Spice trade was dominated by Arabs & Persians for centuries. Till 3 European navigators tried to change this monopoly in the medieval ages. What if I tell you that Vasco Da Gama came to India for spices or Christopher Columbus discovered America accidentally while searching for spices? You will dismiss me right here right now. But give me a chance and I will give you enough evidence to support my claims.
I know most probably history was not your favourite subject. Give me a chance to change this right away. Maybe you were reading the history which was not engaging enough. Let this post be a game changer for your interest in history.
Spices!!! Redefined the culinary history of the world in multiple ways. Do you know? This word comes from Latin word ‘Species’ or ‘special wares’, and refers to an item having significant value. What you think? How interesting is the history of Spice trade? In an era where it is now easy to source any kind of spices you want, it was not long ago that there were wars raged for these spices and their secrets. Imagine your special chai without elaichi (cardamom), egg fry or pasta without black pepper, dal khichdi without turmeric, Kormas without ginger and baking goodies without cinnamon… PhewwwW!!! Too much blandness to handle.
The food you eat today was a lot different than the food consumed in the past and its transformation journey should be accredited to the spices and the spice trade which played an important role in doing so. Spices and spice trade led to a revolution in cooking while enhancing flavors and transforming food and cuisines across the globe. The spice trades wrote history which is lesser known yet so important that I couldn’t afford to skip this topic.
The western world was dependent on Arab and Persian spice traders to source the spices. Most of the spices were sourced from India and Sub-continent and few parts of China. Historians always mentioned how Arabs and Persians maintained a monopoly on the spice trades and ensured secrecy over the origin of Indian Spices.
What intrigues me more is the fact that, these traders guarded the secret of origin of all the spices by spreading rumors and myths or propagating legends and tales. Stories so bizarre, like each spice grew in a very hostile surroundings like snake beds, phoenix nests, dragon lands and what not. This was simply done to protect trade secret and maintain the exorbitant pricing of spices. It was also a way to hold the monopoly over spice trade.
Spice Trade and the European Connection
European markets were hot beds for the Spices from India. It is certain and well documented that till the end of 15th Century, the spice trade routes were dominated by Arabs from the middle-east. Wallah!!! The demand of the Indian spices was well known since the Roman Empire. Thank You India! for playing an integral role in imparting flavours to the cuisines world over.
In the medieval ages different European nations who grew tired of the monopoly now wanted to end it. They wanted to take control over the spice trade as by that time the Arabs and Persians did inflate the prices a bit too much. As you know, greed can be dangerous and so it happened. The missions were planned, to find that piece of land where this magic happened. That land was none other than India and its sub-continent.
It was in late 15th century that 3 Europeans set their sails in search of the routes to the land of magic, where the Indian spices originated. They of course did not think of this by themselves. Rather the royal kingdoms bestowed this responsibilities on these 3 European navigators and explorers.
Christopher Columbus an Italian on orders of King Ferdinand of Spain in 1492 took a westward approach to discover India. Back in those days Anglo-Spanish rivalry was well know, so next was of course England’s turn to try their luck. John Cabot representing England in 1497, though he was an Italian by all means, but King Henry VII offered him handsome returns to discover lands and claim them on England’s behalf. Both did the same mistake of sailing west.
Though John Cabot landed in Canada, mistaking it for Asia. Christopher Columbus discovered America and he also thought it was Asia. Only Vasco da Gama on orders of King Jonh II, reached the port of Calicut via Cape of Good Hope in 1497. This might be due to the reason that, he was not an Italian trying to work for some other countries. He was a Portuguese working for King of Portugal. I bet you never thought that these gentlemen had any connections with the introduction of spices to the western world.
Vasco da Gama returned to Europe with the information of the spice trade and a huge cargo of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorns. Pedro Álvares Cabral was a successor of ‘Vasco da Gama’ who cemented the control of Portugal over spice trade via the newly discovered route and changed the interesting history of Indian Spices thereafter.
