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A Fistful Of Spices - Ambassadors For Centuries

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Tonight you might use pepper powder to spice up your omelet or to perk up your Caesar salad, but many people don’t know that pepper (also known as vegetable gold) was once used for paying rents.


The origin of spice dates back to the beginning of human civilization. There is hardly any cuisine on earth, which doesn’t make use of spices in one or the other form! Spices have served as the cultural ambassadors for many centuries. Even in this era of automated technologies spices are used to bridge the cultural gaps.  


Ancient Egyptians widely used spices for many purposes, but they used it mainly for embalming the bodies of their dead kings.  It is believed that spices from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and China were transported to Middle East and other countries on Camel caravans and donkeys. Asia became spice hub of the world. Many travelers like Marco Polo, Huen Tsang and Fahien, wrote about the spice trade in great details, which attracted the Europeans to Asia. In their travel anecdotes these travelers introduced India as the land of flavor and fragrance. They talked in great detail about the cultivation and aroma of the spices like pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, etc. These spices drove Europeans to sail across large oceans and make their way to the Indian subcontinent. In my opinion, the lust for spices not only resulted in - Building and bringing down the empires, winning and losing the battles, signing and flouting of treaties and the rise and fall of different religious practices, but also, tipped the balance of world power. Over the centuries, many of the European powers brutally established their reign over the spice producing countries in Asia. European superpowers exercised great control over the spices through political power. They believed that the gods of climate and botany have blessed these lands with spices. There is a legend that while leaving for Portugal, Vasco Da Gama seeked permission of the legendary Zamorin of Calicut, to take a pepper stalk with him for replanting. The potentate calmly replied “You can take our pepper, but you will never be able to take our rains.” He knew the importance of monsoon on the cultivation of crops.  


In today’s world, spices retain same economic importance as the yester years, but today all spices are grown everywhere around the globe. For example, till some years ago, Irani saffrons were much in demand throughout the world but today, there are many countries around the world where saffron are produced in abundance. Still the Irani saffrons are preferred over other saffron varieties because they embed the aroma and warmth of Iran and the Iranis. 


I have noticed one more thing that today boundaries of food preparations are dissolving faster. Earlier spices like pepper, ginger, turmeric, fennel, deghi mirch, coriander, cumin, allspice, cassia, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petals, shahjeera, cloves, mace, black cardamom, saffron, were used as garam masala mix in Indian homes. But, in the popular Top Chef Show, Padma Lakshmi was seen praising the authentic Ras-el hanout prepared by one of the participants which almost used Indian garam masala mix. Also Gordon Ramsay’s Christmas Turkey has same spice mix as the Indian garam masala. Like Indians, most of the food cultures have their own spice mixes:


  • Chinese use five spices powder mix in most of their food preparations. This powder mix contains grinded spices like star anise, fennel seeds, cassia, cloves and Sichuan peppers.


  • Japanese spice mix is known as shichimi, which has spices like red chilli flakes, sesame,  poppy seeds, sansho peppers, mandarin orange peel, hemp seeds and nori seaweed.


  • Moroccans have their own spice mix known as chermoula which consists of salt, fresh garlic, parsley, chilli, preserved lemons, pepper, ground cumin, coriander and coriander leaves. They also make a great marinade when mixed with olive oil and lemon juice.


  • Argentina's spice mix chimichurri contains oil, vinegar, chopped parsley, coriander, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, chili flakes, paprika, cumin, and tomato.


Even though these food cultures across the globe have unique spice mixes, the word spicy is often synonymous with Indian cuisine. Although today, wars are not fought to gain reigns over spice kingdoms, their popularity refuses to subside. I think one of the most inherent reasons may be that, the world’s first crack of globalization began in the pursuit of taste, which still continues. 


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A Fistful Of Spices - Ambassadors For Centuries