Here Come the Europeans

Asia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, South, Southeast

Spicy Sambal (Chili-Based Sauce) in Nasi Jamblang (from Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia)

Chapter 5, Part 4

Long after being considered merely as medicine, in the 15th century the Europeans’ perception toward spices began to shift as they were used more in local cuisines. Spices added an exotic taste to the continent’s traditional dishes, and demand from royal families in England, France and beyond pushed their prices really high. Like the Gutenberg Bible, cookbooks were spread all over Europe containing recipes where spices were important ingredients. Until the 15th century, spices made their way to European markets by way of Constantinople, then a major trading port connecting the Middle East and Asia to Europe. However, the city’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453 practically cut supply of spices to the West, resulting in numerous voyages to find direct sea routes from Europe to the Spice Islands.

Beginning in the 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish who had discovered sea routes to the fabled islands gradually introduced more than 2,000 plants native to the Americas to other parts of the world, including Asia. Among the crops they brought across the oceans to their colonies overseas were chili, corn, eggplant, pineapple, sapodilla, custard apple, pumpkin, carrot, potato, tomato, peanut, and cassava. This introduction would forever change the way Asians eat.

Chili has now become an integral part of Southeast Asian culinary scene. Despite the region’s heat and humidity all year round, the locals for some reason developed an affinity for the burning sensation of different kinds of chili peppers. In Indonesia, chili has become a staple food, so much so each region in the country has its own sambal – a sauce made from ground or chopped chilies mixed with other ingredients. Some like their sambal sweet by adding sweet soy sauce, while others like to add shrimp paste to give a strong umami flavor to the mixture. Some like their sambal raw, others prefer it fried. In Bali, chopped shallot and lemongrass give their sambal a fresh taste, on the other hand in the southern part of Sumatra people like to mix their sambal with fermented durian.

Spiced Potatoes in Samay Baji (from Bhaktapur, Nepal)

Finely-Ground Chilies in Kohu-Kohu (from Ambon, Maluku, Indonesia)

Chilies, Tomatoes and Other Ingredients Commonly Used in Indonesia

Chilies at Asan Tole in Kathmandu, Nepal

Sliced Tomatoes in Cabbage-Wrapped Lake Fish Grilled in Banana Leaf (from Inle Lake, Myanmar)

Tomatoes and Chilies in Arsik (from Lake Toba, North Sumatra, Indonesia)

Cooking with Chilies in Penang, Malaysia

Dried Chilies Mixed with Other Ingredients to Make this Addictive Side Dish (from Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar)

However, the Iberians’ contribution to the evolution of Southeast Asian food was not limited only to introducing new, exotic edible plants. In Malacca, meat consumption was higher than other places in the region, thanks to Portuguese penchant for meat-based dishes. Various methods for cooking meat were introduced to the locals, including assado (roasting), recheado (mixing meat with spices), and guisado (stewing). Initially, these influences were adopted by the Kristang people – a mainly Christian community with mixed Portuguese and Malaccan descent. But gradually, they reached Sumatra across the Strait of Malacca, and beyond. Today, traces of Portuguese influence in Indonesia are still palpable in some Indonesian words, for instance mentega (from manteiga – butter), kaldu (from caldo – stock), markisa (maracujá – passion fruit), and keju (from queijo – cheese).

The Dutch, on the other hand, treated the spices, fruits and plants from their colonies merely as commodities. Making as much profit as possible was far more important than enriching their dishes and introducing Dutch cooking techniques to the locals in Asia. Eventually that changed, and in modern Indonesia some contemporary dishes reflect the past influences of the Dutch during their colonial period in the archipelago.

In the 18th century, West Sumatra’s pepper-driven economy was thriving, thanks to the high demand from the Americas and Europe. However, this does not necessarily mean that the Minangkabau people grew fondness of adding pepper in their dishes. The locals preferred chili to pepper because they believed the latter made the blood hot. Hubert Joseph Jean Lambert Ridder de Stuers, a Dutch military commander stationed in Padang – West Sumatra’s capital and largest city – from 1824 to 1829, mentioned about a local resident’s comparison between the two spices. “[Chili] is hot in the mouth but pleasant in the stomach, while [pepper] makes both mouth and stomach hot.” De Stuers did add that the locals quite possibly opted for reaping high profits by selling the pepper cultivated in their land rather than consuming it themselves.

