If you are, by any chance, devouring some naan and masala while reading this, you are in luck. How better to appreciate the history of Indian spices than enjoying the spicy flavour of an Indian dish! Indian spice history is a few millennia old, and includes stories about empires and global trading companies. Although it can barely be summarized in an article, one thing is clear – Indian spices have infiltrated kitchens world over, from an Indian restaurant in Kelowna to a street-side food shack in Mombasa.
The first recorded mention of spices is found in the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest books. During these periods, culture was primarily passed down through generations by oral means. These holy books (dated about 6000 BC) still contain references of spices such as black pepper. India was at the time a cradle of spice, with the fragrant flavours coming from practically every area of India: valleys, mountains, woodlands and fields.
The Arab connection
Long before chicken tikka became a pizza topping, pepper, cloves and cinnamon dominated the world of commerce. First, it was Arab merchants who dominated the spice trade. Their merchant ships took Indian spice to the west but never divulged the source of their cargo. By the time pepper reached Europe, it had passed through multiple middlemen and accrued value many times over its initial cost. Spice was a central ingredient of Arab trade and the most imaginative means to protect their monopoly.
Arabs went as far as telling exaggerated tales to their buyers to discourage them from venturing into the trade. One such tale was that cinnamon only grew in cobra-infested glens. Arab middlemen dominated the trade for around 5000 years until the Europeans found a sea route to India.
The Romans and Greek were able to break through the cloud of mystery surrounding the early spice trade in the early BC. This was a short-lived victory that ended when Muhammad restored Arab dominance through religious expansion. The artful control of spice supply drove up prices so much that by the Middle Ages, spice was solely a rich man’s preserve.
Spice for gold
Spice did more than just flavour food. Poor harvests and brutal winters meant that food preservation was paramount for survival. Salt and pepper were used to hide the stench of poorly stored meat during the Middle Ages. And there was hardly enough to meet the demand. It was at the streets of Iddicki where pepper was first associated with gold. The commodities were said to have traded at a one-to-one rate!
The scramble for spice
Driven by the need to find a cheaper means of getting spices, a number of European countries commissioned explorers to explore new routes. Vasco da Gama sailed past the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian town of Kozhikode in 1498. He returned to Portugal with a large assortment of spices including ginger, cloves, nutmeg and peppercorns.
Spaniard Christopher Columbus was not as successful. His quest for a sea route to India led him to stumble upon the Americas. Naming the local people as Indians was Colombus’ way of convincing his masters that he too had succeeded. What followed was an economic battle by European powers over the control of India’s spice trade and, as a result, India’s colonization.
Spice business expansion
The Dutch came out ahead of the pack when they established the Dutch East India Company in 1602, followed by other European powerhouses. These merchants’ clubs were designed to decrease competition, distribute risk and attain better economies of scale. Despite stringent laws to protect their monopoly, seeds were covertly planted in countries like Seychelles and Zanzibar and flourished. The once exclusive commodity could now be sourced from a number of regions today.