Rarawit

Mijn favoriete boek over chilli-pepers is The Pepper Trail van Jean Andrews (a.k.a. The Pepper Lady). Andrews’ belezenheid is ontzagwekkend, en ze schrijft vermakelijk. Haar feitenkennis lardeert ze met sappige quotes, anekdotes en one-liners.
Neem bijvoorbeeld deze: 

Your problem in the kitchen or market will be in distinguishing one capsicum annuum var. annuum cultivar from another. (TPL, 52)

De chillies en paprika’s in de supermarkt zijn weliswaar allemaal anders van vorm en kleur – maar het zijn allemaal varianten van capsicum annuum. Een ontnuchterend besef voor de chilli-pedant die zich een hoofdstuk lang heeft verlekkerd aan exoten als capsicum baccatum var. pendulum, c. chinense en c. pubescens en in het groentevak een lezing hoopt kunnen geven voor een publiek van vers-medewerkers. 

Maak je geen illusies, zegt Andrews, hoe gek het er ook uitziet, het is waarschijnlijk een annuum. De commerciële telers telen niks anders.

Andrews schreef dat in 1999. Intussen lijkt het aanbod wel iets groter geworden. Bij mijn Turkse groenteboer krijg ik naast de huis-tuin-en-keuken-Spaanse pepers (annuum) ook adjuma’s (c. chinense; met een bordje ‘Madame jeanette’). 

Toch: 1999 is nog niet zo lang geleden. Mijn vrouw vond bij de Albert Heijn een doosje ‘rawits’. Rawit (lombok rawit of cabé rawit, om volledig te zijn; capsicum frutescens (TPL, 80)) is Indonesisch voor een bepaald type chilli: klein, nauw en spits.

Met dat ‘rawit’ op het doosje hoopt AH zich te presenteren als een autoriteit op het snijvlak van eten, geschiedenis en ‘authentieke’ keukens: ook voor de exotische ingrediënten hoef je niet meer naar de toko of specialistische groenteboer, willen ze dat je denkt.

Maar ik geloofde helemaal niets van dat ‘rawit’ op dat doosje: 

  • Rawits zoals ik ze ken hebben geen schouder, om het zo maar eens uit te drukken: ze dijen niet uit van onder hun groene hoedje, terwijl normale Spaanse pepers dat wel doen. 
  • Ook van binnen wijkt de AH-rawit af. Er zit erg veel lucht rondom de zaadjes en zaadlijsten, en het vruchtvlees is dikker.
  • Mogelijk verklaart dat vruchtvlees ook de smaak van de AH-rawit, die meer is als van een Spaanse peper: meer zoetig-bittere smaak, echt als een paprika of besje. De smaak van de rawits is veel bitterder (als de witte draadjes aan de binnenkant van een sinasappel; niet zo raar gezien de verhouding vruchtvlees-zaadlijst: meer zaadlijst is meer bitterheid). 
  • Tenslotte zijn de AH-rawits veel minder pittig, en dan vooral pittig in je keel, als Spaanse pepers. De rawits in mijn herinnering voelden alsof er iemand met een paperclip over de zijkant van je tong ging: een zigzaggende prikkel, alsof je kleine letters z eet. De pittigheid is eerder een ervaring dan een smaak. 

  
Deze AH-rawits (midden) leken niet op de rawits van mijn groenteboer (links). Ze leken een soort miniatuur-Spaanse pepers (rechts Spaanse pepers). 

Ik vermoedde bedrog: dit konden geen rawits zijn – maar dacht toen aan Andrews’ quote. Andrews zei dat over “distuingishing one variety of capsicum annuum var. annuum from another” natuurlijk niet voor niets. 

Vorm en smaak zijn geen argument: de gewone H.T.K.-Spaanse peper en de paprika zijn allebei capsicum annuum var. annuum. Aan de buitenkant kun je niet zien wat het is. Volgens Andrews kunnen we de soort alleen aflezen aan de bloemen: 

The only way you can reliably differentiate between the various Capsicum species is by the corolla and its calyx (the flower) and not the fruit (TPT, 52) 

De bloemen van annuum zijn melkwit, die van frutescens groenig wit. 

Het zou dus best kunnen dat dit rawits zijn. Wie ben ik om te zeggen dat deze rawit echt geen frutescens is?  En hoe weet ik eigenlijk zo zeker dat rawits frutescens zijn? 

Alleen plantjes opkweken uit de zaadjes van zowel de groenteboer-rawit en de AH-rarawit zou dit raadsel definitief kunnen beslechten. Een leuk project, maar ik heb al eens chillies gekweekt, en dat heeft nogal wat voeten in de aarde. Ik denk dat ik met de onzekerheid kan leven. 

