Indian Black Pepper, Piper nigrum, was the sole spice known to Europe in ancient times. The spice was so prized that it was worth its weight in gold. Expeditions by ship, overcoming the fear of falling over the “ends of the Earth” in that era, when it was believed that the Earth was flat and had four corners, were launched to get rid of the Arab traders and source pepper directly from India.
Columbus and Magellan found spicy chilies in the Americas and they came to be known as Bell Pepper or Green Pepper. In the Konkani language, pepper is known as Miri, and so, the pod-like chilli became Miri-sang.
The Chinese had another alternative that was known as Sichuan Pepper, a close relative of the tirphal or teifoll, Zanthoxylum rhetsa. It belongs to the Citrus family, Rutaceae.
The Portuguese called it Limao pimentose because it had pungency, tinged with a lemony flavour.
The tirphal tree stands out even in a forest because of its stout, cone-shaped spines which remind one of the pre-World War military armour on the wooden doors of the forts. Botanically known as Zanthoxylum rhetsa, it is commonly known as Indian prickly ash.
It is a common tree – from India and Myanmar to the Philippines and to northern Australia. It is a deciduous shrub or tree and sheds its leaves to make the maturing berries visible.
During Carnival and Shigmo, one will more likely find the tirphal in fish curry, but during the monsoon version of the Shimga that is known as Bonderam in the two comunidades of Piedade and Malar, the tirphal finds its pride of place in the fottas.
The fottas is a pipe-gun made of hollow bamboo, with a piston of a solid bamboo stick, fitted into a handle. The piston is about 2 cm (one inch approximately) shorter than the hollow tube.
One green tirphal is pushed down the hollow and then the next berry is pushed about half-way down. This is the ‘loaded’ position of the pipe-gun.
One strong push of the piston and the compressed air between the two berries launches the first berry with a force that will bruise the skin of the person who it hits, and the spice will give a burning sensation!
The fottas has been banned at the Bonderam in Piedade due to abuse of the fottas by youth targeting some tourists at the float parade. It is still available at the Malar Bonderam where its use is regulated.
Many restaurants in Goa, which serve fish-curry rice thali for lunch, use tirphal berries in the curry. Mature berries are dried in shade and hung up to preserve for use during the off-season. These are available with local vendors throughout the year.
The spice contains a chemical ingredient, sanshool, a local anesthetic that causes a tingling sensation on the tongue. Sanshool is also the main principle of Sichuan Pepper, which are berries of a related species, Zanthoxylum bungeanum, and the Japanese pepper or Korean pepper Zanthoxylum piperitum. They are also used to flavour cocktails.
Why not try some tirphal this Carnival season!
The author is the former Chairman of the GCCI Agriculture Committee, CEO of Planter's Choice Pvt Ltd, Additional Director of OFAI and Garden Superintendent of Goa University, and has edited 18 books for Goa & Konkan