Can you imagine any Indian recipes without a pinch of different spices or a blend of spices such as garam masala? India spices have carved a niche for themselves across the globe by adding flavor, texture and taste to the number of Indian and international recipes and these aromatic spices have crucial historical significance too. Spices have a rich history and heritage to discuss and celebrate. However, before we dig deep into the history of spices, let’s understand what spice is and what its benefits are.
What is spice?
Spice is mostly seed, fruit, root, bark or other plant substance, mostly produced in the Indian subcontinent and other Asian countries. The main role of spices is to add aromatic flavor, taste and texture to a recipe. However, spices are also used in flavoring, preserving and coloring food items too. Also, you need to understand that spices and herbs are different. Herbs are leaves, flowers or stems of the plants which are used as a garnish or flavoring.
One of the reasons why spices are widely used in foods in the warmer climates is its antimicrobial properties which preserve the food items. Another reason for the popularity of Indian spices is their medicinal properties and health benefits. These spices are rich in antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and other supplements. In addition to that, in India, spices are used in medicine, religion, and rituals also.
Some of the popular spices are black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, coriander, red chilli, ginger, fenugreek, etc. These spices have their own medicinal properties and health benefits such as garlic help in reducing cholesterol levels and protecting heart health. Turmeric is rich in antioxidants and prevents inflammation in the body and also used for stomach ulcers. Since ancient times, these spices were used in the production of many traditional, alternative medicines by Ayurvedic practitioners. Spices and herbs are used even in modern times for culinary and health purposes in India and across the globe.
The early history of spices
Various historic studies claim that the spice trade was on its peak throughout the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East by at earliest 2000 BCE where mostly spices such as cinnamon and black pepper were traded. In East Asia, herbs and pepper were in huge demand. Studies reveal that the Egyptians used spices and herbs for mummification and it has stimulated the spice world trade. Also, ancient scriptures state that by 1000 BCE alternative medicine science based on herbs and spices were found in China, India and Korea.
Indian scriptures to talk about various herbs and spices. For example, the epic Ramayana mentions cloves. There are multiple mentions of spices in Indian Vedas such as Rigveda (around 6000 BC), Yajurveda, Atharveda and Sama Veda. The information was primarily handed down orally from generation to generation through hymns in the ancient Vedic period. There is a reference in Yajurveda about black pepper.
Mountains, woodlands, valleys, tropical rainforests, wetlands and green fields, all are rich in spices.
The spice trade was mostly done by the Silk Road that connected India and other Asian countries to the Middle East and Europe. China, Indonesia, India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were the main exporters of spices and the goods were transported by donkeys and candles in a caravan. It is believed that Arabs controlled the world spice trade for almost 3000 years until the Europeans discovered a sea route to enter in India.
Arab merchants facilitated the spice trade by offering routes through the Middle East and India and Alexandria, a port city in Egypt became the main trading center of the global spice trade.
Spices were also mentioned in the Song of Solomon, a biblical poem in which the male orator compares his lover to many spices. Also, in Genesis, Joseph was traded into slavery to spice merchants by his brothers.
Middle Age History
Black Pepper, cumin, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and cinnamon were particularly very popular in Europe in the middle Ages and were considered expensive products. There are many references to Indian spices being used as a form of currency. In times of pandemics, different spices and herbs were suggested by the doctors to the patients. In the 12th century, the King of Aragon used all his resources to bring back spices from Spain, to put spices in wine.
Early Modern Period
The Middle East was ruling the world spice trade and Spain and Portugal were trying to find new trade routes to Asia for trading in spices and other valuable products. All of the European countries were trying to control the spice trade and spice producing countries and that was the reason Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama sailed to India in 1499. He was taken aback by the rich Indian pepper market and trade and secured peppers for low prices compared to Venice.
Around the same time, European navigator Christopher Columbus returned from the New World and told the investors that spices are available there. In the 19th Century, America, being a latecomer, has contributed to the global spice trade and the spice trade is still profitable and prosperous even today.
There is a rich history of Indian spices that you need to know of. All these spices have crossed all the borders and have become an integral part of the food cultures of various countries.