Some things just never receive the attention they deserve. Take a look at the good old masala dani (spice box) in your kitchen – or actually any kitchen for that matter. Spices, the quintessential component that give a dish its taste, look and aroma are just huddled in a non-descript box, each robbing the rest of their exclusive charm. The remaining spices that cannot be stuffed into that box are stored and stacked in equally (if not more) unappealing old plastic bottles in claustrophobic cabinets.
But hey, hang on a minute. This is not the bona fide spice story. The easily available pepper used to perk up any dish today was once so valuable it wielded ‘power’. Yes, pepper, along with other spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, was such a hot commodity centuries ago that it drove people to sail across vast oceans searching for new routes – one where spices revealed entire continents to Europeans and redefined world power.
So all of you have read about Vasco da Gama’s famous 1498 arrival at Calicut (also known as Kozhikode, a major city in the state of Kerala)? Yes, the first direct sea voyage from Europe to Asia marked the beginning of the modern age. But here’s something you might not have heard before. As his crew came ashore, they shouted “For Christ and spices!”
Well, if historians are the ones we ought to listen to, the beginning of modern age was indeed cooked up and served by the spice trade. The quest for spice was, in fact, one of the earliest drivers of globalisation.
Difficult to imagine how the ubiquitous pepper or chilly could be an expensive commodity? How the history of commerce is actually the history of spice? How the world would not have its present super power America, had it not been for the Europeans’ desire to break Arab traders' monopoly on spices? To understand all this and more, let us track the spice route.
I am Pepper Kutrapalli from the Southern state of Kerala, India.
I might be soft spoken but don’t throw caution out of the window. After all, I deal in ‘black gold’. You see, a lot of regions might grow pepper today, but it is Kerala that has been dominating the high end of the pepper market for centuries.
Here are some stories I have heard from the elderly in my village that tell the worth of the pepper and how it began its association with gold.
In order to call off their siege of Rome in 408AD, the Visigoths, an Eastern German barbaric tribe demanded a bounty in gold, silver and pepper.
In the 14th century, “peppercorn rents” were a serious way of doing business. When the Mary Rose, an English ship that sank in 1545, nearly every sailor was found with bunches of peppercorns on his person – the most ‘portable store of value’ available.
Apparently, Da Gama asked the Calicut zamindar just before leaving if he could take a pepper stalk with him.
Europeans, as far back as the seventh century, believed that pepper in India grew on trees ‘guarded’ by serpents that would bite anyone who attempted to gather the fruit. The only way to harvest pepper was to burn the trees, driving the snakes underground. Probably why the spice is called black gold?
“The starting point for European expansion had nothing to do with the rise of any religion or the rise of capitalism – but it had a great deal to do with pepper.”
Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind
Pepper is still the king of spices. According to trade experts, it accounts for one quarter of all modern spice trade.
Some pepper benefits you need to know
Peppercorns contain an impressive list of plant-derived chemical compounds. Black peppercorns contain good amount of minerals like potassium, calcium, zinc, manganese, iron, and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure. Iron is essential for cellular respiration and blood cell production. They are also an excellent source of many vital B-complex groups of vitamins such as Pyridoxine, riboflavin, thiamin and niacin.
I am Chili Rodriguez. I belong to the Southern Americas. Now, don’t get all enamoured by my interesting attire! It is what I grow that ought to be studied in awe! Yes, chilies are native to South America, where people (just like me) have been cultivating and trading them for at least 6,000 years. It is hard to come up with any other spice (or you may just want to call it a food) that has been adopted by so many people across countries and continents with as much passion and possession.
If Vasco Da Gama had a pepper connection, it was Columbus who took the chili to the Europeans, who incidentally were not very thrilled with the new spice from the New World. British author Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, writes, "On the Iberian peninsula, chilies were grown more as curious ornamental plants than as sources of a fiery flavoring."
The first globalised plant
Chilies spread across the globe quickly because they are easy to grow in a wide range of climates and conditions. Therefore, cheap and easily available.
In Thailand, a short-lived Portuguese presence failed to convert the locals to Christianity but succeeded in revolutionising the Thai kitchen.
