Foods contributed by the natives of Latin America have been very important in increasing and sustaining the world’s population. It is intriguing to consider these contributions and how the beneficiaries of these gifts throughout the world have utilized them in resourceful and ingenious ways.
Papaya is a sweet, fragrant fruit with a soft buttery texture called “fruit of the angels” by Columbus. Papaya was first grown in Central America and Mexico centuries before the Mesoamerican civilizations developed. The ripe fruit of papaya is typically eaten raw and the green papaya is cooked and eaten in curries and stews. Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought papayas to tropical lands all over the world. The Thai national dish called Som Tam is made from green papaya.
The peanut considered by cooks to be a nut is really a legume. Cultivated in South America for at least 7,000 years. The oldest specimens were found in Peru and date back 7,600 years. Peanuts were cultivated as far north as Central America. The Portuguese introduced the peanut to China where it became very popular. Now, China is the world’s largest producer of peanuts. Peanuts are delicious in Chinese dishes but where would we be without peanut butter?
The pineapple originates from South America between southern Brazil and Paraguay. Columbus encountered pineapples on his second voyage where he and his sailors consumed them voraciously. At that time Europe had very few sweets so when Columbus returned with pineapple whose ripe yellow pulp burst with sweetness when eaten it was well-celebrated. For two hundred years the pineapple remained an uncommon and coveted delicacy.
The potato was first cultivated in the area of northwester Bolivia and southern Peru between 8000 and 5000 BC. The Spanish introduced the potato to Europe following their conquest of the Inca Empire. Historical research conservatively estimates that the potato was responsible for a fourth of the growth in European population between 1700 and 1900. They believe that the potato brought an end to European famine. Feeding the quickly expanding populations, the potato allowed a few European nations to uphold authority over most of the rest of the world between 1750 and 1950. The European and North American espousal of the potato laid the framework for modern agriculture. Along with the potato crossing the Atlantic came the world’s first good fertilizer, Peruvian guano.
Squash and pumpkin were found growing in Argentina near the Andes and in some Andean valleys at the time of the Spanish conquest. Some squash species were also found in Mexico and Central America. Squash was a major food source for the original Americans who ate the flowers, seeds, as well as the flesh. The earliest record of squash dates back to 1591.
Tomatoes originated in the South American Andes and Native Americans of Mexico were the first to cook with tomato. In its natural habitat the tomato plant is a perennial but is grown as an annual in other parts of the world. It was once thought to be poisonous as it is a member of the noxious nightshade family. The tomato can be eaten raw, as an ingredient in dishes, sauces, salads and drinks. The Italians made great use of the tomato giving us marinara sauce and pizza.
Tapioca is a starch extracted from the cassava root also known as yucca, manioc, and mandioca. The plant originated in northern Brazil and was spread over the world by Spanish and Portuguese sailors. The root is cooked before eating and is similar to a fibrous potato. In tropical areas the world over the cassava roots are a source of carbohydrates. Tapioca is used as a thickening agent all over the world. Tapioca is produced as flour and as pearls. The pearls are used in Boba or bubble tea. In Brazil the cassava flour is used to make a flatbread that is toasted and eaten with butter or with many other salty or sweet toppings. Tapioca is used all over to make many variations of a cheese bun.
Vanilla originated in the tropical forests of Mesoamerica around 1000 AD. It is extracted as a flavoring from the long thin pods of the orchid genus Vanilla. Originally used by the Native Americans of Mexico as a flavoring for a warm chocolate drink, it has since become the world’s favorite flavor. When vanilla was first exported it did not grow outside its native land. It was learned that without the native species of bee called Melipona it would not pollinate. In 1841 a twelve year old French slave in Madagascar discovered that the orchid plant could be hand pollinated. Madagascar has since become the world’s largest producer of vanilla. Vanilla was instrumental in the success of European confections and French perfume as well as hastening trade routes all over the world.
We would be a smaller, hungrier world without the culinary contributions of the natives of Latin America.