Academic journal article Environment and History

Food Traditions and Landscape Histories of the Indian Ocean World: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections

Academic journal article Environment and History

Food Traditions and Landscape Histories of the Indian Ocean World: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections

Article excerpt


Environmental histories of plant exchanges have largely centred on their economic importance in international trade and on their ecological and social impacts in the places where they were introduced. Yet few studies have attempted to examine how plants brought from elsewhere become incorporated over time into the regional cultures of material life and agricultural landscapes. This essay considers the theoretical and methodological problems in investigating the environmental history, diversity and distribution of food plants transferred across the Indian Ocean over several millennia. It brings together concepts of creolisation, syncretism, and hybridity to outline a framework for understanding how biotic exchanges and diffusions have been translated into regional landscape histories through food traditions, ritual practices and articulation of cultural identity. We use the banana plant--which underwent early domestication across New Guinea, South-east Asia and peninsular India and reached East Africa roughly two thousand years ago--as an example for illustrating the diverse patterns of incorporation into the cultural symbolism, material life and regional landscapes of the Indian Ocean World. We show that this cultural evolutionary approach allows new historical insights to emerge and enriches ongoing debates regarding the antiquity of the plant's diffusion from South-east Asia to Africa.


Plant exchanges, landscape history, food traditions, banana, Indian Ocean


When the intrepid Moroccan world traveller and theologian Ibn Battuta visited Mogadishu in 1331, his host was the town qadi. Upon disembarking on the beach, one of the qadi's students advised Battuta that they should first visit the Shaykh, as the sultan was called. '"It is the custom that whenever a theologian, or shariff, or man of religion comes here, he must see the sultan before taking his lodging".' So Ibn Battuta, always eager to meet with prominent men of authority wherever he went, followed his guide to the sultan's place. 'When we reached the palace and news of my arrival was sent in', he writes, 'a eunuch came out with a plate containing betel leaves and areca nuts. He gave me ten leaves and a few nuts, the same to the qadi, and the rest to my companions and the qadi's students'.(1) Later on, after his travels to other places on the East African coast, Ibn Battuta departed from Kilwa Kisiwani (an island off the southern coast of present-day Tanzania) and sailed on to his next destination of Dhofar, the frontier region between the Hadramawt and Oman. In Dhofar, he noted the cultivation of an especially large variety of banana, as well as both 'betel-trees and coco-palms, which are found only in India and the towns of Dhafari'. He then describes the properties and uses of each of these two food crops. Of betel he writes that they have no fruit and are used only for their leaves. 'The Indians have a high opinion of betel, and if a man visits a friend and the latter gives him five leaves of it, you would think he had given him the world, especially if he is a prince or notable. A gift of betel is a far greater honour than a gift or gold and silver.' He includes details about how betel is used. 'First, one takes areca-nuts, which are like nutmegs, crushes them into small bits and chews them. Then the betel leaves are taken, a little chalk is put on them, and they are chewed with the areca nuts.'(2) In a word, what Ibn Battuta describes is paan, the two main ingredients of which are leaves of the betel (Piper betle) and the dried drupe of areca (Areca catechu). As Battuta travelled on to India and visited the court of Muhammad bin Tughlaq of the Delhi Sultanate, he found paan served at the end of elaborate meals, and noted the presence of pavilions in the city where any native or stranger could help himself for free to sherbets, betel leaves and areca nuts.(3)

Although the custom of chewing paan is primarily associated with the Indian subcontinent, both the betel leaf and areca nut originate from South-east Asia, with some sources suggesting the possible home of the areca nut as the Philippine islands and of the betel leaf as central and eastern Malaysia. …

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