Saudi Aramco World: March/April 2014 - page 5

March/April 2014
Hungary and much of Africa and the Middle East would be
radically different from what they are today if chiles hadn’t
returned across the ocean with Columbus. Barely 50 years
after the discovery of the New World, chiles were warming
much of the Old World. How did they spread so far, so fast?
The answers may surprise you—they did me!
I learned
that Mamluk and Ottoman Muslims were nearly
as responsible for the discovery of New World peppers as
Columbus—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The global pepper saga begins in the first millennium
with the combustible career of another pepper—black
pepper (
Piper nigrum
and its cousins, Indian long pepper and
Javanese cubeb. Although
Piper nigrum
was first grown on the
Malabar Coast in India, the taste for it enflamed the ancient
world: No matter what the cost—and it was very high—people
were mad for pepper. The Romans, for example, first tasted
it in Egypt, and the demand for it drove them to sail to India
to buy it. In the first century, Pliny complained about the cost:
“There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman
Empire of fifty million sesterces.”
In one sense, the whole global system of trade—
the sea and land routes throughout the known
world that spread culture and cuisine through
commerce—was engaged with the appetite for
pepper, in its growth, distribution and consumption.
Not surprisingly, vast wealth came from the
control of access to black pepper. India held the
secrets of its cultivation and was the sole supplier;
Far left:
This sketch
of the coast of “La
Española” is attributed
to Columbus’s own
hand, from his first
voyage. He also
recorded that, in
response to being
shown samples of
black pepper, locals
guided him and his
crew to abundant
allspice berries,
shown dried
at left.
Typical of culinary transformations brought on by Old
World trade in New World capsicum chiles were the
changes to the simple, classic lamb sausage of North
Africa and the Middle East called
While a 13th-century recipe spiced it warmly with black
pepper, cinnamon and coriander, today merguez
is defined by the brash heat of dried capsicums and is
enjoyed from New York to Hong Kong.
At, author Deana Sidney
presents one home recipe each for pre- and post-capsicum
merguez—and then takes a video tour of today's merguez
makers and fans in New York City.
Find recipes at
Merguez and the
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