Myanmar: Ministry of Education. pp. 61, 143.

  2. Tun Nyein (trans. & ed.) (1899). "Inscriptions of Pagan, No. (16). - Obverse". Inscriptions of Pagan, Pinya, and Ava: Translations, With Notes. Rangoon, Burma: Superintendent, Government Press. p. 114.

  3. Yang, Hye Jeong & Rhan Chung, Kyung & Young Kwon, Dae. (2017). DNA Sequence Analysis Tells the Truth of The Origin, Propagation and Evolution of Chili (Red Pepper). Journal of Ethnic Foods. 4. 10.1016/j.jef.2017.08.010.

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I asked myself this a lot about Thai food...what would that be without chillies? The best I can come up with is to look at the classical Chinese kitchen. They don't use chillies, but pepper, and they get the kick of salt and sugar instead of capsicum. So yes, my guess is that Indian food would have been made with the same spices...maybe not in the quantities they are used now, but it would be sweeter and saltier. But that is really just a guess...we don't even really know what European food was like in the middle ages for example....which is amazing when you think about it.

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India is rightly called the Land of Spices. From black pepper to sunth (dry ginger powder) there were a wide variety of spices for inducing heat in food. Indian traditional cooking, also called Paak Shaashtra that derived from Ayurveda (a traditional Indian medicinal system), mainly rely on balancing of tastes for developing better digestion.

It is based on 5 ras (flavours): sweet, bitter, acidic, salty & heat.

Ayurveda originated in about 2000 - 5000 BC (some consider it older), depicting use of chillies as painkillers and for relieving stress. Various chillies which are only cultivated in India are Bhoot Jholakia, Naag Jholakia, Boria Marcha, Bhavnagri Marcha, Surti Marcha, Lavingyaa Marchaa have found place in Ayurveda & Indian Cuisine from the oldest available reference. It is very unlikely that Vasco Dagama or Spaniards would have introduced chillies to India. Al-Biruni (a very famous Muslim scholar who lived in 937 AD to 1048 AD) recorded trade of chillies (no particular chilli species is quoted) by Indians in Egypt & Europe in his book Tarikh-Al-Hind (History of India).

Though Indian Cuisine is rich in variety of flavours with spices, facts say that it's unlikely to that Indian cuisine existed without chillies.

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    Although India is now the largest producer of capsicums in the world, the spread of capsicums through Indian cuisine in the late 1500s is well documented. The prevailing theory is that the were brought by Portuguese traders and then spread to the rest of Asia. Using search terms from your post, I can't find any reference at all to capsicums in India before 1500- especially in reference to Al-Biruni. – Sobachatina Jan 28 '16 at 18:25
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    Thanks for the answer! While I completely agree that nowadays it's hard to imagine Indian cuisine without chilies, claiming that they've always been there (that is, completely contradicting the OP) is going to require more proof than a claim that it was mentioned in Tarikh-Al-Hind. As far as I know, they were originally native only to the Americas. – Cascabel Jan 28 '16 at 18:28
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    Could you provide the actual quote you're talking about from Tarikh-Al-Hind? I found a copy online (volume one, volume two - the pdf versions are searchable) but can't find any reference to this. – Cascabel Jan 28 '16 at 18:47
  • This feels a lot like anecdotes and opinion @Vikram S. Parikh. Can you please provide links to documents which support your comments? – 5arx Sep 26 '17 at 15:50
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Sorry but the "prevailing theory of Portuguese and Columbus" carting chillie all the way to India and asia BUT (BUT) not eating it themselves seems odd to say the least.WHY else is chillie not used extensively in Portugal or Spanish cuisine??? I think Chillies left South America long before for Asia via a Pacific route taken by Asian traders, Polynesian traders and popularised before 1000 AD. Hottest Chillies are in North east India Bhoot Jalokia. Korean, Padang, Andhra, Szechuan food is Chillie Hot but Columbus' spain and Portugal are not chillie hot. Hungarian food is chillie hot too - was it left over by the Khans - i e Ghengis Khan ??

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    There really is no evidence polyponesian traders spanned the pacific all the way to the Americas. Genetic research debunked the idea a few years back showing there was no polyponesian genetics in endemic South American people as was once proposed. If there was trade going on, there there would be genetics left behind as well. It really is an insurmountable distance to travel by canoe or any seagoing vessel the polyponesians had. – Escoce Mar 31 '16 at 13:52
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    Europeans stopped eating spicy food when spices became cheap. npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/03/26/394339284/… – Devdas Apr 15 '16 at 19:07
  • @Devdas that's really neat, thanks for sharing! – Nat Bowman Jul 21 '17 at 15:29
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Chillies were cultivated and used for various dishes in Sri Lanka long before Christopher Columbus was born. I am sure Chilli Pepper existed in India during the same period. Many traditional Sri Lankan dishes contain chilli. And these are not the cuisine introduced by European invaders.

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    Do you have sources for that statement? Plus, we are looking at a time frame of 400 years, that's a lot of time for something to become "traditional". – Stephie Sep 19 '17 at 22:09
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    Interesting (and contentious) answer, but without evidence I cannot entertain it. – 5arx Sep 26 '17 at 15:49

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