After experimenting with different kinds of world cuisine of late I have come to a conclusion that I can’t live without my ‘spicy’ Indian food for long and believe me I’m emphasizing on ‘spicy’ precisely because that is what gives our food the distinctive taste which can only be compared to perhaps Thai or Mexican food or from places like Indonesia, Ethiopia, etc. The taste is all cause of various spices that are used , the aroma and the interplay of the different flavours that comes in play while making the dish.
Now its very easy for us to find these spices like nutmeg, mace, black pepper, cumin , cardomam etc in our kitchen shelves no matter where we stay in the world today. So common and quotidian they are that it’s hard to imagine that wars were fought over them or that spice was more valuable than gold or that continents were discovered in search of them, that often dowries were paid in spices or the world salary itself was coined after salt which was what the Roman soldiers were paid in to guard the route at Alexandria. It’s amazing to find such interesting facts about something that’s so normal in our lives.
The quest for spices has existed since the ancient times more so because the food was really insipid and difficult to eat. Only salt was available to flavor almost every dish and most of times it was not enough to cover more pungent smelling foods like meat for e.g. To make the food more palatable the demand for these spices rose tremendously esp Black Pepper which was really considered a valuable possession by the rich.
Traditionally the Middle east (by this I’m including all the erstwhile empires that occupied the territory i.e the Persians, Romans, Ottoman Turks, Muslims etc) had great control over the trade as the spices came through them by the Old Silk Route. The control was because of the geographical advantage they had by being strategically placed between the West where the demand was and the East where the supply came from so they had full hold on the trade by land for many centuries at a stretch changing hands between various empires.
Fast forwarding to Middle ages, a time where the demand grew exponentially and prices were touching the sky, the time had come for Europeans to wrest the trade in their own hands. The circumstance at the time were also favorable for this move, the West had settled into big empires who could sponsor such expensive expeditions in order to grow their wealth because spice trade was highly profitable and very good for business.
So it began, in 1498 when Vasco da Gama sailing from Europe towards the Indian Ocean via Cape of Good Hope reached the Indian shores and also brought with it the colonial rule which eventually engulfed the whole of India 250 years later.The Portuguese definitely had a head start in establishing the control over the trade via the African sea route. Seeing them the Spanish too wanted to get ahead in race, they commissioned Christopher Columbus to find an alternate route towards the Indies and settle trade posts for them.
While Columbus sailing westward didn’t find the Indies, his assignment though led to another significant outcome of the quest for spices i.e the discovery of a completely new continent which today we know as the United States of America. While this was a lucrative find for the Spaniards, it was actually another Spanish explorer called Ferdinand Magellan who finally found the alternative route to the Indies by landing at Philippines. He and his crew were also the first to circumnavigate the globe.
This is a just brief overview of the history behind the spices, some interesting nuggets I came across while crawling the web. those who are interested to read about this further I would recommend John Keay’s book”Spice Route- A History”
“By the way is a series of random posts on subjects I stumble upon here and there. My research is mostly driven by internet resources which gives me a broad perspective to things, maybe enough to pique the readers interest.”