For most of us the origin of food doesn’t even factor into our lives. Modern supply chains and efficient global transportation has made an overwhelming variety of foods available to us everywhere, anytime. I would suggest a little reflection to anyone reading this. For all human history until just the past few years in some cases, this was not the case. The reason for such a variety of foods is the separation of the continents and the distances between them. As humans started traversing these disparate, distant places and bringing endpoints in trade networks closer and closer together, the unique foods got mobile.
Below is a list of 12 common foods we know and love, their origins, and a quick blurb about that food with information I found interesting.
Watermelon – Africa
There are more than 1,000 varieties of watermelon. Wild watermelon seeds have been found in the prehistoric Libyan site of Uan Muhuggiag. Evidence also exists of watermelon cultivation in Ancient Egypt.
Peach – Asia
Some genetic studies point to a Chinese origin of the peach. The fruit has been cultivated there since the Neolithic period. Other evidence suggests domestication occurred as early as 6000 BC in the Zhejiang Province of China.
Peaches grow in a narrow range of climates. Most varieties require 500 hours of chilling around 32 to 50 °F. If the winter is too cold, the buds will not fruit in the subsequent summer. An early frost will also kill the flowers of a budding peach tree, preventing fruit in the summer. Too much rain will cause fungal growth. Without enough summer heat the fruit will not mature.
Peaches and nectarines are the same species. The difference in the skin is the result of a mutation in a single gene.
Tomatoes – Americas
The wild ancestor of the tomato is native to western South America and were the size of peas. Aztecs and other peoples in Mesoamerica domesticated the fruit (and yes, tomato is a fruit) and used in their cooking.
The exact date of domestication is unknown; but by 500 BC, it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico. The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and is a candidate for the direct ancestor of modern cultivated tomatoes.
The introduction of the fruit into Europe took longer than one might guess given the prevalence of tomatoes in Italian cuisine. The plant was identified by Europeans as being a member of the nightshade family. This fact in conjunction with its high acidity caused it to leach lead from pewter plates and made many Europeans very skeptical of the tomato as a food plant.
Cabbage – Europe
Cabbage was domesticated in Europe sometime before 1000 BC. A candidate for its wild ancestor is found in Britain and continental Europe.
Ancient Greeks wrote at length about cabbage. The Greeks believed cabbages and grapevines were inimical, meaning if you planted cabbage next to a grape vine it would make the grapes taste bad. And evidently Mediterranean peoples carried this belief into the present.
Some Romans considered cabbage a table luxury although the politician and general Lucullus considered it unfit for the senatorial table. Cato the Elder, who promoted a simple agrarian lifestyle as the Roman ideal, ate cabbage cooked or raw.
Cabbage was a food staple in such countries as Germany, England, Ireland and Russia during the 17th and 18th centuries. Sauerkraut made from cabbage was used by Dutch, Scandinavian and German sailors to prevent scurvy during long ship voyages.
Apple – Asia
The original wild ancestor of the modern apple was found in the mountains of Central Asia in what are now the countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and China. It is thought the apple travelled along the Silk Road to Europe, with hybridization and introgression of wild crabapples along the way.
Apples, like peaches, have a somewhat narrow range of climate for successful cultivation, however hybridization with crabapples has lessened this. Apple trees require a chilling period and therefore do not mature properly without a sufficiently brisk winter.
Mango – Asia
Mangoes have been cultivated in South Asia for thousands of years. Cultivation had begun in Africa by the 10th century. Cultivation eventually spread to Brazil, Bermuda, the West Indies, and Mexico where favorable, frost-free climates exist. Andalusia, Spain is one of the few places in mainland Europe where mangos can grow. India is the largest producer of mangoes but hardly exports any, consuming most of its own production. Many of the more than 1,000 mango cultivars are cultivated using grafted saplings.
Coffee Beans – Africa
The coffee plant originated in Africa within the Sahel region. Many point to the forests of the Ethiopian plateau more specifically as an origin of domestication. There, legend says a goat herder named Kaldi discovered coffee’s potential when his goats wouldn’t go to sleep after eating the beans of the wild coffee plants.
Pineapple – South America
The wild pineapple originates from the area around southern Brazil and eastern Paraguay. It spread throughout South America as a cultivated crop, eventually reaching the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, where it was cultivated by the Mayas and the Aztecs.
The first European to encounter the pineapple was Columbus in 1493. The Portuguese took the fruit from Brazil and introduced it into India by 1550. The Spanish spread it from Latin America to the Philippines.
Strawberries – Americas
The modern garden varieties of strawberries we think of today originated when North and South American varieties were crossed in Brittany, France during the late 18th century—go figure.
The strawberry fruit was mentioned in ancient Roman literature and the French began taking the strawberry from the forest to their gardens for harvest in the 14th century. Prior to this, wild strawberries and cultivated selections from wild strawberry species were the common source of the fruit.
Interestingly, the strawberry is not a berry. Technically, it is an aggregate accessory fruit. Each apparent “seed” (achene) on the outside of the fruit is really one of the ovaries of the flower, with a seed inside it.
Turnip – Europe
Wild forms of the turnip are found throughout Europe and into Western Asia. Mustard and radishes are related to the turnip. Cultivation of edible turnips may have begun in northern Europe and were an important food in the Hellenistic and Roman world. The turnip eventually spread east to China, and reached Japan by 700 AD.
Almond – Middle East
The almond is native to Iran and surrounding areas. Humans spread it in ancient times along the shores of the Mediterranean into northern Africa and southern Europe. The wild form of domesticated almond grows in parts of the Levant. Domestication began by selection of the sweet type from the many bitter types in the wild.
Almonds were one of the earliest domesticated fruit trees. Domesticated almonds appear in the Early Bronze Age (3000–2000 BC), such as the archaeological sites of modern day Jordan. The almond fruit was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt.
Banana – Southeast Asia
Domestication of bananas were from naturally occurring seedless plants in New Guinea. An archaeological site in that country called the Kuk Swamp dates evidence of banana cultivation to between 10,000 and 6,500 BC. Cultivated bananas spread westward from New Guinea into Southeast Asia. The spread and hybridization of the earliest cultivars produced the triploids commonly grown today. East African Highland bananas originated from banana populations introduced to Madagascar probably from the region between Java, Borneo, and New Guinea.