Thursday, March 17, 2005

Potatoes in India, as per Achaya

Some of what Achaya has to say about the potato's history in India is reproduced below, including his references. He may well be wrong, or may simply have presented only one side of a controversial issue. I think most accounts of the potato in India assume Fryer (see below) witnessed the potato, not the sweet potato.


Though termed papa in South America, they [potatoes] were incorrectly called batata (the name for the sweet potato) when John Gerard first described them in English in 1597, and this name stuck. As a result of this confusion in nomenclature, it is doubtful whether the potato mentioned in the well-documented dinner given in Ajmer by Asaf Khan to Sir Thomas Roe in 1615 [82] and again noted by Fryer in 1675 as constituting a garden crop (along with the brinjal) in Karnataka and Surat, was really the potato at all, and was perhaps the sweet potato, known much earlier in India. [32d, 320].

However, the identity of the 'basket of potatoes', considered worthy enough to be offered as a gift to Warren Hastings around AD 1780, is not in doubt, since he even invited members of his Council to dine with him and partake of the unusual gift [32d].

...By 1780, potatoes, peas and beans, according to an 1860 report [332], were in high repute as foods in Calcutta; the report adds that 'the Dutch are said to have been the first to introduce the culture of potatoes, which were received from their settlement in the Cape of Good Hope. From them the British received annually the seeds of every kind of vegetable useful at the table, as well as several plants of which there appears to be much need, especially various kinds of pot herbs.' [332]

..In about AD 1830, potatoes came to be grown on terraced slopes in the Dehra Dun hils though the efforts of a Captain Youns and a Mr Shore who simultaneously developed the hill stations of Mussoorie and Landour. [331] first it grew especially well in elevated terrain. A major breakthrough in the control of viruses spread by aphids enabled very high yields of potatoes even in the plains.[333]

Elsewhere, Achaya writes:

In AD 1615 Edward Terry mentioned potatoes, and so did John Fryer in AD 1678, but since potatoes had not by then reached India, these were probably sweet potatoes, which were equally strange to the English visitors.

[32d] J.B Hutchinson (ed.) Diversity and Change in the Indian Subcontinent, Cambridge University Press, 1974, M.N. Upadhya, p. 139
[82] Mohommad Azhar Ansari, European Travellers under the Mughals (1580-1627), Idarah-i-Adabiyat-i Delhi, Delhi, pp. 76-103
[320]H.A. Jones and L.K. Mann, Onion and its Allies, Leonard Hill Books Ltd., London, 1963, p. 18 and p. 36
[330]Pushkarnath, The Potato in India, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, 1964.
[331]Ruskin Bond, 'How Potato Spawned a Hill Station', Sunday Herald, Bangalore, 18 January 1987.
[332]James Long (ed.) 'The Adventurers', Calcutta Review, 1860, vol. 35; reproduced in Echoes of Old Calcutta, S. Das Gupta (ed.), Naya Prakash, Calcutta, 1981, pp. 68-138.
[333]B.B. Nagaich, 'Major Achievements in Potato Production through Plant-protection Research', Golden Jubilee Symposium, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, Sept. 1979.

Elsewhere one finds that the potato was introduced into England in 1590. India recently overtook the US to become the third largest producer of potatoes, behind China and Russia.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Traditional South Indian Breakfast

(Modified from a posting of mine on

The question was - when could one first have had what is considered to be the traditional South Indian breakfast - idlis, chutney with chillis and coffee?

Using "A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food" by K. T. Achaya (published by Oxford University Press) one can answer this question.

The chilli or green pepper is a New World food, and took a while to reach India.

Achaya on chilli says - there is no mention whatsoever of the chilli in Indian literature before the sixteenth century AD. In AD 1563 the meticulous book of Garcia da Orta, the doctor-botanist does not record it, and in AD 1590, not a single recipe of the fifty or more given in the Ain-i-Akbari uses anything other than pepper to achieve pungency.......

