“No man should die if he can afford cinnamon”… said someone in the 14th century! London dockyard workers were paid in cloves while the Roman soldiers were paid in salt, coining the term “a man worth his salt”.
Spices were one of the major reasons trade around the world flourished, the reason America was discovered and one of the best kept secrets was the identity of the countries producing these golden flavours. So the next time you flavour your meal, think about how lucky we are to be in an age where wars are not declared in the name of a spice!
An ordinary meal in the home of someone from the Indus Valley Civilisation would contain salt, asatoefida (Hing), green chillies or perhaps some pepper with an assortment of vegetables and a staple grain. While the later day people like the Mauryan dynasty had at least five different salts to choose from (Kautilya, the famous strategist advised on cultivation of sea salts, spring salts, black salt, rock salt and some other types) the Buddhists kept it simple and had access to salt, maybe some pepper, mustard seeds and amloki, while they avoided five major kinds of foods like garlic and onion.
The Buddha once consoled a woman grieving her lost child by asking her to bring mustard seeds from a house which had lost no relatives. When the woman could find no such house, she realised that she was not alone in her grief.
The fragrance of black pepper travelled from Cochin, Kerala to the far off shores of Greece from as long back as the 4th century BCE. It was called Black Gold and its trade attracted the Romans and later the Portuguese and other nations so when Vasco De Gama finally arrived in India, he was sorely disappointed to see that he was not the only contender for Indian spices! It is only when he tried taking back pepper plants, his shocked hosts in the Kerala region warned him “you can grow this in your country, but how will you give it our rain?”
The pre and post monsoon rains of the verdant land, which is affectionately called God's own country, is what lends the Kerala pepper its extra punch. The Portuguese sadly produced a much watered down version. However, the Dutch had found an easier way to navigate to India from Cape Town in South Africa and this led to the British finally arriving on our shores, to compete with the trade of this exotic food additive.
In fact, British cuisine was infinitely more flavoursome than its bland versions today, because once spices started becoming cheaper and more freely accessible, British aristocrats purposely went for blandness to set themselves apart from the common man.
The Mughals however arrived from Samarkand and Emperor Babur lamented the lack of fragrance in the Indian dishes so by the time of Akbar's reign, rose water was sprinkled on vegetables so they could grow sweet-smelling, lending food more aroma. The Mughals also included the custom of consuming dessert after a meal topped off with a paan and thus savoury food might not necessarily be spicy, but simply non-sweet.
So whether it is the medicinal properties of turmeric or the ludicrous value nutmeg had in the 1400s, spices have always and still continue to spice up our lives and excite our senses.