There’s something eternally mystical about spices, from their enthralling history down the ages, to their delicate flavours that continue to caress palates, heal bodies and minds...as even now India, that native land of spices, goes on drenching in myriad pleasing aromas from the southern seashores of Kerala to the north-eastern hills of Meghalaya.
We can’t imagine food without spices. Even the simplest of meals changes character with just a wee bit of spice...maybe a sliver of ginger, or a clove of garlic, or a dash of turmeric. Enough to banish the blandness and, in its place, a blushing, tantalisingly fragrant, meal materialises. That’s the magic of spice!
Lighter Side of Spice
Studies have shown that spices have proven effects on the health and beauty of a person.
They are a bit like the virus, albeit of the desirable kind! They’re small but their odoriferous molecules integrate into our cooking so seamlessly our meals turn into astonishingly new creations—mouth-watering and tongue-drooling combinations of eyeball grabbing colours coupled with a riot of flavours to match!
Spices are the joy of food. They gently nudge us to relish our meals even in these (pandemic) times!
Sometimes we hear people say, “Oh, I don’t like spicy food, they’re so unhealthy!”
What they mean is they don’t prefer oily or fatty foods. Those are definitely unhealthy but if you miss on spices you miss out on many health benefits, not to speak about the food’s scrumptiousness.
That’s not to say your food should drown in spices. It’ll lead to complications. Spices are meant to be taken in small quantities, the subtler the better.
And in India, where spices are actually born in, cooking is never complete without that magical mix of masalas—subtle enhancers of taste, flavour, and colour that never fail to tickle palates and delight hearts.
No wonder India is also the world’s biggest consumer and exporter of spices. Some cities and towns are even called spice cities to promote spice trade.
Vignettes of Spice History
Well, we are now in modern times when we don’t think twice where to get spices from—just about any street corner shop has any choice for a few rupees. We take spices for granted.
But till a few centuries ago, people even killed for spices. They were so precious that they were considered to be worth more than their price in gold! In fact, people fought wars, conquered nations, signed treaties or broke them...all for the sake of spices.
And you had to be from nobility, a rich merchant, or extremely influential to possess a handful of peppercorns!
Spice history runs like a fable—fascinating, esoteric, and enigmatic. Here are some titbits:
- Archaeologists estimate that man must have learnt the use of spices as far back as 50,000 B.C. Humans discovered that food tasted different and better when wrapped in leaves, taking on their flavour. We can still see the primitive man’s technique in present times: some culinary methods involve wrapping pieces of meats, vegetables or grains in leaves - such as banana and colocasia - and then cook or steam them.
- The indigenous Khasis of Meghalaya still use the Sla met leaf to wrap fish, meat, rice or corn powders, tungrymbai (fermented soya bean sauce), or steam or cook under embers. As the flavours of the leaves dribble into the foods, they lend their distinctive tastes.
- Cinnamon and pepper were among the trade commodities in the Middle East even from earlier than 2000 B.C. Egyptian hieroglyphs and papyri from 1555 B.C. depicted onion, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, fennel, juniper, and thyme as health-promoting herbs. They used spices to embalm their dead too.
- There are abundant other anecdotal evidence that documented trade routes for spices and herbs since ancient times.
For example, in the Bible’s Old Testament it says:In Genesis 37:25, the Patriarch Isaac’s son Joseph (circa 1650 B.C.) was sold by his jealous brothers to spice merchants, an Arab tribe, “Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels laden with spicery, balm and resin to be taken down to Egypt”.
The route from Gilead was part of the ancient silk and spice route to Samarkand and further east. It dotted with thousands of caravans of camels bringing "pepper and cloves from India, cinnamon and nutmeg from the Spice Islands (the Moluccas), and ginger from Cathay (China)".
The Arabs were the original spice merchants in ancient times and they were fabulously rich too. For 5000 years they monopolised with ferocious jealousy the "oriental spice" trade. They sailed over the seas in dhows, journeyed overland through desert and forest routes on camel or donkey caravans between the eastern spice lands of China, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and countries of the Mediterranean and beyond.
To remain masters of the trade and keep prices high they spun tall stories about “terrible dangers” that always lay on the routes. For example, "They collect cinnamon from deep glens infested with poisonous serpents".
Actually, they bought them from Indian, Javanese and Chinese traders at the ports of call!
The prophet Mohammed (570-632 A.D.) was himself a successful spice merchant together with his first wife, the wealthy widow Khadija, stocking frankincense, myrrh and Asian spices. As Islam expanded the spice trade also flourished. Mohammedans were actually expert distillers of essential oils and perfumes (attar) from aromatic plants. They were also great physicians who created heath-enhancing syrups and extracts from herbs and flowers.
In the Far East, merchants of the archipelagos of Java and Indonesia dealt in spices and other merchandise with China, India, East Africa and the Arabs. Back in the Middle East, Arab merchants were the sole controllers of the commodities and the Egyptian port city of Alexandria was an important hub dispersing the spices to the old world of that time.