[However, even at that time, the chilli was making inroads, for Achaya notes:] "The great south Indian composer Purandaradasa (AD 1480-1564) sang of the chili - "I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used. Savior of the poor, enhancer of good food, even to think of (the deity) Panduranga Vittala is difficult"".

The origins of the idli are uncertain:

Achaya says that the Indonesians have a variety of fermented foods (including soyabeans, groundnuts, fish), and have a product similar to the idli, called kedli. The cooks who accompanied the Hindu kings on their visits to India may have carried this recipe to India. Xuan Zang (old spelling Hsuan Tsang) apparently was emphatic that seventh century AD India did not have a steaming vessel. But Achaya notes that steaming can be achieved using a cloth cover over a boiling pot, so the antiquity of this cooking method in India is difficult to establish. In any case, the earliest literary reference he finds is to iddalige in the Vaddaradhane of Sivakotyacharya, a Kannada work from AD 920.

Coffee, as per Achaya, originated in Ethiopia, and the first coffee plantations were in Yemen. The first mention in writing in the Indian context is by Edward Terry, 1618 AD, using an anglicization of an Arabic word: 'Many of the people who are strict about their religion use no wine at all. They use a liquor more healthful than pleasant which they call cohha: a black seed boiled in water, which little alters the taste of the water. Notwithstanding, it is very good to help digestion, to quicken the spirits and cleanse the blood. " "Sixty years later, Jean de Thevenot remarked that in Sindh the brahmins drank nothing but 'water wherein they put coffee and tea.'

So, I'd guess, around 1650, you could have easily had the traditional breakfast. Aurangzeb was on the Mughal throne; the Plymouth Colony in the US was 30 years old. Isaac Newton was 8 years old. The news of King Charles I beheading may have reached you. China had an estimated 83 million population. About 12 years prior, the Japanese shogun had driven out the Portuguese. Such would be the morning newspaper, if you had had one to peruse along with breakfast. (If you wanted a newspaper, you'd have to wait till 1780, when the first Indian newspaper, an English weekly known as the Bengal Gazette (Hicky's Gazette), was published from Calcutta. )

Monday, March 14, 2005

Does evolution result in more male variability?

In his commentary on the Harvard President Lawrence Summers' speculations on the reasons why women are underrepresented in the sciences, Steve Pinker writes in The New Republic:

Since most sex differences are small and many favor women, they don't necessarily give an advantage to men in school or on the job. But Summers invoked yet another difference that may be more consequential. In many traits, men show greater variance than women, and are disproportionately found at both the low and high ends of the distribution. Boys are more likely to be learning disabled or retarded but also more likely to reach the top percentiles in assessments of mathematical ability, even though boys and girls are similar in the bulk of the bell curve. The pattern is readily explained by evolutionary biology. Since a male can have more offspring than a female--but also has a greater chance of being childless (the victims of other males who impregnate the available females)--natural selection favors a slightly more conservative and reliable baby-building process for females and a slightly more ambitious and error-prone process for males. That is because the advantage of an exceptional daughter (who still can have only as many children as a female can bear and nurse in a lifetime) would be canceled out by her unexceptional sisters, whereas an exceptional son who might sire several dozen grandchildren can more than make up for his dull childless brothers. One doesn't have to accept the evolutionary explanation to appreciate how greater male variability could explain, in part, why more men end up with extreme levels of achievement.

This argument leaves me feeling uneasy. I'm not sure I can put my finger on the reason why. The best I can do is as follows:

First, let us understand why the sex ratio is 1 or virtually 1. If there is a preponderance of females, then the average male is more likely to have offspring (and pass down genes to the next generation) than the average female. Likewise, if there is a preponderance of males, the female gets an advantage. Thus the unequal sex ratio is unstable, and evolution will quickly make sure that the ratio of sexes evens out.

Notice that what counts is the number of males (and females) that are able to produce offspring. Thus for humans, at birth boys outnumber girls by a small margin, about 105 male births to every 100 female births, and this is because fewer boys survive childhood than girls; and I expect that the male/female ratio at prime reproductive age reduces to unity. (At the high-age end of things, human evolution could not have been influenced by the modern fact of us routinely living to beyond 40, and we should not use that to study evolution-induced tendencies.)