Maar voor m’n exotische ingrediënten ga ik gewoon naar de gespecialiseerde groenteboer. 

Volgende keer: verwarring over chili’s in de wetenschappelijke literatuur

Rarawit

Gravy to my ears

aoycynznbopg0

It’s not fair, but any thought-provoking cookery will be appreciated for its sensory delight, first. Any thought provoked by food is usually literally only an afterthought. I might love the rawness, the honesty of your fish taco – but if it’s too salty, who cares about your bravery?

Flavor trumps thought. I know a lot of people who have considered becoming vegetarians, but simply can’t give the wonderful taste of meat.

An essay in croutons and celery

That’s probably also why, in so far as food can fill us with ideas, that capacity is sorely underutilized. You might cook up an essay in croutons and celery, but how many people’d appreciate it as an essay first, and a salad second?

Thinking food and thinking about food are rare. So when I do stumble on some sort of food-related philosophy, I cherish it.

My favorite podcast Gravy (iTunes) is something to cherish. Host Tina Antolini and the Gravy team use food and cooking as a way to explore the history, ideas, logistics, economies and communities underlying our society. The show refuses to reinforce any stereotypes about food, and it doesn’t play into any authenticity myth (the concept is well explained here).

In Gravy, food and cooking are ways to better understand ourselves, our ambitions and priorities.

Uncomfortable food

For example, in the episode ‘Sweet, Sour, Bitter Salty’, the show criticizes the easy idea of food as a sweet escape, a comfort. Instead, it presents a number of stories about food at its most horrible.

One person reflects on a menu brought by her grandparents from an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, another on the medical history of a father subsisting almost entirely – against his better judgement – on junk food. Through these stories about uncomfortable food, Gravy tells us something new about the human condition.

Other favorite episodes of Gravy

Gravy to my ears

‘The Columbian Exchange’: short version

columbus

If we want to understand how pinda become the word for peanut in the Low Countries, we need to know a little bit of history first.

You say ‘tomato’, I say ‘what?’

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when peanuts were only eaten in South America. As was a lot of other produce, like tomatoes, potatoes, chillies, maize, vanilla, and guinea pigs. (Actually, guinea pigs are still mostly only eaten in South America – although I’m seriously thinking about changing that shortly.) At the same time, limes, cilantro, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and other products were only known to Asians, Arabs, East-Africans, and, to lesser degrees, Europeans and West-Africans.

So what did Italians eat before the discovery of tomatoes? How did Bolivians make proto-seviche without limes or lemons? How did Koreans make kim chi without chillies? I know, right?! – We’ll get into that later on.

Why Columbus?

There is some evidence of – mostly incidental – contact between the two hemispheres before Columbus. But only with Columbus’ travels started a revolutionary process that changed the entire world.

That’s because Columbus got his funding from the Spanish, and the Spanish were highly motivated to find new sea routes, and well-equipped to travel long distances over the ocean, all in the interest of trade. That’s because the Pope had just awarded the then best sales leads and travel routes to their arch-rival Portugal with the Treaty of Alcáçova. That treaty held that the Spanish were barred from navigating and trading on the West-African coast unless they paid the Portuguese.

What Exchange?

If the Spanish couldn’t reach the Eastern spice markets via the West-African coast, maybe they could by sailing West. Which is why the Spanish funded Columbus.

And their plan worked out, sort of: they didn’t exactly find a new route to the East, but they did find new markets and new merchandise. That’s why, immediately after Columbus’ first journey, crops, livestock, ideas, horrible illnesses, and people – most of them slaves, at least until the early 1800s – started to travel the globe, for good and bad.

This global revolution is called the Columbian Exchange, after the eponymous book by Alfred Crosby, jr. I’m planning on reading that book with you first thing – got my library card for the University of Amsterdam library this week and all – but in the mean time,  here’s Crash Course‘ John Green explaining the gist of it.

‘The Columbian Exchange’: short version

Spicy bean, or About the title of this blog

When I was a boy scout – or rather an adolescent scout, about age 14 – our troop had a number of ordained snacks, food stuffs that were part of our identity, part of our group myth. Kacang pedis was one of those snacks.

Kacang is Indonesian for bean/nut, and pedis means hot or spicy. Spicy nuts, spiced beans: kacang pedis are peanuts covered in a sort of doughy spicy mixture, and then fried. Also, in the Dutch East Indies, kacang could mean ‘mischievous boy’ (also used as a slur for Indonesians). Ill-tempered, mischievous, with a loud crunch: a rather fitting snack for a group of barely supervised teenagers. (Barely supervised, indeed: we were introduced to kacang pedis by one of our troop leaders, who praised them as the ultimate companion to a cold Grolsch. Welcome to the Netherlands in the nineties.)