Spice Down the Ages
- In ancient China, a classic treatise on herbal remedies written in 2700 B.C. mentioned more than 100 medicinal plants including cassia. In the 3rd century B.C. China, court officials were forbidden to appear before their emperor unless they kept their breaths sweet by holding cloves in their mouths. In the 5th century B.C., Chinese crew on long sea voyages were served fresh ginger grown in pots to prevent them from scurvy attacks.
- In ancient Mesopotamia, there was cultivated in the fertile lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates a huge variety of spices and aromatic plants such as cardamom, coriander, anise, saffron, garlic, sesame, dill and thyme.
- The ancient Greeks had at least 400 herbal remedies that included imported Eastern spices such as pepper, cassia, cinnamon and ginger. Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), the father of Medicine wrote about the healing benefits of spices and herbs such as saffron, cinnamon, mint, coriander, marjoram and thyme.
- The ancient Romans indulged in limitless extravagance: their wines, oils and balms were scented with spice. Throughout the length and breadth of the Empire spice such as peppers, cardamoms and other eastern spices were very popular.
In Europe also, by the 12th century A.D. Asian spices such as clove, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, and ginger had gained popularity as culinary and medicinal herbs. But only the wealthy could afford the ridiculously exorbitant prices:
- A pound of saffron cost as much as a horse
- A pound of ginger cost as much a sheep
- Two pounds of mace cost as much as a cow
- A pound of nutmeg cost as much as seven fat oxen
- Pepper was the most expensive and was used as currency to pay for many things from taxes to dowries. The counting was peppercorn by peppercorn and a sack of pepper was worth a man’s life.
Marco Polo: the Venetian Connection
It was the Venetian Republic that actually changed the way the spice trade was conducted in Europe. From the 8th to the 15th century A.D. Venice controlled all the spice trade in the Mediterranean region while the Arabs controlled trade in the Middle East. Venice was the financial capital of Europe those days, spectacularly rich and very powerful.
Then in 1271, a young Venetian, Marco Polo, set out on a 24-year journey with his father and his uncle to the fabulous lands of the East. Marco Polo’s travelogue spoke about the lands and things he saw on the journey including “large quantities of pepper and ginger, with many other articles of spicery”. He wrote, “These they dispose to a different set of traders, by whom they are dispersed throughout the world”.
Thus, Marco Polo’s chronicles let the secret of spices out. Suddenly European nations realised that spice lands were not as mysterious as the Arabs would have them believe.
Age of Explorers
By the middle of the millennium European powers such as Portugal, Spain, Holland and England were vying with each other for supremacy in the spice trade. They sponsored explorers and seafarers who all set out with one purpose in mind: to establish new routes by sea to the spice lands such as:
- Bartolomeu Dias – Discovered the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, in 1488 and proved there was a seaway to India and Asia
- Vasco da Gama – The first man to round the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and established the first sea route from Europe to India. He landed in Calicut (Kozhikode) which is known today as the City of Spices.
- Ferdinand Magellan – The first man to accomplish circumnavigating the globe on 8th Sept, 1522 in his bid to find the Spice Islands (the Moluccas).
- Pedro Alvarez Cabral – In 1501, he brought spices for the first time from India to Europe by sea via the Cape of Good Hope
- Christopher Columbus – In 1492, he went the opposite way westwards to the Indies and discovered the Americas instead.
Each of these countries realised how lucrative the business of spice was. Even as spice trade brought untold riches to merchants it also quickly generated hefty revenues for entire nations. It was told that 50% of Portugal’s revenue of that time came from its trading in spices and gold from its West African colonies, with spices being the more valuable. Over time, one by one, these foreign powers turned to dominate native principalities to gain complete control of their natural resources.
Eventually, they also broke the Arab hegemony over the spice trade.
In brief, the history of spices is one long and heady mix of explorations, adventures, intrigues, dangers, conquests, deceit, and ferocious rivalries. Fortunately, those violent times have ended but the saga of spices as flavour enhancers and food preservers continues.
You know, these eastern countries of ours right from China down to Java and Indonesia, the Malayan peninsula and the Indian sub-continent were nature’s own spice gardens.
Blessed with such spicy abundance the natives have made good culinary and medicinal use of their natural gifts since long back.
India had been trading in spices for about 7000 years with what is now modern China, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and the Arabian states, even before the Greek and Roman civilizations.
The country is often called the “spice bowl of the world” because of its richness in the variety of herbs.
The earliest written mention about spices is found in the Vedas (circa 6000 B.C.) where there is a reference quite a few of them including black pepper. All of these spices are still used today in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine system that dates back to 5000 B.C.
Cloves finds mention in the Ramayana as well, and the three great ancient Indian physicians of the 4th, 2nd and 1st century B.C., Susruta I, Charaka and Susruta II, wrote in their medical writings about white mustard seeds, cinnamon, cardamoms, sesame and others as healing spices. These are proven to be true today.
But in the West, their bland food could do with a bit of seasoning. That was the reason they came to trade in spices and ended up dominating us for over 300 years.
