The indigenous peoples of the Americas, just like the people in Europe and other parts of the world, were responsible for a number of brilliant inventions. The difference was that the inventions produced by people in the New World didn't involve machines, but rather the clever management of the natural environment to improve the quality of life. The most important example is the many types of food that were "invented" (or domesticated and cultivated) by indigenous Americans.
Beginning in the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese traders carried foods first domesticated and grown in the Americas around the world, where they were used by people in Europe, Africa, India, and Asia to create some of their cultures' signature dishes. Today, New World foods such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, peppers, peanuts, chocolate, vanilla, and pineapples turn up in African stews, Indian curries, Italian soups, and Thai sauces. Potatoes and maize (corn) gave poorer populations inexpensive, easy-to-grow crops, which contributed to massive population growth in places like Ireland, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. By one estimate, three-fifths of the crops now being cultivated around the world were developed by indigenous Americans.
It's amazing the amount of food the New World provided the Old. Corn, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, different types of beans, sweet potatoes, chocolate, peanuts, and many other things. There were also items like sugar, which most Europeans weren't able to afford until it began to be produced in mass quantities in the Americas. In the end, this may have been the biggest transfer of food in world history. Many of the things we think of as ordinary food on both sides of the Atlantic emerged from this encounter. And if you don't believe me, think of Italy without tomato sauce, Belgium without chocolate, Spain without gazpacho, and France—and everyone else—without French fries. - James Amelang, historian
Beware of Tomatoes and Potatoes
Initially, many Europeans were wary when Spanish explorers introduced New World foods to Europe. Even modern day staples like tomatoes and potatoes encountered resistance. People in Northern Europe thought the now-ubiquitous tomato was an aphrodisiac, poisonous, or caused disease; so, for decades, respectable people refused to the eat them. Tomatoes became popular first in Italy and Spain where the plant grew easily and became an essential part of gazpacho and Italian sauces.
White potatoes were domesticated in the Americas around 3000 BC, but when they arrived in Europe in the late 1500s, they were suspected of causing leprosy, perhaps due to their rough, lumpy skin. In some areas, laws were passed against eating them. Even though potatoes flourished in the cold climate of northern Europe, were easy to grow, and yielded far more food per acre than corn or wheat, it took a century before Europeans planted them routinely. Famines, bad weather, and the encouragement of the aristocracy eventually convinced people of the value of potatoes, and the crop became a staple in Prussia, Russia, France, and Ireland, where the impoverished ate little else.
As potatoes made their way around the world, white potatoes were planted in colder climates, while sweet potatoes took hold in the warmer environments of India, Africa, southeast Asia, and China.
Some New World foods, particularly chocolate, vanilla, and pineapples, were so flavorful that they were immediately popular wherever they were served.
Chocolate, originally derived from the cacao plant found only in Mesoamerica, was widely revered among peoples of that region. From the Olmecs, who were probably the first to grow cacao and process the pods, or beans, into chocolate, to the Mayas and the Mexicas, people drank a bitter beverage made with chocolate and water on special occasions. In fact, the word chocolate comes from xocolātl, a word that in the Mexica language, or Nahuatl, means "bitter water." The Mexicas, who also used the cacao seeds as money, combined their beverage with chilies, vanilla, herbs, annatto, or honey, but reserved it for wealthy or powerful men—women did not drink chocolate.
Soon after conquistador Hernán Cortés brought cacao seeds to the court of King Charles V, the drink became the rage among Spanish nobility. Spaniards were the first to add cane sugar from Asia to the chocolate drink, making the beverage even more appealing. By 1660, chocolate was the beverage of choice for the French court at Versailles, and soon chocolate shops opened in London where young men could sip the drink along with other new beverages like coffee from Arabia and tea from Asia.
Until the early 1800s, the drink Europeans enjoyed was very similar to that served by the Aztecs and Mayas. Cocoa powder and edible chocolate did not exist until Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten invented a machine to process cacao in 1828.
