Some of the most commonplace foods we take for granted weren’t always so easy to come by. In many cases, it was Jewish traders or businesspeople who introduced basic ingredients to new markets. Take artichokes – for years, Italians called this vegetable “Jewish food”, because Jews introduced it to the region. In Spain, Jews introduced eggplant; the vegetable was so associated with Jews that during the Spanish Inquisition, eating eggplant was even grounds for accusing someone of being a secret Jew.

Here are six other common foods whose popularity was spread by Jews.

Growing Oranges in Europe

Surprisingly, the Jewish holiday of Sukkot helped popularize oranges in Europe. Because Jews use etrogs to celebrate Sukkot, Jews in Southern Europe were adept at tending to citrus trees and orchards. (In fact, in the chaotic period after the fall of the Roman Empire, Jews are thought to have been the only people continuing to grow citrus fruit in Europe.) When Arab traders started bringing the first oranges from India to Europe to sell in the Middle Ages, Jewish citrus growers added the new fruit to their orchards.

Soon, oranges became a quintessential Sephardi Jewish food, used in cakes, meat dishes, and salads. Food history writer Gil Marks notes that “It was by no coincidence that the centers of medieval citrus cultivation directly corresponded to the centers of Jewish population.” (Quoted in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, John Wiley & Sons: 2010.) Jewish traders brought oranges – as well as etrogs and other citrus fruit – to Jewish communities in northern Europe, where they were a coveted treat. In some Ashkenazi Jewish communities, an orange was a popular Hanukkah gift. Later, Sephardi Jews introduced orange cultivation to South America and the Caribbean, as well.

In more recent times, Jewish peddlers introduced oranges to mass markets in western Europe. In a book about London’s poor published in 1851, the author Henry Mayhew noted that “the (orange) trade was, not many years ago, confined almost entirely to the Jew boys who kept aloof from the vagrant lads of the streets”. (London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1861.)

Jewish vendors sold oranges from baskets or stalls on busy streets, and later branched into the wholesale and import markets, ensuring that oranges became available widely in Europe and beyond.

Secret Formula for Vanilla

Vanilla is native to the eastern coast of Mexico, and for years the Totonac Indians and Aztecs cultivated it and cooked with the fragrant vanilla flowers. Vanilla only develops its delicious flavor after weeks of intense processing; Native American chefs developed top-secret techniques to cook vanilla, and refused to share their knowledge with European conquerors. But they did let some Jewish traders and interpreters in on their secret.

Jews – both Sephardi Jews and also secret “Converso” Jews who maintained their Jewish identity and practice in secret in order to outwit the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions – often served as translators in the 1500s and 1600s. Jews in the New World frequently spoke Dutch, Spanish and English, and also taught themselves some indigenous languages, and were in high demand among traders. Some of these Jewish interpreters gained native Indians’ trust.

The first non-natives to manufacture vanilla were David and Rafael Mercado, Jewish brothers who settled in what is today French Guiana, and built a sugar processing plant there. The local Dutch authorities forbade them from making sugar, so the Mercado brothers turned to vanilla instead. Vanilla is extremely hard to grow, but the Mercados – and soon other Jewish producers – developed methods to make vanilla commercially viable.

Sephardi Jews began exporting vanilla to Jewish communities in Europe. Ashkenazi Jews entered the vanilla trade too, and for years the vanilla industry was closely associated with Jewish producers, who never let out the secret to vanilla production. It was only in the mid-1800s that French traders succeeded in smuggling vanilla plants out of Mexico to the French tropical colony Tahiti; it took years to grow them there. Eventually, Jewish dominance of the vanilla industry faded away as vanilla became more widespread and popular and scientific advances in Europe allowed people to process vanilla more easily. (For more information, see Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, John Wiley & Sons: 2010).

Jewish Doctor Prescribing Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a New World fruit, brought back to Europe by Spanish conquerors in the 1500s. While tomatoes quickly became popular in the Ottoman Empire and were embraced by Middle Eastern cooks, including Jews, it took generations for Western Europeans to start eating them.

Tomatoes were a popular plant to grow, but only for ornamental purposes, and were considered dangerous to eat. Many Europeans thought tomatoes were poisonous, in part because they’re a member of the nightshade plant family, which contains poisonous plants, and also because diners used to eat off of pewter plates, which reacted negatively with the acidity in tomatoes, causing unpleasant tastes and sickening some diners.

One of the first Westerners to recognize tomatoes’ high nutritional value was a Jewish physician living in 18th Century Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Dr. John de Sequeyra. He took care of Thomas Jefferson’s father, and had some progressive ideas. Dr de Sequeyra believed tomatoes were chock-full of vitamins and advised eating one tomato every day. Dr. de Sequeyra made an impression on the Jefferson family, and Thomas Jefferson took Dr. de Sequeyra’s advice. One day, Thomas Jefferson announced he would eat a tomato in public; a crowd gathered and waited for ill effects. None came, and tomatoes began to be embraced in Virginia, and beyond.

