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Home > History of Spices
History of Spices
History of SpicesThe fame of Indian spices is older than the recorded history. The story of Indian Spices is more than 7000 years old.Centuries before Greece and Rome had been discovered, sailing ships were carrying Indian spices, perfumes and textiles to Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt. It was the lure of these that brought many seafarers to the shores of India.

Long before Christian era, the Greek merchants thronged the markets of South India, buying many expensive items amongst which spices were one. Epicurean Rome was spending a fortune on Indian spices, silks, brocades, Dhaka Muslin and cloth of gold, etc.It is believed that the Parthian wars were being fought by Rome largely to keep open the trade route to India. It is also said that Indian spices and her famed products were the main lure for crusades and expeditions to the East .

Today when spices cost so little, it seems unbelievable that they were once a royal luxury and that men were willing to risk their lives in quest of them. Though it were the Dark Ages, but there were rich people who had gold to exchange for pepper and cinnamon. It was in the year 1492 A.D., that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Five years later, four tiny ships sailed southward from the port of Lisbon, Portugal, under the guidance of Captain Vasco Da Gama. Like Columbus, Vasco Da Gama too was searching for a new route to the spice lands of Asia. While Columbus failed to achieve the goal, Da Gama succeeded. In a two year, 24,000 miles round trip, he took his ships around the continent of Africa to India and back to Lisbon. Only two of the four ships survived to reach their homeport. These two ships brought back a cargo of spices and other products worth 60 times the cost of the said voyage.

The spices of the East were valuable in those times, During these Middle Ages, a pound of ginger was worth a sheep, a pound of mace worth three sheeps or half a cow. Pepper, the most valuable spice of all, was counted out in individual peppercorns, and a sack of pepper was said to be worth a man`s life. Da Gama`s successful voyage intensified an international power struggle for control over the spice trade. For three centuries afterwards the nations of Western Europe - Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, and Great Britain - fought bloody sea-wars over the spice-producing colonies.

History of SpicesBy the year 1000 Arabians had conquered the Indus valley , what is now India. They brought the cumin and coriander that mixed with Indian pepper, ginger and turmeric make up the base of so many South Asian dishes. It was this combination of spices that centuries later British sailors spread throughout the world as curry powder. In India, Arabian traders got the rare and exotic spices of the Far East from local spice merchants. India had spent the previous two millennia spreading its culture to the Spice Islands of the east. Arabian traders were able to make good money supplying these spices, even with the high prices paid to the Indian middle men, not only to their countrymen back home, but to Europe as well. These traders of spices paid for the Art and Education for which Arabia became famous in the present day.. In many ways the culture of Arabia loved studying and learning different things. Many great Greek and Roman plays were translated in Arabic, so too were the geographic writings of Pliny and Ptolemy telling of the general location of the tabled spice islands.

As Arabian astronomers charted the stars in order to study them and understand mans relation with them, they realized these same charts could be used for navigation. And then Arabian traders invented the technology and knew the odds. Soon they were sailing to what is now Indonesia and Malaysia to purchase spices directly, bypassing the Indian middlemen. By the middle of the 13th century Arabian merchants were regularly visiting Sumatra for cassia from the slopes of Mount Korintje. .While travelling they would stop at little villages and towns that had fresh water resource to refill their water supplies. At these stops the merchants would barter their cumin, coriander and saffron and speak and preach of their religion as well .The tropical climate did not suit the saffron but coriander now plays an integral part in so many dishes across Indonesia. The religion, which they preached while bartering spices did even better than the coriander, with Indonesia today being the world`s most populous Islamic country. Compared to the Hindu belief in a caste system spread earlier by traders from India, it seems the Islamic belief that all were equal in serving God really hit a chord with the people of Indonesia.

In nutshell, the fascinating history of spices is a story of adventure, exploration, conquest and fierce naval rivalry.

History of SpicesThe people of those times used spices, as we do today, to enhance or vary the flavors of their foods. Spices were also flavor disguisers, masking the taste of the otherwise tasteless food that was nutritious, but if unspiced, had to be thrown away. Some spices were also used for preserving food like meat for a year or more without refrigeration. In the sixteenth century, cloves were used to preserve food without refrigeration. Cloves contain a chemical called eugenol that inhibits the growth of bacteria. It is still used to preserve some modern foods like Virginia ham. Later, mustard and ground mustard were also found to have preservative qualities. When spices were not available people went hungry because they could not preserve their foods to carry them over to the winter. Such was the importance of spices those days.

Broadly, there are two main subdivisions of spices one being the major spices and the other is minor spices. For example the spices like pepper, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, chilies etc., comes under major category. The important minor spices grown in India are ajowan, aniseed, caraway, celery, coriander, cumin, dill seed, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, onion, saffron, vanilla etc.
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