However, in the central part of the island of Java – across the strait to the southeast of Sumatra – the Javanese like other flavors better than their Sumatran counterparts. The combined taste of sweetness and savory is now identified with Javanese food, and thanks to the relatively warm reception of the island’s royal courts toward the Dutch, dishes inspired by food from the former colonial power are now part of the Javanese culinary scene.

Xacuti, One of Several Portuguese-Influenced Curries from Goa, India

Vindaloo, Another Portuguese-Inspired Dish from Goa

Caldinha, Portuguese Traces are Apparent, Including in The Dish’s Name

Chicken Xacuti, A Variation of the Portuguese-Goan Curry

Itiak Lado Mudo, Duck Smothered in Green Chilies (from Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, Indonesia)

Sambalado Jariang, Dogfruit in Spicy Curry (from Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, Indonesia)

Steamed Banana and Cassava Slathered in Coconut-Milk-Based Sauce (from Ternate, North Maluku, Indonesia)

Jalangkote, Empanada’s Long-Lost Cousin from Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

34 thoughts on “Here Come the Europeans”

  1. Hendi Setiyanto says:

    apalagi untuk orang Indonesia, hidup tanpa cabai berasa hampa, bahkan harga cabai pas lagi mahal2nya juga tetap dibeli, dulu saya pecinta cabe alias masakan yang pedas namun seiring berjalannya waktu, perut sudah tidak kuat lagi makan pedas2, terakhir kali makan pedas langsung diinfus karena penyakit tipusnya kumat, sekarang sih tidak menghindari sama sekali namun dikurangi porsi cabenya


    • Betulll sekali. Satu hal yang selalu saya kangeni kalau sedang traveling ke luar negeri adalah sambel! Cukup beruntung kalau di tempat yang saya kunjungi ada makanan pedas. Kalau enggak, ya ditahan-tahan sampai pulang ke Indonesia. 🙂 Wah, kalau sudah pernah kena tifus memang harus hati-hati sih untuk makan makanan yang terlalu pedas. Sayapun sekarang merasa perut saya udah kurang bisa berkompromi sama makanan pedas, padahal lidah doyan sekali.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Makasih Mbak Lina. Mungkin beberapa makanan yang disebutkan di postingan ini bisa memberi inspirasi makan siang Mbak Lina? 🙂


  2. I’ve often wondered if chilli helped preserve food because every tropical region seems to prefer hotter flavours while in cooler climates, food is bland.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was intrigued by your information and just did a little research. Apparently capsaicin, the chemical compound that protects chili peppers from their natural enemies, has strong antibacterial activity to some bacteria. However, whether it was the main reason why the peoples of Southeast Asia began adding chilies to their food, or if they simply loved the addictive burning sensation, remains a mystery.


  3. ^^ I was wondering that, too! Also thinking that hot foods make you sweat, which is good for cooling down in hot countries. I could repeat my comment from your last post, Bama – so much fascinating info on how these spices and flavors moved from one continent to another. These are some of my favorite posts of yours!


    • I do wonder though why the Koreans also love their spicy food given their geographical location far from the tropics. I had Korean fire noodles for dinner last night and wondered how many other dishes are that hot and spicy there — that is enough reason for me to go! Thanks Lex. Two more posts and the Spice Odyssey series is over. It’s amazing to think how that six-month travel across South and Southeast Asia I did back in 2015 brought me to a lot of ‘discoveries’.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your post makes me wonder whether sambal was actually influenced by salsa or the other way around. One thing I know the salsa sauce was introduced by the Mayans and I just found out its variety reminds me of Indonesian sambal (not as many as Indonesian sambal though). Great post, Bama!


    • That’s an interesting observation, Indah. Sambal might be historically related to salsa, although I remember reading a hypothesis that in the past two societies who lived faraway from one another could develop similar cultural styles, independent from each other — the pyramids are among the examples. Thanks for sharing your intriguing thoughts!


  5. A very interesting and informative post with outstanding photos tells the story of how spices conquered the world! I did not know that so many plants now almost common place in Asia originally came from the Americas. Thank you for this amazing post on spices!


