Australian Functional Ingredients – by Vic Cherikoff

Chili peppers, wattleseed and ancient cultures

Here’s something indirectly related to Australian food which amazes me. I often refer to the creation of a unique Australian food style using the food resources of Australian Aborigines as a modern trend of using the newest ingredients from the oldest living culture on Earth.

However, most of the world, including the majority of Australians fail to appreciate the length of time our indigenous Australian foods have been consumed; their rising global significance and unfolding potential. Maybe it’s just me but the number of enquiries I get from around the world for restaurant consultancies is impressive and the number of new Australian food outlets opening globally is increasing at a phenomenal rate.

But there’s much excitement in the USA about a hot, new discovery (I feel like saying ho-hum – but I won’t): archaeologists have traced what they believe is evidence of the first home-grown chili peppers, used in South America (a mere) 6,100 years ago.

It was people in tropical, lowland areas of what is now western Ecuador who first spiced up their cuisine with chili peppers, not those from higher, drier Mexico and Peru as was previously assumed, said Scott Raymond, a University of Calgary archaeologist.

His team, led by Linda Perry, researcher with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, made the finding by analyzing starch microfossils from grinding stones and charred ceramic cookware recovered from seven sites in the Americas. Their report is published in the journal, Science.

“What’s very satisfying about this evidence is that it comes from residues on pottery, so the association of these crops of chili peppers with food, with the pots and with the dates is all very tight,” he said. “We can, without any kind of reasonable doubt, argue that these plants were there at that time.”

The chili pepper species cultivated in the villages—the earliest known settlements in the Western Hemisphere—grew naturally only to the east of the Andes. That means that the people in the villages of the tropical region transported them across the mountains to grow them, Raymond said.

Results from the Canadian-U.S.-Venezuelan project yielded evidence that chili peppers were farmed in the region more than 1,000 years before the plants were cultivated in Peru or Mexico, Raymond said.

In fact, the work shows that chili peppers are among the oldest domesticated foods in the hemisphere, said Deborah Pearsall, a University of Missouri-Columbia anthropologist.

The team took to analyzing starch grains because chili peppers are not well preserved after being cooked—most of them get eaten and there are no husks or shells left over, Pearsall said.
It is not known yet if chili peppers were used only as a condiment for the culture’s diet of maize, beans and yams, or if they were also grown for medicinal purposes, Raymond said.

The above came from an article by Jeffrey Jones and was based on a story in Yahoo News.

To put this into perspective, Aboriginal Australian food goes back 7 times longer than the agriculture of chili peppers in South America. OK. To be fair, wattle seeds and a bunch of other Australian foods have only been used for about as long as cultivated chili peppers and the Wattleseed product I created as a flavoring has only had a life of some 23 years.

Nevertheless, why is there not more research into our own home-grown Australian food and why do we cling to ‘Mediterrasian’ cuisine and pass this off as Australian? It’s beyond me.

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Vic Cherikoff