The Greatest Indian Takeaway
- Author Anny Plummer
- Published September 25, 2021
- Word count 1,421
Taking away chow To Go, food bought ready to eat and take home, extends across delights sourced from many countries, not least of those is India. So, what do you reckon? Is Tandoori the greatest Indian takeaway? Or Biryani? Let’s stop this trivia; the zenith of Indian takeaways is more important than a bowl of chuck. Although forming a tiny item within meals, it’s one additive we digest every mealtime. I speak of pepper, which I will prove changed our world. Shriveled husks that became used as currency in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. These still serve as a means of payment, but their value has reduced. Anglophile legal systems employ the term peppercorn rent if the landlord doesn’t require a cash reward, like it’s for nothing! Believe me, the Indian takeaway of pepper was definitely NOT for nothing.
Peppercorns are the real thing. However, you should beware, as imposters use the same name. There are pink peppercorns from Madagascar as opposed to pink berries (but often also named pink peppercorns) from South America. Added to the list are Szechuan pepper, cayenne pepper, chili peppers, and capsicum peppers. But these are frauds that stole the word pepper. They have no link with real pepper’s rich history. Okay, a cousin called long pepper sometimes acted in the guise of genuine pepper. It comes from Northwest India, so it still formed part of the Indian takeaway. Although a poor substitute, traders sought it because the location was easier to access than true pepper. It’s found in Kerala on the South-West coast. A remote area where the takeaway of pepper, and I realize I repeat myself, was NOT for nothing.
Kerala has history. We aren’t talking about events while the American civil war raged. Oh no, and medieval castles were so fresh you should regard them as new-fangled ideas. You can think of the first athletic sports on Mount Olympus as being recent. So where are we? While we could look back even earlier, let’s settle for 10,000 years ago. Kerala is where humankind was a great success story. Peppercorns those ancient families foraged for sometimes became misplaced. Archaeologists now treat these as valuable finds. The remnants turn up in their upmarket cave dwellings. They coexist with examples of the earliest art worldwide. The artists were social animals who built dolmens, stone tombs. These artifacts show they had respect for their loved ones. That respect became care and care needed medicines. Hey ho, pepper was a healer of many ills.
Once they used pepper to cure ailments, other uses become obvious. For instance, they soon stumbled across the fact it does good things when mixed with food. As house-proud cave dwellers, they bragged their diet was superior to the guys next door. Then little by little the news spread. Despite the difficult terrain to cross, the commodity traveled beyond the shifting river deltas of Kerala. It became sought by buyers far from its origins. Small amounts of the magic dust hit the fledgling trade routes, including the Silk Road. Vendors sold this precious export to the wealthy wherever they could reach them. This presaged an uprising bigger and more profound than the Industrial Revolution - the Trade Revolution. Make no mistake, luxury goods drove a move to worldwide commerce, and pepper was the most opulent element within the dealers’ sales brochure.
High-value products can create enormous leaps in demand. Shifts often occur as hedonistic raiders grab extra land. They soon profit by finding tasty morsels to steal. So it was when the Sybaritic Romans snatched Egypt into their clutches. The spoils included the route taken by pepper to Europe. Before this, dealers discouraged visits to Kerala using myths of terrible demons. The new owners exposed the folklore as lies. After that, they marketed pepper. Then the requirement for supplies exploded. However, I repeat myself again, a takeaway of pepper was NOT for nothing and even without fiends, the transit involved human cost. To access vast loads, one part of the trip proved “easy”. Despite no Suez Canal, this was to cross Egypt (via the tip of Ethiopia). After that was a quick hop over the “safe” Mediterranean. The hard bit was crossing the Indian Ocean. There, local winds forced small cargo vessels to hug the shoreline. This took them within range of bloodthirsty pirates. The boss men centurions became pissed.
The sea change, literally, came from making use of the air currents driven by the monsoon seasons. A new class of boats, that seafarers regarded as superliners, scooted across the puddle forming the Indian Ocean in less than a month. The luxury of avoiding marauders added to the bonus of speedy journeys. One downside was larger ships became stuck in Kerala. Sailors waited for changed winds to blow them homeward bound. Then again, they brought loads of stuff to exchange. They traded their wares for pepper and other exotic morsels to include a smidgeon of malabathrum. So, time on their hands was useful. The Romans amongst them must have also valued the language learning. Their schools hadn’t taught them the dialects of Kerala alongside a first-grade curriculum of amo, amas, amat.
Rome didn’t fall in a day. Yet, its demise was sudden. Despite having led a far-reaching empire, the collapse followed shame. The decline began when Visigoth and later Attila the Hun holed up the residents up in their own city. Both pillagers demanded vast amounts of pepper within ransoms to lift their sieges. The disgrace meant orgies after Colosseum nights out ceased. Then, with the downfall of Rome, the trade route to Kerala gained new “owners”. After that, possession stayed in Islamic hands for a thousand years. But the passage they pursued still ended in, as we call it, Italy. Yes, Venice and Genoa remained their preferred journey’s end. These microstates stitched up supplies of pepper that were shipped to Europe and became wealthy on the proceeds.
Although riches made at others’ expense are useful while they last, boy oh boy do they lead to ill will. Portugal and Spain headed those who tried to curtail the leading axis. After all, they ruled the seas (didn’t they). So, hail the Superhero! Vasco da Gama sailed around Cape Horn, targeting Kerala’s back door for his share in the takeaway game. A quest fraught with danger so, I say anew it was NOT for nothing. But his maiden voyage let the genie escape from the bottle. Repeat trips sought to ensure Iberian pepper pots would always be full. The Spanish helped the Portuguese annex Kerala, and everyone else expected the duopoly to take over with ease. However, the invaders from Lisbon hadn’t reckoned on locals and the Islamic traders side-stepping their new masters. The old trade route remained unbroken. Soon, widespread defiance forced the colonizers to retire nursing bloody noses.
Further foreign powers sought control. They were the Dutch and British who tried to rule Kerala, but the Indian takeaway passed them by. Like the Portuguese, these raiders didn’t change the deals struck by local buyers and sellers. Yet, despite those intrepid traders, the world changed, and the Industrial Revolution overtook the explosion in commerce. It led to steam driven boats (making monsoon winds irrelevant), the Suez Canal and railways. These factors added to available trade routes. So many profit seekers cashed in. The price of pepper fell as more end points emerged. The old middlemen lost out big style.
Forget the transportation - how’s pepper faring today? This product accounts for 20% of the global value of imported spices. A wholesale market worth $5 billion US. You’d expect that’s enough to bring a smile to Keralan faces, wouldn’t you? In truth, they restrict their response to grinning as they supply only 10% of peppercorns. Others, led by Vietnam, have stolen their big idea. While googling Kerala will give you pages of travel ads, you’ll find no mention of pepper. Plenty of pictures of branched waterways (added to by canals). Now plied not by traders but houseboats for wealthy tourists. Despite the vanishing pepper trade, that tourism should produce ample dollars for the locals to prosper, shouldn’t it? Sad to say no. The biggest source of family incomes is wages sent from sons and daughters working in the middle east. The greatest Indian takeaway was just a takeaway. Merchants left behind little of the vast wealth they earned. For Keralites, the greatest Indian takeaway was for nothing.
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