Probably after reading this piece of work, you will start treasuring your collection of spices and will feel a sense of gratitude while using them. The blood bathed history of spices is well researched by historians and is one of the reasons why spices still remain among the costlier commodities till date. If you are with me till here then I hope this information was worth reading.
Most of the common spices used today grew in tropical regions of southern China to Indonesia and Southern India to Ceylon (Modern day Sri Lanka). As the ancient spice trade routes held a firm grip into Arab world, the Arabs had a strong hold on the spice trades for centuries till Europeans took an initiative to end this monopoly. The Portuguese successfully broke the monopoly to change the course of history for Indian Spices. Later other European countries like Dutch Republic, England, France and Denmark fought over to gain supremacy of spice trade. This is where most of the bloodshed happened.
Indian Connection with Spice Trade
The ‘Vedas’ highlight the use of spices in India as first written record. But it is apparent that Spices were in use much before the written documentation was practiced. The history of Indian Spices goes much deeper than the artifacts and documentation. You can check for scientific validations that India being a tropical country, was naturally abundant in spices.
It is not clear that how the regions all over the world where the spices did not grow, became well versed with the use of the spices. But many scholars speculate that this credit should go to the ‘Silk Route’ which was very central in the flourishing of spice trade. A famous route which linked the East to the West. The route which traces globalization and its roots to ancient era.
Through literature and records, it is evident that 5 famous spices viz. Black pepper, Turmeric, Cardamom, Cinnamon and Ginger have their roots of origin in India. Of course there are many other spices which originated in Indian sub-continent but the kind of impact the above mentioned spices had on the world is insurmountable.
Now we clearly know, that why Indian land was invaded by so many foreigners for so many centuries. It was not just for the riches of Gold, silver and other precious gems. It was invaded for gaining control of spice trade to extract the riches coming from the values of spices. This perfectly relates to the lyrics of the song “Mere Desh ki Dharti” beautifully written by late Mr. Gulshan Bawra and sung beautifully by late Mr. ‘Mahendra Kapoor’.
Black Pepper tops the list with worldwide consumption of 400000 tons per year and ever increasing. Originated from Malabar Coast of India. Traded and valued so highly that Europeans once gifted, paid rent, made dowry, gave bribe and paid taxes with pepper. Isn’t it strange? With an Arab-Venetian monopoly the prices remained high in Europe for centuries. Dutch phrase ‘peperduur (pepper expensive)’ is still widely used as an adjective for expensive things.
The pepper export started from India to Egypt at around 1300 BC. Then with rise of Roman Empire at around 40 AD the pepper reached Europe. With the fall of Roman Empire the pepper was traded under the network of Arabs and Persians. What followed next is now well known to you. Without pepper the world of flavors would have remained incomplete.
A better and later half of the duo Salt and Pepper. It has a hot and pungent flavor due to the alkaloid piperine present in the berries of pepper. Scientifically it is called as ‘Piper nigrum’. The colour white, green, black are developed due to harvesting at various stages and drying in sun for specific duration. It has anti-microbial and antioxidant properties. Most of the Indian dishes would remain incomplete without this kingmaker spice. Do you agree or have a different opinion? Let me know in the comments.
Journey of turmeric dates back to 4000 years. With 94% of world supply coming from India, nobody can deny the fact that it has its origins in ancient India. Documented in medical works of ‘Susruta’ and ‘Charaka’ it is a proven spice with medicinal uses and health benefits. It reached China first in 700 AD and then to East Africa by 800 AD, followed by West Africa by 1200 AD and then to Jamaica in the eighteenth century. See how much a spice has traveled. Inspiring us to raise our bar for our travel goals.
Though it might not be used much in western countries for enhancing food flavors, but it is certainly making its presence felt for medicinal reasons. With so many health benefits, it is no wonder that it became an integral part of Indian diet and cuisine. Western world is slowly recognizing the importance of turmeric and the global demand is expected to increase.
Well known by its scientific name ‘Curcuma longa’, it is slightly bitter in taste with slight acrid yet sweet notes. No curry spice mix is complete without turmeric in India. It would be fair enough to say that this is a golden spice which improves health and cures illness. Without this spice Starbucks would have had a tough time launching its ‘Turmeric latte’.
