Indian food without chili peppers?

I recently had Nando’s for the first time and went down a quick rabbit hole to learn more about peri-peri. I discovered that the African Bird’s Eye chili, also known as peri-peri, was introduced to Africa by the Portuguese in the 15th century. From there I learned the chili peppers are actually native to what was commonly known as the New World – or Mexico, Central, and South America.

Wait a minute. The Asian subcontinent hadn’t even heard of chili peppers, let alone taste them, until the late 15th century/early 16th century.

My mind was boggled. I’m an Indian woman with access to some of the most diverse Asian cuisines available outside of Asia itself. I grew up eating spicy food. In fact, a lot of Asian food (and Indian food) is synonymous with spice. All of the foods I consider a part of my culture include a chili powder or chopped serrano peppers.

Indian history begins at some point in the BCE and chili peppers don’t get introduced until centuries after. If Indians didn’t even know about chili peppers until the 15th century, was Indian food actually spicy? What exactly were my ancestors eating? What is truly considered Indian food?

Turns out that black and white pepper is native to India and generally speaking, Indian food prior to the introduction of chili peppers, relied on long, black, and white pepper to add spice in addition to ginger, garlic, cardamom, and star anise. I’d never heard of long pepper until writing about this and I’m not even sure I know how to use it but I’m intrigued.

I’m sure the many dishes of Indian cuisine have evolved over time and now I’m inspired to try making an Indian dish without using chili pepper. Will it taste similar? Will it still feel “Indian”?

I love history and I love food. It’s actually quite interesting to dive deeper into the origins of food and think about how colonization, world travels, and trade influenced cultural foods back then and how now, fusion food is a growing trend. Which makes me wonder…are there still any new ingredients out there or have we actually explored them all?

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