Museums to show 'British' flavours have roots in Asia

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The fruit of
Piper nigrum and the pungent root of the
Zingiber officinale are substances that bear the exotic flavours of a far-off continent. It is only when stripped of their Latin names that many will realise they are two of the most common names in British cuisine - black pepper and ginger.

The fruit of Piper nigrum and the pungent root of the Zingiber officinale are substances that bear the exotic flavours of a far-off continent. It is only when stripped of their Latin names that many will realise they are two of the most common names in British cuisine - black pepper and ginger.

But if the organisers of a five-year project launched yesterday are successful, the two spices and 23 other plants from south Asia will be newly recognised for their role in transforming British society.

A coalition of museums and community groups led by Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, west London, aims to build an online database of personal accounts, recipes and folklore to promote interest in plants from the Indian subcontinent and their influence on Britain.

The scheme, run through a government-funded website (www.plantcultures.org.uk), aims to attract "socially excluded" members of the Asian community, in particular the elderly, by asking them to offer stories of how staples as common as rice or as unusual as the banyan tree are used.

The information will be added to the website, which is also intended as a resource for schools and community groups.

Professor Monique Simmonds, chief plant scientist at Kew, said: " These are all plants that have had a huge influence on this country at levels from cuisine to science - from tea to the opium poppy and morphine. But what we want to know is how these plants are being used every day by communities. We want to know about how they are grown on allotments through to the stories that are told about them.''

The Plant Cultures project, funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will feature 1,000 rarely seen images of the 25 plants taken from the collections of Kew, the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum. It will also be accompanied by exhibitions and garden visits, including a trail at Kew that will display many of the featured plants, from tea to the sandalwood tree.

Some have been chosen for their industrial or medicinal uses. Indigo, source of blue dye, has undergone a recent revival while the anti-microbial qualities of the neem tree are now used in insect repellents.

But much of the project's focus will be on food and the redefinition of once exotic foodstuffs, from mangoes to cardamom pods, as staples to be found in most British kitchens. Vicky Bhogal, 26, author of Cooking Like Mummyji, said: "There is little realisation that what is eaten in Asian homes is totally different from the dishes people have in an Indian restaurant. A project like this can redress that balance, not only for a white audience but also among Asians.''

FROM EAST TO WEST: THE STORECUPBOARD FAVOURITES

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Taken to India from China, garlic is a basic ingredient in Indian cuisine. Arrived in Britain in 16th century

Black pepper (Piper nigrum)

Produced from dried berries of the pepper tree, its main production centres are in the south Indian state of Kerala

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Powdered ginger was imported from India in Roman times. Stem ginger arrived with Asian immigration in the 1960s

Sugar (Saccharum officinarum)

Production of granular sugar by boiling cane juice was discovered in Asia, probably in the first millennium BC

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