The last colonialists were the British who held India under subjugation for 200 years and when they left our shores, they also took away our spices and made them their own, spreading their fame even further. As a result, Indian spices are now more well-known the world over, spicing up every cuisine, and delighting people with their exotic flavours.
India, World Largest Spice Producer
India is the largest producer, consumer and exporter of spices in the world. 75 of the 109 varieties of spices listed by the International Standards Organization (ISO) are produced in the country. A huge number are grown in small landholdings using natural or organic methods of farming.
Item-wise, chillies, cumin and turmeric hold the 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions of quantities exported in 2018-19. Chillies gave the maximum returns among spice commodities in the stock market. Spice exports totalled 1.03 million tonnes valued at 28 billion USD which was a significant amount.
There’s good news for spice growers. The government has established 10 Spice Development Agencies (SDA) in various spice growing regions of the country to “identify the issues and formulate programmes relating to production, domestic marketing, quality, and export promotion of spices”.
The potential for spice production in Meghalaya is huge but the government must give the desired push. One area of thrust may be turmeric which is presently the third most important spice export commodity. Meghalaya’s Lakadong turmeric has the highest known curcumin content ever at 12% and it can be a game changer that can turn Meghalaya into a turmeric hotspot.
Another important spice is ginger for which Meghalaya is already well-known. What’s required next is structured support for growers in terms of marketing, grading and export promotion.
Chillies are tops on the export list and with proper promotion, Meghalaya can become a powerhouse producer of many types of chillies including the fiery “bhut jolokia” which grows very well here.
Black pepper, bay leaf, cardamom and cinnamon are the other high-value spices that can put Meghalaya on the spice map alongside the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
But there are minor spices: black sesame seeds and perilla (beefsteak seeds) that have never been considered big but have the potential to turn the fortunes of the farmers.
Meghalaya and Its Healthy Spices
Meghalaya is blessed with spices and herbs that we can term power foods with health value and whatever we need is already available.
One great advantage is we don’t need to consume spices in large quantities. In fact, minute quantities are the ideal way to eat them. More will overwhelm the food with ‘masala’ taste that’ll not only destroy the meal but might do more harm than good to health.
Spices consist mostly of seeds, rhizomes, leaves, barks or bulbs arrayed with an assortment of wide-ranging phytochemicals that the plant uses for its growth and protection—potent little powerhouses that build strength and immunity in their own right.
Spices have therapeutic potentialities that help prevent and treat a wide variety of diseases due to the presence of bioactive compounds and dietary polyphenols that also help preserve food and enhance shelf life.
Spices have myriads of health-enhancing properties:
- Immunity boosting
The Good News
Meghalaya’s native spice wealth is impressive but under-promoted. Maybe you too didn’t give much thought about the tremendous benefits they can have on your health.
Well, here’s a small (but not exhaustive) list to give you an idea of the spices and some of the Health Benefits
- Turmeric: Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, protects the heart, improves brain function, boosts immunity and improves skin health.
- Bay Leaf: Rich in vitamin A, C, iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Helps in migraines, breaks down proteins and assists digestion
- Ginger: Anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, helps reduce gas, nausea, eases colds, flu, and arthritic pains.
- Garlic: High on sulphur compounds, help regulate blood pressure, cholesterol levels, boost immunity, combat common cold, reduce fever, cure mouth sores
- Ing Makhir(medicinal ginger): Help relieve toothache, body ache, joint pains, rheumatism, sore throat, cough, cold
- Black Pepper: Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, helps improve brain function, control blood sugar, lower cholesterol, promote gut health, help bioavailability of curcumin from turmeric
- Cardamom: Antioxidant, diuretic and help reduce blood pressure, anti-inflammatory, helps digestion and ulcer healing, prevent bad breath
- Cinnamon: Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, help reduce risk of heart disease, reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, insulin resistance, anti-diabetic
- Coriander: Regulates cholesterol, improves digestive, liver and bowel functions, help diabetics, improve insulin secretion and blood sugar levels and rich in iron, vitamin K and A, helps the nervous system function, menstrual flow, and reduce anaemia.
- Cumin: Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, promotes digestion, rich in iron, reduce risk of diabetes, improve cholesterol, help weight loss, anti-bacterial, antifungal
- Black Sesame: Helps slow down ageing, relieve indigestion and constipation, regulate blood pressure, build healthy bones.
Perilla Seeds: Anti-inflammatory, promotes good cholesterol, reduces oxidative stress, prevents allergies, promotes skin health
- Winged Prickly Ash: Helps stimulate circulation, reduce pain, improve immunity, increase appetite, strengthen the bones, eliminate inflammation, protect the stomach, lower blood pressure
How Do We Use These Spices?
In everyday food, of course.
- Black sesame rice with vegetables (instead of meat)
- Radish or Cabbage salad with perilla seeds
- Bay leaf tea or a mix of bay leaf, ginger (or ing makhir) black pepper, turmeric, sweetened with molasses or honey and fortified with a dash of lemon juice.
- Tungtap (fermented flatfish) with onion, garlic, green chillies and winged prickly ash
I’m sure you’ll have many more food ideas. Maybe you’d like to share them?
Do tell us in your comments below.