The history of new foods in India

Konnichiwa, Varshney-san. Your post on the potato inspired me to read the papers you mentioned as well as a reference suggested by a friend here in Chicago:

Sucheta Mazumdar, “The Impact of New World Food Crops on the Diet and Economy of China and India, ca. 1600-1900.” Food in Global History. Ed. Raymond Grew. Westview Press, 1999. 58-78.

The Columbian Exchange refers to the interchange of foodstuffs, technologies, and disease after European contact with the Americas. In exchange for offering pestilence, brutal colonialism, and genocide, Europeans got a variety of staple crops with which they could support their burgeoning populations and which would later sustain the Industrial Revolution:

The exchange introduced a wide range of new calorically rich staple crops to the Old World—namely potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava. The primary benefifit of the New World staples was that they could be grown in Old World climates that were unsuitable for the cultivation of Old World staples. (Nunn and Qian)

In addition, the discovery of quinine in the Andes enabled Europeans to invade and colonize tropical regions. In addition to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this expansion introduced the widespread planting of cash crops such as rubber in Africa. Being an economics paper, there are some sobering quantitative measures to drive home the horrors of colonial exploitation:

The population of the Congo is estimated to have been about 25 million prior the rubber boom, in the 1880s. In 1911, after the peak of the boom, the population was 8.5 million, and in 1923 after the completion of the boom, it was 7.7 million. If one compares the population losses relative to the production of rubber, an astonishing conclusion is reached: an individual was “lost” from the Congo for every ten kilograms of rubber exported (Loadman, 2005, pp. 140–41).

The potato paper covers the effect of potatoes and tries to estimate (numerically) the impact potato cultivation had on population growth and urbanization in Europe. It is somewhat elusive to me what such a quantification “means,” but it’s of a piece with what Ian Hacking describes in The Taming of Chance : the torrent of printed numbers led to the publication of attendant “studies” slicing and dicing the numbers in statistical ways in order to “make sense” of them. The second Nunn and Qian paper covers capsicum, tomatoes, cacao, vanilla, coca, and tobacco, and contains some fun nutritional facts and trivia:

  • Capsicum is high in vitamins A, B and C, magnesium, and iron, and the extra saliva produced by capsacin helps digestion.
  • “Greece consumes the most tomatoes per capita… The tomato has been so thoroughly adopted and integrated into Western diets that today it provides more nutrients and vitamins than any other fruit or vegetable (Sokolov, 1993, p. 108).”
  • “[I]n Roald Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole, his men were allocated 4,560 calories per day, of which over 1,000 came from cacao (West, 1992, pp. 117–18).”

My interest came more from vegetables that almost define Indian cuisine : tomatoes, potatoes, and chilies. Mazumdar’s article focuses on the effect new crops had on China and India. Specific to this context,

There were two major periods of introduction of American plants into Asia. The first wave, in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, included sweet potatoes, maize, potatoes, jicamas, capsicums (chile peppers), squashes, and peanuts, cashews, custard apples, guavas, avocadoes, tomatoes, papaya, passion-fruit, pineapples, and sapodillas… In the second wave, American plants, such as cocoa and the sunflower, were brought to India even more recently in the twentieth century.

With them came new words of course — South Asian readers may know of a certain fruit as sapota (in the south) or chiku (in the north), both of which come from a Meso-American word (not sure of the language) chicosapote. The word achar for pickles came from the Carib axi meaning chile pepper.

The paper draws a distinction between how land ownership practices in India and China made a difference in how fast new foods were incorporated into the common diet. In China, a number of reforms allowed “tenancy rights to become inheritable” for peasants, meaning they had an incentive to say in place and try to extract more productivity from the land they had. The new crops, especially the sweet potato, became staples because they provided more calories per acre, and because they were drought- and pest-resistant, required less labor (especially over rice), and could grow in poor soil. Mazumdar writes:

[In the 1920s in south China] sweet potatoes regularly provided a supply of at least three to four months’ worth or food for practically everybody living in the countryside… they were eaten fresh, baked, boiled, or mashed with pickles.. ground into flour and made into noodles, bread, or a gruel… or stirred into a hash.

