Spicing, healing and changing the course of history.
Food Culture is a blog series with stories that sketch broader context for various cultural practices and artefacts in our collection.
Finding peppercorns in the nostrils of mummified Ramses II (c. 1303-1213 BC), king of Egypt, is illuminating. It tells us about their use in preserving meat as well as transcontinental trade in antiquity. Conserving quality aroused the demand for pepper from far away India.
But there is more. Pepper is used to regulate the digestion and to relieve gas, to treat cholera, dysentery, stomach chills, food poisoning and vomiting. Pepper is antifungal, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. At different times and places (according to DigHerbs) ‘it was used to treat constipation, earache, gangrene, heart disease, hernia, indigestion, insomnia, insect bites, hoarseness, joint pain, liver problems, lung disease, sunburn, mouth abscesses and diarrhoea.’ It was also used for nasal congestion, skin problems, epilepsy, muscle aches, rheumatic pain and fever. Pepper has analgesic, antiseptic, diuretic and insecticidal properties!
Pepper - a vine native to South and Southeast Asia, made its way to ancient China and Mesopotamia, to north Africa, the Near East and to Europe. Pepper is not only the most popular spice in European culinary tradition but its import, circulation and semi-currency status was inextricably involved in the origin of capitalism – the same devil we still suffer from today on a global scale. The humble Piper nigrum was a major contributor to the success of the Venetian merchant empire, as well as Portuguese and Spanish maritime discoveries and colonial follies.
In 1770, while in Batavia (now Jakarta) during James Cook’s first momentous voyage, Joseph Banks asserted that among spices only pepper was native to the Island of Java and a large quantity of it was annually exported to Europe – he says – and 'little or none is used in this part of Indies; Capsicum or Cayan pepper as it is called in Europe has almost totally supplanted its place.' Banks nominate boiled rice as the principal part of sustenance 'with a small proportion of fish, Buffaloe or fowl, and sometimes dried fish and dry shrimps brought here from China, … everything however must be highly seasoned with Cayan pepper.'
Cayan pepper, or chili as we know it, native to Central and South America, was of course introduced to Southeast Asia by the Portuguese and possibly Spanish in the 16th century. And chili became an indispensable ingredient of Asian cuisine. But the use of Piper nigrum returned to Indonesian and Asian kitchens and, together with chili, makes dishes more variable and generously seasoned.
BCE or BC – means Before Common Era, and indicates the years counted back from the first year of the Western Calendar. For example, in 30 BCE Rome conquered Egypt and Cleopatra took her own life.