We didn’t eat just any brand of kacang pedis, either. I can’t remember whether we only ate Jack Klijn brand, and reviled the off-brand nuts from some super market chain, or the other way around – but there were rules, trust me. Not that we wouldn’t finish a open bag if it turned out to be af the wrong brand; we weren’t zealots. (Though there is a brand of droge worst, dried sausage, I still won’t touch after all these years.) Combined with the beer katjang pedis made for a very adult snack, I felt, testing both our liquor-holding capabilities and our tolerance of spicy foods. A pretty mild way to be stupid teenagers.

I have odd memories of kacang pedis, and it has seen me on some strange nights. But the dish also has a strange history, as I would learn years later, in 2014, when I developed an interest in chili peppers, simultaneously growing them and reading about their history. Peanuts, like chili’s, were originally domesticated in the Andes – so how did they show up in Indonesia? And how does a recipe defined by the use of 2 South American ingredients become a sort of national Indonesian snack?

Food does strange things – to us, and to our history. I want to investigate the influence of food, and especially taste and cuisine, on history, big and small. Hence the title of this blog: Kacang Pedis. Because the dish is at the same time intensely personal for me, and at the same time points to a really interesting (and often heartbreaking) part of human history.

Spicy bean, or About the title of this blog

Pinda’s, or What is this blog about?

arachis_hypogaea_-_kc3b6hlere28093s_medizinal-pflanzen-163

This blog is meant as an exploration of the origins of the Dutch word ‘pinda’ (for peanut, Arachis hypogaea), and the circumstances that led to the adoption of that word.  Or in other words:

Why do the Dutch call peanuts pinda’s?

A seemlingly straightforward question.

In Dutch, the word for peanut is ‘pinda’. There are synonyms, like ‘apenoot’ (monkey nut) or ‘aardnoot’ (earth nut), but you’ll sound terribly archaic if you use them.
That we Dutch should use ‘pinda’ is somewhat unexpected. The peanut plant was first cultivated in  South America.

And sure enough, other European languages based their word for peanut on the Aztec language Nahuatl: for example, the French word ‘cacahuète’ and Spanish ‘cacahuate’ are derived from the Nahuatl word ‘cacahuatl’. (Actually,  ‘cacahuatl’ was the word for cocoa. Tlalcacahuatl was the word for peanut, but it basically means ‘ground cocoa’, with modifier ‘tlal’ for ground.) Yet, the Dutch word ‘pinda’ derives from words in the Bantu languages [links to a Dutch language site], like ‘mpinda’ and ‘mbenda’ (for ‘burrowing’ or ‘penetrating [the earth]’).

In English, for some reason, the word ‘peanut’ won out, although synonyms still exist (ground nut, goober). The word peanut is interesting in itself, because it doesn’t reference the main meme in peanut-naming history: the underground part (ground nut, aardnoot, mpinda, tlalcacahuatl). Instead, some English sailor or trader went with a kind of double simile neologism: “So we tasted this new thing, and it is, uh, kind of like a pea [being a husk containing seeds], but the peas were hard, like nuts.”

…It’d be interesting to see if I could find the first reference to peanuts in the English language…

A first attempt at an answer

Anyway, the question was: why do the Dutch use the Bantu-derived pinda? Of course, when you think about it a little longer, the answer that comes to mind is obvious and sad. The Dutch learned about peanuts from the West African, Bantu speaking slaves they brought to the West Indies. Actually, another archaic synonym for peanut reminds us of that heritage: ‘Curaçaose amandelen’, Curaçao almonds.

Though that immediately raises another question: if peanuts originally herald from South America, how did they end up in West Africa? (Trade, sure, but with whom?)

And also: that other Dutch colony, Indonesia, had its own word for pinda’s too, katjang or kacang tanah. (We’ll get into the title of this blog another time. Suffice to say that ‘pedis’ is the Malay word for hot, spicy.) Was kacang ever a popular word for peanut in the Dutch language, and if so, why did it lose out to pinda?

To confound matters, and make them even sadder, pinda is also a derogotary term for someone from Indonesia or with Indonesian or even just South East Asian ancestors. How did a West African word for a South American legume end up as a racial slur for South East Asians?

That’s what this blog is about

As you can see, ‘Why do the Dutch call peanuts pinda’s’ is tied up with a number of interesting subjects:

  • Politics, language, philosophy
  • History of colonialism, of botany, of trade, and the concept of authenticity
  • Agricultural and cooking traditions, culinary memories and perhaps even recipes

This blog is intended as a log of what I’ve learned while digging into questions surrounding our food culture, rather than as an actual attempt to answer any questions.

Pinda’s, or What is this blog about?