    • That’s among the positive impacts of European colonization of the world. Imagine how monotonous our food would have been if those new crops had not been brought out of the New World! Always appreciate your comment, Peter.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Lots of great history and info here Bama. I’m always amazed at how many foods that are common around the world had their origins in the Spanish colonies of Central and South America. The Mesoamericans gave the world many delicious varieties of new foods, and the Spanish gave them horrific, deadly diseases. ~James


    • I believe a lot of people are still unaware of this fact, James. Until a few years ago I always thought that peanut and chili were native to Southeast Asia, because I grew up eating a lot dishes with both as key ingredients. I do wonder, though, about the way Mesoamericans prepared their food prior to the arrival of the Europeans. With all those crops native to the Americas, I believe there must have been plenty interesting dishes in this part of the world centuries ago.

      “The Mesoamericans gave the world many delicious varieties of new foods, and the Spanish gave them horrific, deadly diseases.” This is a poignant reminder of what it took for those crops to be spread all over the globe, so we shouldn’t take what we eat for granted. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, James.


  7. Hello Bama, once again this is one of my favorite posts as you talk about two things I enjoy: food and history. I always wondered how chilies made their way to Asia. I had no idea how much Indonesians loved chilies. It’s interesting how some countries embraced chilies and created their own dishes using native ingredients as well. The Chicken Xacuti looks amazing I wish I could try it; it reminds me of similar Mexican dishes prepared by the locals in Mexico.


    • Thanks Liz! My experience with spicy Mexican dishes is very limited, but as a chili lover I’m really curious about how the people in Central America use chilies in their cooking. We love our chilies so much a lot of people I know can’t travel abroad without bringing a small bottle of Indonesian chili sauce or chili powder! The chicken xacuti tasted as delicious as you would probably imagine. I wonder if you can try it at some Indian restaurants across North America and Europe.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Sweet Food from the Heart of Java | What an Amazing World!

  9. Bama, let me just say I’m glad I read this on a full stomach! You point to a very intriguing chapter of food history. One wonders what Italian cuisine was like before tomatoes, and how the Irish and British ate without potatoes (I read once that the English suspected that the tubers were poisonous, so they cooked the leaves instead). I also wonder if there are any records of Southeast Asian dishes that were eaten long before the Spanish and Portuguese introduced peanut, chili, and all those other delicious foodstuffs you mentioned.


    • And I’m glad I had published this post a while ago, not this month. I didn’t know about the English cooking potato leaves out of suspicion of the tubers! Glad someone dared enough to try eating the latter and tell others how tasty and safe they were. As for the pre-Columbian food in Southeast Asia, the problem is in the past recipes or any mention about food were rarely recorded, if anything, the records were made on perishable materials.


    • Living with a local family is probably the best way to get to know a place better and more intimately. I believe your host made other Goan dishes, didn’t she?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aye! The only one I can remember off hand is bacalhao. I loved the variety: some dishes were entirely curry flavored and others were seasoned with olive oil and onions. She also made guisado.


      • Now that I think of it, olive oil was something I didn’t have during my one-month stay in India. I had to google what guisado is, and it looks delicious!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow that was a very informative post, Bama. I never knew that some of the most common spices we use in south and southeast Asia were not native to the area initially. All food items on yours photos look mouthwatering!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s mind-boggling to realize that so many spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables we use now originated from faraway places, isn’t it? Learning about things like this is part of the reason why I believe traveling can potentially be a good education. Thanks Pooja!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Another great post Bama ! This made me think about something, do you know what food historians know about the various foods of the archipelago prior to the introduction of food staples from the Americas ? I know that in France for example, the pre-XVI century food was very different. Prior to the introduction of the potatoes from the Incas, our staple diet was cereals (rye, barley, buckwheat, millet, oats…), fava beans …


    • Thanks Juan! Prior to the introduction of those vegetables and fruits from the Americas, peoples across the archipelago consumed a lot of fish with local spices and vegetables. I wrote a post about that in case you’re interested:

      By the way, speaking of the video you shared with me, actually it was shown by our hotel owner the first night we arrived in Banda. My friend and I, joined by other guests, watched it together right after dinner. Very interesting, indeed, although the fact that the Portuguese were the first Europeans who reached these islands is omitted in the documentary.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. great Bama, I read your “bounty from the sea” piece, it does make sens that the rhizomatous spices were used it times before chilies etc. (one plant I cannot find at all in the numerous Paris’ asian food shops is cekuh -kencur- and I really miss it !) About the BBC video, it’s a funny coincidence, no surprise the Brits forgot the mention their colonial arch rivals the Portuguese in the film though !


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