Tastes That Shaped the World
By Awake! correspondent in India
IN THE 13th century, Marco Polo saw them in abundance. Christopher Columbus set sail to find them but instead discovered the New World. In the 15th century, Vasco da Gama finally reached India by sea and brought them back to eager buyers in Europe. Indeed, spices were then so valued that men risked their lives to obtain them!
When political changes blocked overland caravan routes, Vasco da Gama spent two years on a 24,000-mile [39,000 km] round-trip voyage that took him from Portugal around the tip of Africa to India and back. Two of his ships survived the journey, returning with a cargo of spices and other goods worth 60 times the cost of the trip! But the success of his voyage plunged European nations into conflict. For the next three centuries, Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, and Great Britain competed for control of spice sources.
The history of spices, one writer summarized, is “a story of adventure, exploration, conquest and fierce naval rivalry.” Frederic Rosengarten, Jr., said in The Book of Spices: “So useful, indeed indispensable, were spices, both politically and economically, that kings sent expeditions in search of them, merchants risked life and fortune to trade in them, wars were fought over them, whole populations were enslaved, the globe was explored, and such far-reaching changes as the renaissance were brought about by the restless, ruthless competition.”
When the Dutch controlled the spice trade, they raised the price of pepper by five shillings a pound when they sold it to Britain. Incensed at this, a group of London merchants gathered in 1599 to found their own trading firm, which later became known as the East India Company. The influence of this company eventually led to more than 300 years of British rule over India.
Fierce competition has disappeared, but the worldwide taste for spices continues. And perhaps nowhere are spices enjoyed more than here in India.
A Romance With Spices
Spices and Indian cuisine are so inseparable that one might say that the country has a romance with spices. Who, in fact, hasn’t heard of Indian curry—a stewlike dish of vegetables, eggs, red meat, fish, or chicken seasoned with an array of delicious spices? Some of these flavors appear in desserts too, confirming that “spicy” is not synonymous with “hot.” Even the milky sweet tea so popular here is often enhanced by a bit of cardamom, cloves, ginger, or a combination of flavors. With an appetite for such seasonings, is it any wonder that in per capita consumption of spices, India is number one?
Just visit the kitchen of an Indian cook, and the eye will catch dozens of seasonings in varied colors and shapes. Among them are tiny black mustard seeds; sticks of fragrant, brown cinnamon; green pods of cardamom; brilliant, golden turmeric; pale, gnarled gingerroot; and scarlet-red chilies. Contrast this assortment with the single bottle of curry powder found in grocery stores in many countries. Curry powder does, of course, contain a mixture of various spices, and it serves a purpose. But it is a poor substitute for the combinations of spices—called masalas—used in India.
Special, ready-made masalas are blended for different foods, including vegetables, fish, chicken, and red meat. But more often, individual spices are combined right at cooking time, their type and quantity depending on the particular dish. The expert Indian housewife knows the precise order and the exact moment when each spice should be added in the cooking process. She can even extract different flavors from the same spice by roasting it, grinding it, dropping it whole into hot oil, or combining it with other seasonings.
Visitors to India are often surprised at the great diversity in food preparation. Besides the major division of North Indian and South Indian cuisine, the country’s regional cultures, such as Bengali, Goan, Gujarati, and Punjabi, have their own unique preparations. Religious beliefs also affect the taste of the food. Thus, in the state of Gujarat, a person might have a traditional Hindu vegetarian meal, but in the northern part of India he might enjoy a meaty Mogul meal, a reminder of the days of Muslim conquest. So dining on different nights with Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, and Christian families may result in no duplication of meals.
Well Suited to Spices
Although spices grow around the globe, India produces more than any other country—over 60 different kinds. And it exports spices and spice products whole and in powder form to more than 160 countries. South India leads in the country’s spice production. Often called the “Venice of the East” because of its beauty and plentiful waterways, Cochin, on the Arabian Sea, provides direct access to the spices that have long thrived in the lush, tropical climate along the Malabar coast.
The port of Cochin has served as an international trade market since ancient times, for Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, Romans, Greeks, and Arabians. Interestingly, the Bible book of Revelation mentions “the traveling merchants of the earth” whose trade included “every sort of ivory object . . . also cinnamon and Indian spice.”—Revelation 18:11-13.
Black pepper, prominent as “king of spices,” was the initial prize sought by traders. Not only was it a food seasoning but it was also a vital preservative for meats and other perishable foods. By adding spices, foods that would otherwise spoil and be useless could be preserved for a year or more without refrigeration. In addition to pepper, later traders desired other spices—cardamom, coriander, fennel, and fenugreek, to name a few.
However, not all spices grown in India originated here. Red chili, for example, was introduced from South America. Dr. C. V. Raman, Indian Nobel laureate for physics, once said that ‘all foods are insipid and uneatable without chilies.’ Many raised on a different diet may well disagree. But, thankfully, the earth’s larder was well stocked with great variety by a loving Creator, satisfying strongly contrasting preferences.
Not Just Food Flavorings
Spices have a fascinating history. The Bible documents the role of spices in anointing oils, incense, and perfumes. It mentions the use of spices in the holy anointing oil and in incense used at Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem and tells of spices being added to wines. (Exodus 30:23-25, 34-37; Song of Solomon 8:2) Further, the Bible reveals that early Christians brought spices to prepare the body of Jesus Christ for burial.—John 19:39, 40.
In this land, generations of Indian girls have utilized the bright golden root of a plant related to ginger—turmeric. A turmeric paste is rubbed on the skin for improving its condition. Today, the perfume and cosmetics industries use oils from allspice, caraway, cinnamon, cassia, cloves, nutmeg, mace, rosemary, and cardamom in the blending of volatile and fixed oils to make dozens of alluring perfumes. These ingredients are also added to soaps, talcum powders, after-shave lotions, colognes, mouth fresheners, and countless other items.
In addition, spices have long been used for medicinal purposes. Ginger, turmeric, garlic, cardamom, chili, cloves, and saffron are among the spices recommended by Ayurveda, the science of medicine propounded in the Hindu Sanskrit writings, the Vedas. A visitor to an Indian pharmacy today will still find a turmeric salve for cuts and burns, a toothpaste with 13 spices, and scores of other spice products for varying ailments.
Thus, a review of the history of spices indicates that without them, food preferences would have been different, medicine would not have been the same, and history would have been written differently. The taste for spices truly shaped our world—in more ways than one.
[Pictures on page 23]
A small sample of the many spices popular around the world
Street vendor weighing out spices for customer
Spices awaiting buyers in a Cochin shop