Article Women & Money

From South America to the rest of the world - dinner!

Tomatoes, potatoes and chilli peppers - Mandy Gardner looks at how different our cuisines would be if explorers hadn't brought these foods back with them from South America

In 14th-century Italy, the supper table boasted a leg of boiled mutton, carefully crafted rice-flour pasta, barley polenta, sausage, cheese and perhaps an early form of pizza pie topped with eel. The variety of cheeses at citizens’ disposal was richly varied and regional, while eggs were commonly used for making frittatas and omelettes. Olive oil was then, as now, the most popular form of cooking fat when it came to frying vegetables, marinating or preserving meats and fish and dressing fresh salads.

In London? The international city had access to exotic foodstuffs from all over Europe and the Near East, which meant that French and Italian wines as well as Ottoman and Byzantine saffron, cloves, ginger, cinnamon and galangal graced the plates of city-dwellers of all classes. Spanish cane sugar was mixed into sour and spicy sauces to delight medieval palates that were decidedly different from those of modern Londoners.

Before regular trade routes were established between the Old World and the New World, dinner time was a different creature from what it is today. Most European dinner tables featured boiled or roasted beef, pork, mutton, lamb, veal or fish. Wine, rich mead, grainy rye breads and simple homemade cheeses made up the rest of the diet, which was punctuated with available fruits, herbs and spices only as the season permitted. It may sound similar enough to the meals you recognise today, but what is Ireland without the potato? Italy without the tomato? India without hot peppers? The world without chocolate?

The real question is, how different would cuisine be, from Ulster to Mumbai, if the vast variety of South America’s foods had never been discovered?


“Watching Italians eat… is a form of tourism the books don’t tell you about. They close their eyes, raise their eyebrows into accent marks and make sounds of acute appreciation. It’s fairly sexy.” (Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life)

Before France was considered the master kitchen of the western world, Italy held that revered post. In a time before marinara sauce, chilli oil and bruschetta, Italian chefs were no less ingenious in their culinary exploits than they are today. Here’s a recipe for stuffed, inside-out fish translated from The Medieval Kitchen:

To stuff anchovies or sardines, put them in hot water after having removed the heads and bones so that they are open along the back. Then grind marjoram, rosemary, sage, good spices, saffron and the flesh of a few fish. Fill the anchovies or sardines with this stuffing so that the skin is next to the stuffing and the outside in. Then fry them in oil. They may be eaten with lemon juice.

The average medieval Italian cottage relied on its hearth as a space for cooking in a variety of ways. A kettle and rotisserie filled the fireplace and allowed meal preparers to create rich stews, soups and roasted meats. To bake bread, a rustic, brown, grainy dough would be placed directly into the fire inside a cooking pot. The kitchens of the nobility were hardly more complex, with a sturdy-legged pot in place of the smaller, cottage-style kettle.

In terms of food storage, the Italians made use of several rudimentary techniques such as “drying, salting, smoking and pickling”. Prepared and unprepared foods were stored in clay pots and jars, but perhaps the most innovative form of food preservation by medieval Italians was dried pasta, which could be stored for long periods in dry conditions without turning sour.

Once South American ingredients made their way into Italy, classic dishes such as lasagne, formerly made with layered pasta, cheese and spices, truly found their footing. Though initially considered poisonous because of an unfortunate pairing with lead-bearing pewter dishware, and for its resemblance to nightshade, taste for the tomato eventually caught on.

Although pizza wouldn’t be invented until the 19th century, it’s obvious that the more adventurous Italian home cooks and chefs had no problem frying up and eating the fruits that dangled from their “decorative” tomato plants and using them in sauces. In 1693, the first published recipe for basic marinara sauce appeared in Lo Scalco Alla Moderna; the application of these simple cooking instructions has changed Italian cuisine fundamentally. Pizza, pasta, bread plates, antipasto and, of course, the much-loved lasagne, finally gained that zesty kick that no one knew they were missing.

Of course, as integral as the tomato is to modern Italian cooking, it wasn’t the only South American ingredient that gained a strong foothold in the Old World. Maize, squash and chillies provided cooks with the inspiration and flavours they needed to overcome their dependence on boiled and roasted meats. In the next centuries, dishes such as polenta, honey-roasted squash and salads with grilled bell peppers changed the primary focus of mealtime from mutton, lamb, pork or fish to a healthier mix of meats, vegetables and pasta.

The United Kingdom

“There is a vast difference in the potency of the individual spices as imported up to around the late 19th century, and those which we use today. The former were stored and shipped in poor conditions for several months at the least, usually being adulterated on the way, while the latter now arrive pure and at full strength. Anyone who has had their face totally anaesthetised by a single slice of ‘Georgian gingerbread’ baked with the original quantity of cloves fully appreciates this fact.” (Peter Brears, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England

Cuisine from the British Isles during the Middle Ages is usually mentioned in passing as more of a joke than a real piece of culinary history. Although ancient recipes may not appeal to the modern palette, the truth is that the medieval British had access to some great ingredients. Fish and seafood were abundant, which made recipes like the following, Oysters in Gravy, quite popular.

Shell the oysters and boil them in wine and in their own broth. Strain the broth through a cloth. Take blanched almonds, grind them and draw them up with the broth and bind it with rice flour and put the oysters therein, cast in powdered ginger, sugar and mace. Boil this not too thickly and serve it forth.