(Discussed in Notes on an Early Virginia Physician: Dr. John de Sequeyra: The Portuguese-Jewish PHysician of Colonial Williamsburg by Robert Shosteck, American Jewish Archives: 1971).

Bringing Coffee to the West

Native to Ethiopia, coffee beans were being used to make beverages in Yemen in the Middle Ages. From there, coffee drinking made its way north, becoming popular throughout the Middle East. Years later, Jews were in the vanguard of bringing coffee to Western Europe, introducing this delicious beverage to European consumers and building coffeehouses where it could be sampled and enjoyed.

Jews in the Italian city of Livorno opened the first coffeehouses in Europe in 1632. It was a huge success, and soon, Jews, as well as Turks and Armenians, were opening coffeehouses in the Netherlands and France, encouraging the first generation of coffee drinkers in those countries. England’s first coffeehouse was the brainchild of a businessman known as “Jacob the Jew”, who opened the Angel Inn in Oxford in 1650. Four years later, another Jew named Cirques Jobson opened England’s second coffeehouse nearby.

French Chocolates

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which are indigenous to Mexico. European explorers encountered xocalatl, a bitter drink made from cocoa beans that was popular with the Aztecs. In the 1600s, European settlers competed to produce and export cocoa beans and products made with them from Mexico; many of these early traders were Sephardi Jews.

The world’s first commercial cocoa-producing factory was founded in the late 1600s by Benjamin d’Acosta de Andrade, a secret Jew from Portugal. When Benjamin was expelled from a French colony in the Caribbean, he moved to the Dutch-controlled island of Curacao, where Jews could live openly, and began manufacturing cocoa. Many of his customers seem to have been European Jews, who developed a taste for early chocolate products.

The center of chocolate production in Europe in the 1600s was the Jewish ghetto of Bayonne, France. Jews had moved to Bayonne from Portugal after the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. They brought their business ties to traders in the Americas with them, and for a time, Bayonne was one of Europe’s most prolific traders with West Indies, importing chocolate and other products into France.

Jews in Bayonne experimented with cooking techniques, mixing bitter cocoa beans with sugar, cream, vanilla and other ingredients to create sweet-tasting delicious chocolates. They built Europe’s first ever chocolate factories and soon Bayonne was the center of the new craze for chocolate that was sweeping France. Non-Jews near Bayonne began producing chocolates too, and Christian producers started pressuring the French government to stop Jews from selling chocolate and competing with their French counterparts. In 1691, the French government banned Bayonne’s Jews from selling chocolates to Christians.

In 2013, French authorities formally recognized and thanked the Jewish community of Bayonne for bringing chocolate to France 500 years before. “Since we are the inheritors of the Jews’ savoir faire, it was our duty to thank them, but also to restore a historic truth: after they introduced chocolate to France, Bayonne Jewry was gradually evicted from the chocolate industry in the 17h century by the very people who had learned everything from them” explained Jean-Michel Barate, then head of the Chocolate Academy of Bayonne.

Inventing “Kiwifruit”

Frieda Caplan started working in her husband’s family business, selling wholesale fruits and vegetables in Los Angeles, in 1955 because she could work flexible hours and be with her young children. The child of Jewish refugees from Russia, she was part of a tight-knit Jewish family. Other wholesalers in Los Angeles regarded Frieda as a curiosity, and whenever an unknown type of produce would arrive in the market, sellers would shunt it to Frieda. She started her own company, Produce Specialties, Inc., in 1962, focusing on importing and distributing fruits and vegetables that were little known in the United States.

Frieda Caplan

One of her first customers was a buyer in Salt Lake City who’d just come back from New Zealand and tasted delicious fruit there called “Chinese Gooseberries”. The product wasn’t available in the United States – could Frieda Caplan import some for him, he wondered? Frieda ordered a delivery, but didn’t think something called Chinese Gooseberries would sell in the US. Since the fruits were grown in New Zealand, she renamed them kiwifruit instead. It took about 18 years, Frieda estimated, for kiwis to become popular in the United States, but by 1986 she was selling a million pounds of kiwis each year.

Kiwis aren’t the only fruits introduced and popularized in the United States by Frieda Caplan. She also introduced seedless watermelon, spaghetti squash, habanero chilis, sugar snap peas, jicama and “champagne” grapes (which she named – they were previously called Zante currants) to the American market. Previously unavailable or only sold in specialty ethnic stores, these popular fruits and vegetables are now widely popular and commonly available – thanks to Frieda Caplan and her years of innovative importing and marketing business