Scientifically called ‘Elettaria cardamomum’ it is used to treat bad breath and indigestion. The rare kind of spice whose flavor is kind of hard to explain. Some people square it off by saying it is a combination of mild cinnamon, and ginger with light notes of mint and lemons. Even I do not know how to explain. If you know by any chance then feel free to enlighten me in the comment section below.
Considered to be one of the oldest spice of the world. Said to be originated in Western Ghats of southern India. It is very expensive yet today, just behind Saffron and Vanilla. The use of cardamom dates back to 4000 years. It reached Europe via the infamous ‘Silk route’ and then was carried to America by a German entrepreneur Oscar Majus Kloeffer in 1914. So America started using it widely only after this year.
In India it is used in all kinds of dishes, from sweet ones to savory ones, curries and kebabs. Then it is widely used in two main delicacies, first one is ‘Chai’ and then the other one is ‘Biryani’. I hope you like them both. If yes then you should be thankful to Elaichi (Cardamom).
With an honor of being the first traded spice of the ancient era, this spice surely has a special place in history. Origin of this spice is traced to modern day Sri Lanka, formerly known as ‘Ceylon’ which was a part of Indian sub-continent. The worth of cinnamon was considered to be the equal of gold and ivory in terms of value. Isn’t it a shocking fact? Introduced to Europe via the Venetian trade market, it became a widely used spice in Europe.
Like cardamom, this spice also compliments both sweet and savory dishes. The bold flavor takes your dish to a different level. Right from Cinnamon rolls to Meat curries it is used to upgrade the flavour profile of any dish. Today it is grown in many parts of the world, but its purest variety still remains as Ceylon cinnamon grown only in Sri Lanka and Indian state of Kerala. War for this spice was at its peak in 17th Century which was fought for monopoly over this spice. It includes Dutch, Portuguese, French and British, with later winning it in 1795 and exploiting the advantage to the fullest.
It is grown in India as well, but the heritage was passed on from Sri Lanka. Scientifically called ‘Cinnamomum Zeylanicum’ it has a warm sweet aroma and a tinge spicy taste. It has medicinal properties, used to treat upper respiratory infections. It has some anti-bacterial properties too. A secret to reveal, it also helps in weight loss when taken with warm water. You can thank me later.
This is a rhizome of its plant. Originated in both India and Southern Part of China. Though widely used in India and thus it was exported from India to Middle East and Europe. Especially during the rule of Roman Empire, ginger gained popularity. Unfortunately the use of ginger ceased with decline of Roman Empire. Marco Polo played a huge role in reintroducing Ginger to Europe again. It was fist new spice to be grown in the new world. To be specific about location, it was Caribbean in the 15th Century. India still exports one third of the global demand of ginger. Don’t you think that is a huge number?
It makes a good buttermilk when crushed and added to it. Ginger wine in 17th century and ginger beer and gingerbread in 18th century, Ginger biscuits of Yazdani Bakery. It was all possible because of ginger. In India ginger tea is famous for curing cold and cough. Maybe as famous as the fact that in middle ages a ‘pound of ginger was equivalent to the cost of one large sheep’. And I am not making this up. You can google it to check.
Also called ‘Zingiber officinale’ the variety has well proven medicinal uses. It has a biting taste to it which is strong. It has a zest which is warm and an after taste which is slightly sweet. It is used in many non-vegetarian dishes in India. Dishes like Korma, Curries and heavy meals. Used mostly in slow cooked dishes like Dals and Lentils.
So what are your thoughts on your spice collection? Does this change your perceptions about Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama? Let me know in the comments how you found this little write up on Spice trade. Was it boring was it informative. Let the comments roll.
If you are still reading then I would like to say a big thank you for your patronage. This is my first written blog post though I couldn’t publish it first. So I will always cherish this decent write up on History of Indian Spices and spice trade. With this ‘foodie_khiladi‘ takes your leave and hope to meet you in my other posts soon. If you liked this information then kindly share it with your friends and families.