The sweet potato revolutionized the lives of peasants in China, giving them more calories and freeing time and labor to grow cash crops. Corn and peanuts were also widely cultivated, since corn could also grow in nutrient-poor soils and peanuts are good nitrogen-fixers and could be grown with sugarcane.

India was a different story — there was more arable land and “relatively low population growth between 1600 and 1850.” Due to military conflicts and tensions with zamindars (landlords), villages would often up and leave, transplanting themselves further from conflict or interference. This meant that unlike China, rural farmers were not as tied to specific locations during this period. Colonialism changed all that — people were pinned down and agriculture was commercialized, so in the 19th and 20th centuries American crops started flourishing. The Brits promoted the potato heavily, and increased urbanization brought it and the tomato into the mainstream. Although it’s hard to think of Indian food without tomatoes, potatoes, and chilies, these ingredients were only integrated around 150 years ago!


I’m sick today so here are some links.

Click That Hood, a game which asks you to identify neighborhoods. I was lousy at San Diego, but pretty decent at Chicago, even though I’ve lived here for half the time. Go figure.

For those who care about beer, there’s been some news about the blocked merger of Inbev and Modelo. I recommend Erik’s podcast post on the structure of the beer industry (the three-tier system) for those who care about craft beer, and (with reservations) Planet Money’s show on the antitrust regulatory framework that is at work here.

Remember step functions from your signals and systems course? We called them Heaviside step functions after Oliver Heaviside — you can read more about him in this Physics Today article.

Did you know that Pad Thai’s “birth and popularity came out of the nationalist campaign of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, one of the revolutionary figures who in 1932 pushed Thailand out of an absolute monarchy?” Neither did I!

I need this album, since I love me some Kurt Weill. I can also live vicariously through NPR’s list of SXSW recommendations.

Dolnamul/dotnamul, or “dot greens,” with a spicy dipping sauce

I went to H-Mart this weekend and decided to check out the greens to see if I could discover something new and tasty. I passed up the enigmatically named Tacochoy since tacos were not on the menu for the week:


Not really sure what this was, but it did look tasty — maybe next time.

What I did pick up was some Korean red-leaf mustard greens and something called “dot greens” (돋나물, or dotnamul) which I eventually (through teaching myself some Hangul and googling) figured out is Sedum sarmentosum, or graveyard moss:

"Dot Greens" or "dotnamul" are the sedum leaves

“Dot Greens” or “dotnamul” are the sedum leaves

Namul seems to refer to a general class of seasoned vegetable banchan-like dishes, so I decided to take a cue from existing websites and made a dipping sauce with gochujang and had them pretty much raw.

Sedum, all dressed up and nowhere to go but my belly

Sedum, all dressed up and nowhere to go but my belly

Here’s the recipe!

1.5 tbsp gochujang
juice from half a lemon
1/2 tsp sesame oil
scant 1/2 tsp rice vinegar (optional)
toasted sesame seeds

Whisk everything but the seeds and pour over salad. Sprinkle seeds on top.

Linkage (Chicago Edition)

The City of Chicago has a big open data initiative, and they are putting data online at the City of Chicago Data Portal. Lots of interesting stuff here, and some potential to get data sets for machine learning tasks.

A really touching video about Tamale Lady in Chicago.

The voices of the CTA. Reminds me a bit of the article on the Voice of the MBTA.

How to visit Chicago like a Chicagoan (h/t Mimosa) — warning, it’s pretty profane.

Ta-Nehisi Coates interviews Harold Pollack of the UChicago Crime Lab.


An animation of integer factorizations. Goes well with music. (h/t BK).

Graphics from the Chicago L (via Chicagoist)

Tony Kushner is kind of a tool. I find this unfortunate. But I still want to see Lincoln.

