27 Dec The Origin of Food

It’s hard to believe that 500 years ago the nasi campur being served up in the warungs around Bali wouldn’t have contained many of the different vegetables we see in our favourite dishes today. The nasi itself was probably the only ingredient that that could be guaranteed to be sharing the bowl, along with eggplant and the various other plants indigenous to this region. Next time you buy your corn on the cob roasted on a fire of coconut shells – take a moment to think that the coconut would have been here 500 years ago but the corn most definitely would not have.

Before Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1493 there was not a single tomato, not an ear of corn, neither any potato tubers, strings beans, bell peppers (capsicums), nor spicy chilies to grind into our sambal. Before the discovery of the “West Indies” and the vast Americas beyond them, the Indonesian archipelago as well as the Old World had not yet seen the likes of avocado, sweet potato, tobacco, rubber, squash (including pumpkins, zucchinis / courgettes), and many other plants that are now part of our global agriculture. In the centuries following, these plants would enjoy free rights of passage and travel to all corners of the globe, where they would find conditions in which to flourish, as well as other issues like disease and competition from other, already established plants native to the new region.

Today, 500 years later, many countries now exercise a strict regime of control over what species cross their borders. However, back when the “Columbian Exchange” of the various plants, animals and minerals between New World and Old World regions was taking place, there were few attempts to restrict the introduction of other crops that often thrived in areas where native domesticated plants did not. As expected, this did result in a fair amount of ecological disasters that would hopefully be averted today with the knowledge we have about sustainable resource management.

One example that is obvious in many parts of South East Asia is the rubber plantations that have decimated millions of hectares of native forest in order to sustain this mono-crop. Another is the introduction of potato and maize (corn) to China. Throughout the centuries following the attempt by Columbus to reach the Chinese mainland via an ocean route, emperor after emperor had refused entry to almost all human beings from Europe and the Americas. However, they could not keep out other species such as maize and potato. The nation’s agriculture, based on rice, had long been concentrated in river valleys. Potatoes and maize could be grown in the dry uplands so farmers moved in numbers to these areas, which had previously been lightly settled. The result was a wave of deforestation, followed by waves of erosion and floods, which caused many deaths.

Today we are a bit more careful about what we grow and where we grow it, but we still find ourselves in an evolving world with a rapidly changing climate. The races of our planet are now spread out across the globe like a multitude of diaspora. Our island Bali itself is a dynamic melting pot mélange of various species and cultures. In the mostly dry coastal climate of Canggu we can experience an environment of extremes, perhaps similar to the situation to come in parts of Europe if climate change is really upon us. In the past 500 years some expatriated species of vegetable plants have had a chance to evolve to their new Indonesian climate. This might have made them into highly regarded and resistant species, and is with this in mind that we have initiated the Canggu Garden and Seed Network – to foster the growing and experimentation of as many varieties of vegetable plants as possible. Who knows what super crop we may develop or what delicious variety of tomato may evolve? One thing is for certain: there will always be barbecue corn on the beach and sambal will always have sweet tomatoes and spicy chili, it just might get a little better.


Charles.C. Mann