American Indians. From tomatoes to potatoes, we owe it all to the... Native American food has radically changed cooking all over the world
AT this time of year, many Americans remember the Indians, who gave them the traditional roast turkey and cranberry sauce, the squash and sweet potato casseroles, cornbread and oyster stuffings - and delicious fruit, pumpkin, and pecan pies. But few recognize the much broader extent to which Indian food radically changed cooking and dining all over the world.
Potatoes, corn, tomatoes, chilies, and green peppers formed the first wave of American flavorings to circle the globe. Later came avocados, peanuts, sunflower seeds, beans, and many other plants.
Today, food historians estimate that as much as 60 percent of food eaten around the world is from the culture of the Americas.
National and local cuisines benefited
In his book ``Indian Givers - How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World'' (Crown Publishers, New York, $17.95), Jack Weatherford tells how life styles of today have been influenced by the interrelating process that began the minute the Europeans stepped off their galleons. Mr. Weatherford is a professor of anthropology at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn.
``In the 500 years since Columbus's voyage to America,'' said Weatherford in a Boston interview, ``people of the world have benefited greatly from the American Indians.
``American foods provided a bonanza of calories and new crops for fields that had been only marginally productive. Their spices and vegetables also made possible the enlargement of national and local cuisines.''
Can you imagine Italian food without tomatoes? Or Irish stew without potatoes?
Potatoes and tomatoes are American foods that - along with other items from chocolate to chili peppers - have influenced the cuisines of almost every culture in the world.
Hot chilies went to the curries of India, chocolate to Switzerland, and tomatoes to many countries besides Italy.
Potatoes supplied a basic food to Germany and Russia, as well as to Ireland.
Despite their enormous contributions to these countries, the Indians of the Americas have been pushed to a marginal role in Western history. Much of their knowledge and culture remains unexplored and neglected.
Influence felt in US regions
Most regional cuisines in the United States stand on an Indian base, especially Tex-Mex food.
The bland New Englanders, however, did not take to Indian spice readily, even though they accepted the bean, corn, fish, and squash dishes. Rather than sharp spices, New Englanders preferred the sweet taste of maple syrup - particularly with desserts - over pancakes, or with baked beans.
The Narragansetts taught the colonists to make succotash with lima beans and corn. They also taught the them to use cranberries, especially with Indian turkey.
In the American South, the diet became more Indian, because the population adopted with great gusto the various forms of corn.
They also adopted the custom of barbecuing food, as did other regions of the US, like the Southwest and West.
Weatherford believes that the various regional stews of the US originated with the Indians: the catfish stew of the South - along with gumbos, jambalayas, crab and corn chowders, wild rice soup, and Brunswick stew of the Carolinas.
Indians have also provided many snack foods: potato and corn chips, jerky and dried meat sticks, popcorn and peanuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and dried fruits.
Although various Europeans brought bread, dairy products, and new meats with them, Weatherford says, these foods supplemented rather than replaced the American ones.
Vegetables, grains, spices spread around globe
Here's a list of other countries whose dishes and menus show the influence of the American Indians. It's adapted from Weatherford's book:
Italy. Italian cuisine exploded with ideas after the arrival of foods from America. Cooks previously had few choices of sauce to ladle onto the pasta.
Yellow, orange, green, and red tomatoes in all sizes found their way into the Italian kitchen, along with peppers of many shapes and the long, green American squash, which they renamed zucchini.
They also added green beans and kidney beans to their diets.
Spain. The very foods the Spanish themselves discovered had less impact on their cuisine, though they did use tomato and peppers. Where would the gazpacho of Spain be without the red tomato?
France. The French did not take to any one particular food, but they did integrate the tomato, potato, string bean, and several other beans into their diet.
Africa. Maize replaced grains in some areas. Cassava, beans, and the American peanut, or groundnut, also helped the protein intake.
Northern Europe. Here, large amounts of oil and animal feed are made from the American sunflower, a native of the US plains.
India. Although they use mainly their own ingredients for curries, the hot American chilies have become a staple addition.
China. The Chinese showed an attraction to the peanut in a wide range of both meat and vegetable dishes.
China is now the world's largest producer of the sweet potato - it's the daily food of many of the peasants, while rice is the prestige food of the Orient.
The Chinese also welcomed the hot American chilies into their ancient cuisine.
Thailand. The Thais favor a very small orange pepper they call prik kee nu luang, one of the world's most powerful chilies.
Tibet, Nepal. Along with India, Pakistan, and China, these countries have cultivated the grain amaranth widely in the past century. It has become one of the most important cereals in the diets of the highland peoples.
South Asian. South Asians also borrowed heavily from new American ingredients such as peanuts, chilies, and tomatoes.