Word of the Day Pilpel: How Christopher Columbus' Mistake Confounded Early Israeli Cooks

Ask your spouse to pick up 'pepper' and you'd better be specific, thanks to competing explorers giving the same name to very different plants.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Pilpelim but also gambot
Pilpelim but also gambotCredit: Dreamstime
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for pepper is pilpel.

The story of a geographical mix-up that wound up confusing two categorically different plants starts in India, the source of black pepper, where it was called pippeli. The spice was brought to the Middle East by Persian merchants in the mid-first century BCE, where Jews encountered it for the first time in its Aramaic form - pilpel. That is the name of the pepper in the Mishnah and the Talmud and that is its name to this very day.

It wasn’t only to the Middle East that Persians carried the spice: they also sold their wares to the Greeks, who adapted the word to suit their language, creating the word peperi. This Greek word was later adopted by the Romans, who transferred it to the languages of Europe.

During the Middle Ages, the Venetians monopolized the spice trade, significantly jacking up the price of pepper. Seeing opportunity, the Portuguese set out for India, sailing south around Africa, cutting out the Italian and Arab middlemen and making vast fortunes.

Meanwhile, their neighbors, the Spanish, were seduced by an unknown Italian named Christopher Columbus into trying to reach India from the other direction – head west, circle the globe and reach the pepper-rich coast from the east.

Israelis would also call this pilpelCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Remember, they didn't know about the American continent and Columbus sailed right to it. Not that he understood where he was. He didn’t find Indians or pepper, but believing that he had, he called the natives ‘Indians’ and their hot spice - the chili - pepper, though that fruit and the black seeds we know as pepper are totally unrelated.

On Columbus' second voyage, the ship doctor brought back chili seeds from America to the continent. The chilis were known as peppers and spread thusly throughout Europe.

Confusion in the Holy Land

Back in the Holy Land, in 1886, translating an agriculture book from the German to help the fledgling Hebrew agricultural community in Israel, Michel Yechiel Pines used the term pilpel ratuv for all fruit peppers, including chili and bell pepper. Ratuv in this context means "wet" - not dry.

Order was introduced in the early 20th century. Black pepper became pilpel shakhor; dry chili pepper was called paprika or pilpel adom, and green bell peppers were called pilpel yarok. Red bell peppers were apparently not known.

Then in the fall of 1948, new flat red bell peppers were introduced to the market, which the seed company called gambo, Israelis couldn’t use the term pilpel adom, since it was already taken by paprika.

Thus the new red peppers were called gambot (the plural of gambo). But people didn’t care what the seed company called their peppers and created the singular of gambot – gamba. Over the years, Israeli farmers stopped growing this variety of peppers, but Israelis continue calling red bell peppers gamba just the same. Paprika has been reduced to the familiar dry red spice.

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