The most valuable piece of literary evidence of the culinary habits of the medieval residents of the British Isles is the 14th century recipe book, Forme of Cury. Though neither quantities nor temperatures and cooking times are indicated, this ancient tome gives us insight into the ingredients and methods used in medieval British cooking. Like most of Europe’s peasantry, Britons relied on kettles, warm stones in the hearth and precious few dishes and clay cooking pots to prepare their meals.

Two of the most iconic utensils of the time were the mortar and pestle, as these allowed cooks to grind spices and turn solid foods into pastes. As 14th-century Britons were fairly obsessed with balancing their humours, paste was an integral part of most meals.

According to Greek philosophy, there are four humours in our world: water, air, earth and fire. From Henry VIII’s court right down into the villages and farms of England, Scotland and Ireland’s countryside, these humours were considered the most important aspect of medicine and cuisine. As the king’s physicians treated his various maladies with plasters and pastes designed to balance his moist, dry, warm or cold humours, so his cooks balanced their ornate recipes. Pastes and oils heavy in spices were further thickened with pieces of rye bread, while almonds were a staple no household wanted to go without.

Potatoes would replace a variety of ingredients in medieval British cooking, perhaps foremost the ubiquitous almond. Unfortunately they took a little while to catch on, given that Queen Elizabeth I’s cooks mistakenly prepared the leaves and stems in an introductory banquet instead of the tubers. The toxic dishes made royal guests ill, and did nothing to advance the potato into European menus. The queen promptly banned the offensive vegetable from her court. However, it did eventually gain tremendous footing across modern Britain and Ireland once New World explorers explained how the plant really worked.

Soon, the humble potato salad emerged and a version of it would persevere for more than 500 years. To make the original salad, chunks of the tuber were boiled in wine or a combination of water and vinegar. Individual households mixed these softened potato pieces with various cooked vegetables, including onions and leeks. True to their culinary times, they spiced the potatoes liberally in a variety of imported flavours such as cinnamon and cloves.

Other South American produce, including tomatoes, chilli peppers and corn, would have an impact on the British Isles over the next few centuries, primarily through the influence of international cuisine from the Italians and the French.


“A pot was filled with meat and spices. A tightly fitting lid was sealed with chapati dough. Next the sealed pot was surrounded with hot coals, buried in the sand and left undisturbed to cook for a few hours. The magical moment came when the lid was opened in front of the diners, releasing all those captured fragrances.” (Pat Chapman, India Food and Cooking: The Ultimate Book on Indian Cuisine

Indian cuisine is an intense mixture of indigenous herbs and spices, refined dairy products, pulses, fruits, vegetables and varied breads. Cardamom, basil, cinnamon, pepper and possibly lemon are the region’s native ingredients. However, many of the vegetables and flavours we recognise in Indian cooking today had not been developed in the 14th century. Produce from the New World was woven so quickly and inextricably into Indian cuisine that discovering the roots of modern recipes is a formidable task now. Basic cooking techniques remain the same, however, as do many simple formulas like this one for a sattu beverage.

Take a tablespoon of [gram flour] and one-and-a-half tablespoons of sugar in a glass. Make a smooth paste first, adding a little water, to avoid lumps. Now, fill the glass with chilled water, add salt and the juice of half a lemon. Your sattu sharbat is ready.

The culture and cuisine of medieval Bharat (known primarily as India today) were influenced heavily by the Persian Empire. Readily available produce such as garlic, mustard, ginger, cumin, coriander and cloves from the Mediterranean and western Asia transformed wheat, barley and rice from local crops into truly unique, flavourful and compelling dishes. Steaming meats such as pork, beef, mutton and goat together with a mixture of strong spices in a sealed pot, buried in the ground, was common. Roasting over an open fire, or stewing within cauldrons were also good options for food preparation. Drying and pickling were the preferred methods of food preservation.

Early Indian cooks did indeed incorporate meat regularly into their dishes before Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim beliefs transformed culinary behaviour. To accompany these steamed or roasted meats – of which chicken was an available but unpopular option – Indian cooks created spiced fruit chutneys, chapatis, naan and steamed rice dumplings.

The influx of chilli peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and sweet potatoes into India during and after the 16th century revolutionised an already flamboyant and boisterous cuisine. Not only did these hearty vegetables provide bulk and nourishment to ease the minds of a burgeoning vegetarian population, but they melded perfectly with existing flavours to create an even more sensational culinary experience.

Chilli peppers became so popular throughout India that they are now virtually synonymous with the country’s cuisine. Habañeros, bell peppers, cayenne and many other hot chillis from Mexico, Brazil and other Latin American countries were incorporated into everything from mango chutney to goat stew. Tomatoes were turned into spicy pastes and used as the basis for pseudo-modern dishes such as tadka. Sweet potatoes found a comfortable place within savoury stews like chilakada dumpa pulusu, which is spiced with cumin, coriander and tamarind.

As religious beliefs spread through India condemning the slaughter and abuse of animals, these hearty South American ingredients would help cooks throughout the country feed their families plenty of energy-rich carbohydrates and dishes with well-balanced, intense flavours.

And beyond

South America’s culinary influence doesn’t end in Europe and western Asia by any means. Cocoa is sold in virtually every country in the world; peanuts have become a go-to ingredient in China; sweet potatoes are a sumptuous addition to tempura in Japan. Everywhere we look, expanded trade routes over the last 500 years have changed the way regional cultures think about and prepare their food.

The next time you eat a French fry, slice up tomatoes for a garden salad, or savour some sweet and velvety squash enveloped in a finely crafted piece of ravioli, stop and think what you may be eating had the New World never existed!

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