Migrant Plants

My first inkling that something was wrong came when D told me that one of her favourite fruits was the Sapota. I was pleasantly surprised, because I quite like the Sapota as well. And then doubts started creeping in. I didn’t know that they imported Sapotas in Mexico, especially since I knew that they didn’t even import Mangoes in the US (This has since changed…see this report). I asked her about it and she said that Sapotas were native to Mexico, a statement that I frankly disbelieved outright. It didn’t even sound spanish, it sounded like some Indian language. I plied her with questions to make sure we were talking about the same fruit. She claimed it had a chocolatey flavor, and in my mind Sapotas may look like they should taste chocolatey, but they had a distinct taste of their own. I was sure that Sapotas had been introduced there. I let it rest, but the argument was somewhere in the back of my mind. And then a couple of months ago, while on the field trip in the Northern Territory and Queensland, we stopped at an ice cream shop that specialized in tropical fruits. They had Sapota ice cream. It had been a long time since I’d had Sapotas, and this was the closest thing, and so I ordered one. As I was waiting for the order, I idly looked around the shop and discovered that there was a board with all the fruits and a little information about the fruits themselves. To my horror, I discovered that D had been right all along: Sapotas did originate in Mexico (They call them ‘Zapote’).

I’m not too much of a patriotic person, but one of the few things that make me happy that I am from India is the sheer variety of flora and fauna. And since I studied botany as an undergraduate, I am quite keen on plants. But lately it seemed that a lot of my favourite plants and trees were not even Indian. My home town, Bangalore, is known as the Garden City mainly because of the profuse greenery and tree-lined roads in almost very part of the city. Some of the most common trees that dot the city, and thus my childhood, are Jacarandas and Rain Trees. D also claimed to be very fond of Jacarandas since they were very common in Mexico as well. I knew that some of Bangalore’s trees were introduced, with names like African Tulip Tree, it was hard to think that these trees were Indian, but Jacarandas? Turns out they’re from Argentina. There are lots of Jacarandas in Sydney as well, which always gives me a sense of dissonance when I see them, like seeing a familiar friend in an unfamiliar place.

At an Indian grocery store in Sydney, I bought a Guava flavoured drink…and D took a sip before saying that she didn’t particularly like that kind of Guava. I knew we had a couple of varieties in India, and with a sinking feeling asked her how many varieties were there in Mexico. She said..oh lots, and I felt even more uncertain. Usually when there are lots of varieties in an area, it is more likely that the species originated there. And come to think of it, the very name — Gauva—felt vaguely like it should be from the Americas. And yes: Guava is from Central America.

But things started getting serious when Tamarind came under suspicion. Tamarind is one of my favourite trees and in a TV program called the Adventure of English, the presenter claimed that Tamarind originated in the Caribbean. D quite agreed with the show since, wait for it, Tamarind is quite common in Mexico as well. But I argued that the very name of Tamarind pointed at its origins. Tamarind comes from the Arabic Tamar-e-Hind, meaning Dates of India. The dictionary agreed with me. I’d made a clear-cut watertight case for Tamarind being Indian, and it was a great argument. Except it was wrong. Tamarind originated in Africa and Madagascar and had been wrongly thought (by Arabic traders) to be from India.

After this I nervously checked the origin of various favourite plants. I knew that chilies originated in Central America, despite the fact that Indian cuisine is unthinkable without chili. Apparently the portuguese brought chilies to India and we took to it like anything, and this has now been proved beyond doubt by the hottest chili on record. I didn’t care too much about chilies, that was old news. But I did care about Tea. Alas, tea’s from the Burma/China border area. Lentils? Lentils are from the Middle-east. Same for Chick peas.

I was fast running out of favourites. But one thing finally lifted my spirits. No, not Mangoes, though of course I’m thankful about Mangoes. Curry leaves, the essence of any South Indian meal, is from India. As long as there’s curry, all’s fine with the world.


7 thoughts on “Migrant Plants

  1. So the reports of your death were slightly exaggerated then hmm?

    It’s very odd to think of India having been without chilli. Are curry leaves hot or just spicy? I don’t think I’ve ever used them in cooking myself other than tossing in some dried whole ones, much like bay leaves. But once you fold in 6 or 10 other spices, it becomes too much of a melange to identify the flavour origin of each permutation kind of thing.

    Oh. Just looked up pepper (I thought it was from Sri L. — but it’s another S. American plant. Sheesh, they own the copyright over everything!)

    I’m waiting for some Japanese businessman to make a killing by selling a megaloads worth of wasabi to India.

  2. “Black pepper is native to South India” from the top of that same wikipedia page; and it’s the most traded spice in the world (Vietnam has highest production at 85K tonnes/year), just by the by.

  3. Well, being Mexican I can attest that I am fond of many of the same fruits you list.

    Nevertheless, India is almost certainly the birthplace of the Orange and that is an enormous gift to the world.

  4. Hola Ricardo! Better still, Sugar is also from India. I’d long speculated about it (since the name is similar in almost any language, including sanskrit), but only bothered to look it up recently.

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