What is aromatic, has various properties and is most commonly used in the powder form? The colours may vary and so could the amount used or the time of addition but spices are one of the most prominently used ingredient to add and sometimes hide certain flavours in dishes across various cuisines.
The mention of the word ‘spices’ might bring to mind the sweet fragrance of cardamom, fennel or the pungent taste of asafoetida or clove.
If you go back in time you will be surprised to know that the use of spices was associated with magic, religion, preservation and even medicine earlier on.
The story of spices is one fraught with adventure, exploration and the discovery of new lands and their conquests. Through your history books you must have come to know about the spice trade and its importance in the evolution of cities like Alexandria. Spices found mention amongst the elite items on the list of any trader worth his name. This list generally included important and valuable stuff like Dhaka’s muslin cloth, silk, ivory and gold.
For example, early Egyptians knew the importance of spices in embalming mummies. Nutmeg was said to be a magic cure for the plague which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603. To gather an idea about how much spices mattered take a look at the fact that in fourteenth century Germany, one pound of nutmeg could fetch you seven healthy oxen. A serf in France could buy back his freedom with a pound of pepper or a pound of peppercorn would be somebody’s monthly rent. During the middle ages a pound of ginger could get you a sheep or three.
The search for spices in order to avoid paying heavy taxes to the merchants in Venice was the reason Vasco da Gama set sail from Portugal. He reached Calicut in 1498. It was his discovery of the route to India by sea, avoiding the Mediterranean, which helped the Portuguese economy to flourish. It also helped them set up a sort of commercial monopoly over the various spices available here in India. Vasco da Gama is celebrated as an explorer and his discovery was the most important one of the many made during what is now called the Age of discovery. You might also recall how the Portuguese were responsible for introducing us to newer things like the papaya and the sort-of-star-vegetable, the potato.
Around the same time as Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus returned from his discovery of the New World. This led to the introduction of new spices like vanilla, cocoa, bell and chilli pepper.
Spices are valued for their taste and appearance but more so for their medicinal value. No kitchen in an Indian home would be complete without an array of spices. Cultures have been known to develop food around the spices that are locally grown in those areas. Look at our own regional foods here in India. With different temperatures in different regions of the country favouring cultivation of different spices, India has a great variety to offer.
We even have a dedicated organisation in our country by the name of Spices Board under the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India, that looks after the development and promotion of Indian spices.
Be it in powdered form, chopped, ground or roasted, spices add texture and make a dish more flavourful enhancing its nutritional value at the same time. Do check your mother’s kitchen to know what spices are added to your everyday food and find out how they benefit your health.
(This was published first as a column in The New Indian Express on January 4, 2012. Read the link here http://newindianexpress.com/education/student/article1416545.ece)