Aaron Roth reports that the DIMACS tutorial videos have been posted. A perfect time to brush up on your differential privacy!

An analysis of the Thai government’s menu served to President Obama.

A Choose Your Own Adventure version of Hamlet, from the creator of Dinosaur Comics.

The ACME Catalog, for your roadrunner-catching needs.


Snuff [Terry Pratchett] : this was standard Discworld stuff, but I found it a little below-average. I’m finicky that way though.

Snakes Can’t Run [Ed Lin] : a follow-up to This Is A Bust, this book is about human smuggling in New York Chinatown in the 70s. Recommended if you like thing Asian and mysterious.

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China [Fuschia Dunlop] : I found this memoir to be engaging but it’s definitely got that feel of “Western person’s observations about China.” Dunlop is more aware of her situation as outsider/observer, but sometimes its hard to shake that narrative vibe. That being said, you should definitely read this if you want to know more about Chinese cuisines.

Among Others [Jo Walton] : it won a Nebula and a Hugo and I could see why. This is a really sharply observed and narrated coming-of-age story about a high school girl who is not part of the “main crowd” and finds her solace in voraciously reading all of the SciFi/Fantasy novels she can get her hands on. Really lovely writing.

The Lost Soul of Higher Education [Ellen Schrecker] : a pretty sobering read with a lot of historical background on the state of academic freedom, the corporatization of the university system, and possible ramifications for the future of the US. It was a bit depressing but well worth reading.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn] : this is Solzhenitsyn’s first book, a first-person narrative of one person’s life in a Stalinist labor camp. It really brings the grimness of the place alive — Cool Hand Luke’s prison camp had nothing on this. They’re worth comparing, I think.


An initiative to prevent irreproducible science.

A video about Graham’s number.

I don’t tweet, but all of this debate seems ridiculous to me. I think the real issue is who follows twitter? I know Sergio is on Twitter, but is anyone else?

Food : An Atlas is a book project on kickstarter by people who do “guerrilla cartography.” It is about food, broadly construed. $25 gets you a copy of the book, and it looks awesome, especially if you like maps. And who doesn’t like maps?

I remember reading about the demise of the American Chestnut tree, but apparently it may make a comeback!


This is an awesome approach to getting consensus on neighborhood boundaries in Boston. They should do that for Chicago!

A history of currywurst.

Classical Movies in Miniature Style. I like the horses in the Terminator II picture.

I have a rather long-ish commute on public transit, and sometimes it’s hard to get a seat on the train/bus, so I’ve been listening to a lot more podcasts. Here are a few which I’ve been enjoying recently:

  • 99% Invisible, which is a design podcast. I’ve been catching up from the beginning, but this little bit on flags may appeal to Chicagoans and San Franciscans.
  • Backstory is a podcast about American History. They usually take a theme (e.g. “national monuments,” “birth,”, “booze”) and do a number of segments running through different centuries.
  • Story Collider : story telling about science(-ish).

Music with giant Tesla coils.

Dogs and cats and babies can get along.


Another cool optical illusion.

I recently visited Taos, NM, and the sky there was clear and you could see so many stars. I was listening today to Debussy’s Arabesque #1 and it brought back memories of Jack Horkheimer‘s Star Hustler (c.f. this episode from 1991). Horkheimer passed away in 2010, but his show was a PBS staple.

A series of blog posts about quantiatively assessing if America is becoming more secular : Parts one, two, and three.

Ian Hacking’s introduction to the new edition of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (via MeFi).

More reasons to miss California. I do like Chicago, but… dumplings!


Somehow, I had never heard of the Arnold cat map. Meow.

I am definitely guilty of reading and walking at the same time.

Serious Eats Chicago ate all the things at Hot Doug’s, to which I have still not gone.

The Bombay Royale is an Australian band that covers 60s era Bollywood tunes. They have a new album and a video for the title track. You can also get the mp3.

PZ Myers takes Kevin Drum to task for lazy utilitarian arguments.