It is difficult to imagine Indian cooking without tomatoes & chilies, both of which came in from the 'New World' - thanks to the Portuguese. No less critical are some of the other plants that came from the Americas -- potatoes, avocados, corn, cocoa, tapioca (manioc/kappa), artichokes, and squashes of all sorts.
Now it turns out that an entire country - Israel - owes its dominant social identity, ethos and national spirit to a cactus plant that originated in Mexico!
I was browsing through "Fortress Israel" - a new book by Patrick Tyler - when I came across a new word: Sabra. It is apparently a tough species of prickly-pear that clings to the Mediterranean coastline.
Opuntia Sp. (aka Sabra) - pics from Wikipedia
This is the plant that the Zionist pioneers chose to describe and differentiate themselves from the mass of Holocaust survivors and immigrants who flooded into Israel from Europe, North Africa, Iraq, Yemen and Morocco. The Sabras saw themselves as new Jews, no longer a 'caricature of passivism, dependence, and weakness, but a people determined to take its fate into its own hands'.
In a hostile and unstable region, the sabras saw themselves as tough and self-reliant fighters, never as interested in debate as in taking action, less interested in accommodation with the Arabs than in seizing objectives and creating facts on the ground. And yet, just like the Sabra cactus, they wanted to be tough on the outside, but delicate & sweet inside.
It is amazing to recall that clumps of this very cactus species lined the roads leading to our school at Uppal, Hyderabad. During the summer holidays, we used to scratch names on their flat, thick leaves, and extract the viscous sap for fixing glass powder on to the 'maanja' strings used for competitive kite-flying.
I always imagined these cacti to be the original inhabitants of every arid landscape in the country. It is mildly shocking to know that this plant too came from the Americas!
The prickly pear (Opunta Stricta) is also a the centerpiece of one of the most successful examples of 'biological control'. In the early 1900s a despairing Australian government signed up an entomologist named Alan Todd, as a last resort to deal with Opuntia that had invaded over 260,000 sq.km of farmland. In 1925, Todd brought in the Nopal Moth from South America to feed on these cactii, and within a few years, Opuntia was no longer an 'invasive weed'.
Perhaps they came with unknown Portuguese sailors who stocked them in their ships as a handy veggie to prevent scurvy; or maybe the birds brought it into the heart of the India peninsula, and to the Mediterranean to become a mascot for the Jews in their new homeland!