Suppose next that male variability is extreme, and all males can be classified into one of two groups - fit and unfit to produce offspring. Evolution then will change the sex ratio, so that the ratio of fit males to fit females is unity, and thus the overall sex ratio of males to females will be greater than 1.

So I argue (and I'm not yet sure how to compute this) that increased male variability would reduce the number of fit males, and thus evolution's tendency to equalize the numbers of fit males and fit females would make the overall male/female ratio greater than 1. The more variable male offspring are, the more advantageous it is to produce somewhat more male than female offspring, because with increased variability, more of the males are duds (reproductively, that is).

Another way evolution induces variability is because more variability increases the chances of successful adaption. In a rapidly changing environment, what constitutes reproductive fitness will not remain fixed from generation to generation, and more variability means the chances are higher that one of the offspring will be able to adapt and be reproductively successful. Here, Pinker's argument works as stated, I think, male variability will be favored over female variability. But whether this actually happened in the case of human evolution is highly dependent on the nature of the world during man's million years of evolution.

Variability of a characteristic will also increase if there is no selection pressure on that characteristic; deviations from the mean do not confer an advantage or disadvantage on its possessor. It is amusing to think that there is no selection pressure on male mathematical abilities, and so they have a wider variance than the mathematical abilities of women, which supposedly are more tightly clustered at the mean, showing evidence of greater selection. Men really do love women for their brains; math is a survival skill for women.


Which brings me to another point. Articles widely cite the fact that in some study from the 80s of early takers of the Scholastic Aptitude Test - 13 year olds or thereabouts - boys outnumber girls by a factor of thirteen in those who score above 700. Less cited is the fact that among college-bound students who took the SAT in 2001, the boys outnumbered girls by a factor of two, in the 700+ scores, a far cry from the 13-fold advantage exhibited by the younger cohort. Thus, the difference in mathematical precociousness could be purely a developmental time difference. I'm sure in verbal ability among 1 year-olds, girls will handily outscore boys. But by adulthood, there is scarcely any difference between the sexes. Not to sneeze at a two-to-one advantage; the point is that our ignorance of what is happening is quite apparent.


Update: One has to know Fischer's (1930) argument for why the sex ratio is one - this is provided in comment #6.

Sunday, March 13, 2005


I read more sci-fi/fantasy than is good for me. But it is a good way to wind down in the evenings.

Stephen Donaldson is back with more Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The first of a new series is "The Runes of the Earth". It is a familiar world with now familiar rules, nevertheless Donaldson manages to produce a few surprises.

Peter F. Hamilton I've never read before, but his Pandora's Star is quite entertaining. This book would classify towards the harder end of sci-fi, where increasing hardness means increasing scientific plausibility. Interstellar travel is provided for by wormholes. There is no single element in the book that I haven't encountered before; and the society depicted seems very Southern California to me; but I hope that the story completes as satisfyingly (and is published soon) in Judas Unchained

Other light reading I had was by Simon Green, the adventures of the Haven city guardsmen Hawk and Fisher. Murder mysteries in a fantasy landscape are difficult to do; because the reader needs some grasp of the rules of the universe. These are fun enough to waste a few hours over.


Non-light book - "The Fifth Discipline - The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization" by Peter Senge. This is an old book (from 1990), recommended to me by my father, when he heard from me some of my frustrations at work. I've just dipped into the book here and there. With these management-type books, the contents always seem like fluff, until one has experienced some situation like described in the book. To extend an analogy from the book, and to explain what I'm witnessing: suppose one has a headache, and one takes a couple of aspirin. Now the headache doesn't go away in five minutes. Taking two more aspirin every five minutes until the headache goes away; or declaring aspirin to be useless and searching for another cure - these seem to be the two common strategies in the organization where I am. Now, I'm not in a position to change this, but being aware of what is going on helps me deal with it.