Maize is arguably the single most important crop in the world and is rivalled only by soybeans in terms of versatility. That said, it is, along with sugar cane and palm oil, among the most controversial crops, proving particularly so to critics of industrial agriculture. Although maize is usually associated with the Western world, it has played a prominent role in Asia for a long time, and, in recent decades, its importance in Asia has soared. For better or worse, or more likely for better and worse, its role in Asia seems to be following the Western script.
When one thinks of food and foodways in Asia, it is hard to avoid the subject of rice. For good reason, too: rice for millennia has been primus inter pares among the continent’s sources of food. Not for nothing is rice known in India as dhanya, meaning sustainer of the human race. Another illustration – in some ways even more vivid – is that, in traditional China, a common (and polite) way of saying hello was via the idiomatic expression ‘Have you eaten your rice today?’ And, speaking of China, one can’t spend much time there without hearing someone talk about their pursuit of a career with the promise of an ‘iron rice bowl’ – ie, guaranteed job security. In other words, rice rules.
Not so fast, though. Although rice may be numero uno in Asia, we’ve long known that other cultigens – indeed other foods, more broadly – have played prominent roles there as well. Fish and seafood constitute hugely important sources of protein in much of Asia, and cereal grains such as wheat, millet and, to a lesser extent, oats provide sustenance to large numbers in various parts of Asia, and have done so for long periods of time. Legumes (including soybeans) are important virtually everywhere in Asia, as are other vegetables and fruits, and taro and breadfruit have their places, too.
Moreover, ever since the onset of the so-called Columbian Exchange in the late 15th century, ‘New World’ crops from the Western hemisphere have been part of the mix, in certain areas profoundly influencing and enriching Asian diets, agricultural production patterns and foodways. Numerous legumes from the Americas, for example, were adopted in various parts of Asia, as were vegetables and fruits such as squashes of various kinds, pumpkin, papaya, guava, avocado, tomatoes, pineapples, cocoa and, of course, chili peppers (fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum), without the last of which meals in many parts of Asia simply cannot do. More important still – in a caloric sense at least – have been the roles of American cultigens such as peanuts, manioc, Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, the last two of which became indispensable dietary mainstays in numerous Asian countries, along with one other cultigen, the cereal maize (Zea mays), my principal focus of attention here…
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