The Totonacs, who lived along the Gulf Coast of present-day Mexico, were the first to process vanilla from the seedpod of an orchid. The Mexicas required the Totonacs to provide their finest pods to emperor Montezuma as a form of tax payment and used vanilla in their cacao drinks, as did Europeans after the plants arrived in Spain. By learning to hand pollinate the orchids in the 1800s, Europeans were able to cultivate the orchid flowers in their colonies.
Another immediate success with Spanish nobles was the pineapple, which was native to South America and arrived in Europe in the early 1500s. The fruit was difficult to ship and remained the domain of the wealthy for several hundred years, even inspiring artisans to carve pineapples into furniture and door frames. By the 1800s, pineapples were being grown in Asia, Australia, Africa, and Hawaii.
Hits Around the World
Hot peppers, chilies, sweet peppers, green peppers, cayenne, or paprika (known collectively as capsicum) were domesticated in the New World about 7,000 years ago and became a core part of the diets of Native Americans. Although not quickly adopted by Europeans, the capsicums become extremely popular in parts of the world used to eating spicy foods. Carried to distant ports by Portuguese spice traders, peppers were being grown in Africa and India by 1540. They caught on so quickly in China and India that within three years, Europeans were already referring to them as Indian peppers. Across Africa and throughout Asia, people added peppers to their native foods, creating their own unique sauces and dishes. Carried through Turkey to Hungary, peppers became known as paprika and were ground into a powder that became a staple of Hungarian cooking. In time, Spanish cooks began roasting red peppers and marinating them in olive oil to produce pimentos.
Maize was a revered food in the Americas from New England to Peru. Domesticated by farmers about 8,000 years ago, New World cultures ground maize into dough or boiled, broiled, or popped it over hot coals. They also combined it with water and other ingredients such as honey, chocolate, and pepper to make a drink.
Although Western Europeans had little interest in maize, people in the poorer regions of southern and eastern Europe began to grow it. In northern Italy, the grain was ground and cooked with water to create a type of porridge called polenta. In West Africa, where slave traders first used maize to feed the slaves, it eventually became a basic food for millions of Africans. By the 1700s maize was being grown in China and was a staple crop in India by the 1800s. Today, by weight, more corn is harvested than any other crop in the world.
Domesticated in the Andes (most likely in Peru) more than 3,000 years ago, the humble peanut also changed cooking around the world. Like peppers, peanuts were quickly accepted in Africa where the climate was suitable for growing the plant. A good source of protein, peanuts became a standard ingredient in many soups and stews in West Africa. Asians ground the nut and added it to sauces, particularly in Indonesia and Thailand where peanut sauces became popular additions to meat and rice dishes. There, peanuts were sprinkled on salads, and combined with spicy peppers, coconut, and lime to create the distinctive flavors now associated with their cuisines. Peanuts were crushed to make peanut oil in parts of Asia and Africa; today, peanut oil remains the most important cooking oil in these regions.
From East to West
The flow of foods between the New and Old Worlds also went from east to west. Slow to adapt to corn and other New World staples, Europeans settlers heading for the Americas carried with them their favorite grains and fruits. Many of these plants had been domesticated in the Middle East or Asia several thousand years earlier: wheat, barley, oats, rice, soy, peaches, pears, watermelon, bananas, and olives. Okra and black-eyed peas were introduced to the Americas from Africa. But perhaps the biggest change in the Old World diet came from the domesticated animals the Europeans introduced to the Americas. Before contact with the Spanish, the New World had few animals—llama, alpaca, ducks, turkeys, guinea pigs, and wolves—suitable for domestication. Within a few years, they were raising and eating chickens, pigs, sheep, and cows, all brought over from the Old World. Although rarely used for food, the horse was a particularly potent European export, giving the Americas its largest domesticated animal and changing the way New World cultures farmed, traveled, and transported crops and materials.