Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Garcia da Orta

People frequently ask the CC what he finds so endlessly fascinating about Spain, and the simple answer is that due to their complex society and insane wealth, they produced the most interesting personalities in science and art on the entire planet for their time.

The expulsion of the Jews due to the Reyes Catolicos (Ferdinand II and Isabella I in 1492) caused a massive upheaval among the highly intellectual community of Jews in Spain. They either converted (conversos) or fled.

The Orta family fled to nearby Portugal — little did they know that the Inquisition was coming there next.

Garcia de Orta was born in 1501 or 1502. He was trained as a physician, and practiced medicine in Lisbon. With the growing power of the Inquisition, he fled to India in 1534 and settled in Goa serving kings, governors and viceroys.

He was clearly successful. He was even granted a lease to the then worthless islands of what is now modern-day Bombay (!) though he never lived there.

His culinary claim to fame is his masterpiece Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India (Conversations on the simples and drugs of India) which is the unique book that tells us about the culinary knowledge of pre-New-World India.

It's written in the Galileo-style of conversations between the author and an imaginary colleague, Ruano, and basically walks us through all the known culinary spices and herbs in alphabetical order.

It should be noted that there wasn't a strict distinction between cuisine and medicine in those days (courtesy of Galen) and there is considerable evidence that he was a polymath speaking sufficiently in half a dozen local Indian languages (besides the usual Greek, Latin, Arabic which was expected of an educated man of his generation.)

While his life was not tragic, his story does end tragically. He died in 1568 but was "convicted" posthumously of "Judaism" and his remains were exhumed and burned in an auto da fé in 1580.

What's unique about his work is his independence of "received wisdom" of Greek, Latin or Arabic authorities. It's a strict example of the scientific method where claims have to be demonstrated not just stated as truth.
"Don't try and frighten me with Diocorides or Galen because I am only going to say what I know to be true."
His empirical work on tamarind stands in stark contrast to the "received wisdom" of Arabic writers which considered them as "dates". By restricting himself to empirical observation, he markedly advanced the science of food in the Indian subcontinent.

For all the tragedy, it is useful to know that he was well received in his time, and respected for his unique orignality.

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