Saturday, October 12, 2013


Some of the foods from the New World, from the left, top row, pumpkin/squash, potatoes, avocado, peanuts, corn/maize; bottom row: peppers/chiles, tomatoes, beans, sunflowers, chocolate.
 Five hundred and twenty-one years ago, when Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sat down to dinner, there was not a potato, bean, pepper or tomato in sight. No chocolate for dessert. These and many other now-familiar foods were unknown in the world as it was known before Columbus’s voyage in 1492.

October 12 is the date Columbus (Cristóbal Colón, in Spanish) arrived on the outlying islands of the American continent. In the US, Columbus Day, the holiday, falls on the second Monday of October—this year, October 14 (although the holiday is not observed in every state).

In Spain, the commemoration always happens on the twelfth, but has morphed in significance over the past 80 years. Once known as “El Día de la Raza Española,” “the day of the Spanish race,” it then became “El Día de la Hispanidad,” the day of “Spanishness.” The Spaniards, after all, were the colonizers of that New World. Since 1981, the holiday has been designated Fiesta Nacional, or “national holiday.” About 13 years ago, the occasion also became “armed forces day,” an occasion for military parades before the king. (This year, crown-prince Felipe will preside, as King Juan Carlos is recovering from hip surgery.) If that weren’t enough, October 12 is also the feast day of the Virgen del Pilar, patroness of Zaragoza, the capital of Aragón.

In my opinion, we should turn Columbus Day into a holiday commemorating and celebrating food, and the growing and cooking of food, as it migrated across oceans and continents following the discovery of America in 1492. The “Columbian Exchange” brought new crops, livestock and people from the New World to the Old, and from the Old to the New. It was the most significat ecological event of a millenium.

On 4 November, 1492, Columbus’s party exploring the eastern end of what is now Cuba found great expanses of tilled land sown with a sort of bean (Europeans knew fava beans but not the haricot); a grain the natives called mais, “which tasted well made into flour,” and what was identified as a “gourd” called calabaza, which today we know as squash or pumpkin.

Sweet potato, from the New World.

 At a feast hosted by the chief of one of the islands, Columbus was served several varieties of sweet potatoes, called batatas. Columbus probably brought sweet potato plants back to Spain for they were growing here by 1493. The white potato was several years down the line, discovered around 1530 by Pizzaro’s men in Ecuador. Potatoes were cultivated by monks in Sevilla by 1539.

Capsicum peppers, New World

Early chroniclers believed that Columbus had, indeed, reached the Indies, the Spice Islands in the East, where the treasured spice, pepper, came from. So, when served a fiery spice on his food, Columbus naturally called it “pepper” (pimienta or pimiento), which is how peppers got to be called peppers. The pepper of the New World is the capsicum, from which come the chile, the sweet bell pepper and the spices paprika and cayenne.

It was on his fourth voyage in 1502 that Columbus discovered, in what is now Nicaragua, the cocoa bean, which was duly brought back to Spain. It aroused little interest at the time. It wasn’t until 1519 that Hernando Cortez tasted it, prepared as a drink by the Aztecs, flavored with vanilla—the fruit of a native orchid—and sweetened with cane sugar—which Columbus had carried to the New World and planted there in 1494. Spain and Portugal then enjoyed a century-long monopoly on chocolate, which became exceedingly popular.

Columbus did not find tomatoes in the Caribbean lands he explored. They were probably brought from Peru or Mexico to Spain around 1520 and passed on to the kingdom of Naples, which came under Spanish rule about the same time. The Italians and Spaniards were early pioneers in the use of the tomato in cooking, while other Europeans shunned it for another 200 years.

Columbus did not taste that native American bird, the turkey. A chronicler of Córtez, around 1519, reported seeing turkeys in Mexican markets and said they were cooked daily for the Aztec ruler  Moctezuma’s table.

All of these foods incredibly enriched the Spanish diet, which by the sixteenth century was probably the most varied in Europe. During the sixteenth century Spanish galleons plied two great oceans so that eventually they opened up trade routes to the real Spice Islands.

Explorers also carried crops and livestock from Spain to the New World. Many of these came to Spain from farther east, introduced by the Romans and the Arabs. At the top: chickens, pigs and cattle. From the left: rice, wheat, sugar, almonds, bananas, citrus fruit, eggplant, and, in the front, olives.

Not all exchanges were positive. Sugar and cotton plantations in the New World led to slavery. Diseases such as smallpox unleashed in the New World decimated indigenous peoples.  

To celebrate Columbus Day or Spain’s Fiesta Nacional, I am cooking a dish that nicely illustrates the migration of foods. Alboronía is originally a Moorish dish, meat stewed with eggplant and other pre-1492 vegetables, that the Arabs introduced into Spain. But, as it is prepared today, it contains all New World vegetables—squash--both pumpkin and zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers. Only the chickpeas, an Old World legume, and the seasoning of ground cumin are reminiscent of the pre-Columbian dish.

Alboronía--a Moorish stew with New World vegetables.

Pumpkin Stew

Eastern spices.
Use pumpkin or any other winter squash, such as butternut, in this recipe. I have used rather more spices than the current Spanish recipe calls for, making it more like the spicing from the 15th century. Canned chopped tomatoes can be used in place of fresh ones.

3 cups pumpkin or squash, cut in ½-inch dice
3 cups potatoes, cut in ½-inch dice
1 small eggplant, cut in ½-inch dice (optional)
Bay leaf
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup water
2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas, drained
2 cups zucchini, cut in ½-inch dice
¼ cup olive oil
½  cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green and red peppers
3 cloves garlic, 1 chopped and 2 whole
1 ½ cups tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon peppercorns
1 clove
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon coarse salt
½ tablespoon Sherry vinegar
Chopped mint to serve

Put the pumpkin, potatoes, eggplant, bay leaf and salt in a cazuela or pan. Add the water. Bring to a boil, cover, then simmer gently until potatoes are almost tender, 12 minutes.

Add the chickpeas and zucchini. Cover and cook another 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

In a skillet, heat the oil and sauté the onions, peppers and chopped garlic for 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook on medium-high heat until tomatoes are somewhat reduced, 6 minutes.

In a mortar, crush the cumin, coriander, peppercorns, clove and cinnamon with the coarse salt. Add the remaining two cloves of garlic and pound to a paste. Add the garlic-spice mixture to the tomato sofrito in the skillet. Add the vinegar. Stir the mixture from the skillet into the pumpkin-chickpea stew. Cook another 10 minutes. Serve hot garnished with chopped mint.