European traders introduced the spice to Japan. As chilies were added to the cooking pots of Asia, they also entered existing local trade routes and were taken to Indonesia, Tibet and China.
The chili is “a conqueror, or, better still, a master seducer.”
– Madhur Jaffrey
Renowned Indian cook
Bow your head. I am the sultan of Ternate, the most powerful of the clove isles. Ternate, the famous producer of cloves was a major power in the 15th century and among the wealthiest. And I? The most powerful sultans in the Indonesian region.
Cloves, along with nutmeg, were one of the most precious spices of the 16th and 17th century, and their control spurred expeditions as well as wars.
In 1522, Ferdinand Magellan, the famous Portuguese explorer’s ship returned from its fateful trip around the world (circumnavigation) with a ship loaded with cloves and nutmeg, much to the delight of Spain.
The Dutch wanted a monopoly on cloves, so they went about destroying clove trees that sprouted anywhere outside of their control. This ended up causing quite an uprising because native tradition was to plant a clove tree upon the birth of a child and the life of the tree was tied directly to that of the child.
Monopolies do not last forever. By the 18th century cloves were being grown in other places including Zanzibar, Madagascar, Brazil and Mauritius.
Nailing it right!
Clove gets it name from the French word "clou" which means nail.
World’s oldest clove tree!
Nearly 40 metres tall and over 4 metres round, Afo is the world’s oldest clove tree, planted in defiance of the Dutch ban nearly four centuries ago. Wondering where? On the steep slopes of Ternate’s volcano!
I am Cinnamon Bandarnayake from Srilanka. An Arab trader, in early 5th century BC fooled Herodotus, the Greek researcher and storyteller deemed the world’s first historian, into believing that cinnamon was found only on a mountain range somewhere in Arabia. But let us not fool you. It is me and my fellow farmers from Sri Lanka who have been the world’s largest producers and exporters of this deliciously aromatic spice for centuries.
Our precious ‘little tube’, as the Italians translate it, is native to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) but has been in use across the globe for centuries. Did you know ancient Egyptians used cinnamon in their embalming process? After all, it is known for its preservative qualities.
Spices today might lead cutting edge food trends, but back in the day, they caused war. Here is what cinnamon did to world politics:
The Dutch seized our prized produce in the 17th century from the Portuguese and when they learned of a source of cinnamon along the coast of India, they bribed and threatened the local king to destroy it – all in a bid to preserve their monopoly.
In 1795, England seized Ceylon from the French, who had acquired it from their victory over Holland during the Revolutionary Wars. (In the Victorian language of flowers, cinnamon means ‘my fortune is yours’.)
And then, there were the eccentricities of whimsical loyalties like the Roman Emperor Nero who specially ordered a year’s supply of cinnamon that was burnt after he murdered his wife!
I am Cumin Ahmad Hassan. My family and I found cumin seeds in the great Egyptian Pyramids!
We have been dealing in cumin for over five millennia. Today, cumin is grown in most hot countries, especially India, North Africa, China and the Americas. But even now, it is especially associated with Morocco.Take a walk on any street lined with cafes, and you will sure catch a whiff.
Here is some trivia I cannot but share with you. Cumin traditionally symbolises greed and it is for this reason that the immoderately desirous Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was privately called ‘Cuminus’.
The ancient world has many eccentric secrets! Here is one: The Romans used cumin to induce a pallid complexion.
Spices today are as important as they were – an integral part of our social fabric. We might be trading in nuclear technology and minerals today, but the sense of use and exchange of spices remain even today. Spices are the unifying ingredient in the diverse gastronomic world of today. Jeera in India, Comino in Spain or Kammun in Arab – they are still a globalising factor.
“Of all the world’s commodities, spices most dramatically affected history because they launched Europe on the path to eventual overseas conquest, a conquest whose success and failure affects every aspect of contemporary world politics. The passion for spices underlies the beginning of the European colonial enterprise, a force that remade the demography, politics, culture, economy and ecology of the entire globe.”
– Paul Freeman
Spices: A Global Commodity