Spices. No Indian dinner would be complete without them, and no tale about the subcontinent would be complete. Spices are so intertwined with Indian history and culture that even Indian films are referred to as "masala movies" – masala being the Hindi term for spice. (This is because many Bollywood blockbusters are a spicy blend of humour, drama, action, and romance.)
Every year, India produces more than two million tonnes of spices. It is one of the world's top exporters, accounting for more than 40% of the global spice trade.
A Brief History of Indian Spices
The history of spices in India dates back thousands of years, making it the "Spice Bowl of the World". Herbs and spices have been used by Indian tribes for almost as long as the "human civilization of spices." Conquering tribes ranging from the Assyrians and Babylonians to the Arabians, Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, British, and Portuguese invaded India with the same purpose: to profit from the vast natural resources and origin of spices.
The Rig Veda (about 6000 BC) and Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharveda provide the first written record on spices in India. During the Vedic period, information was mostly passed down orally from generation to generation via hymns. Several spices are mentioned in the Rig Veda, and the Yajur Veda also makes mention of black pepper.
Indian spices abound in the highlands, tropical rain forests, marshes, marshy woods, fertile valleys, and lush green fields. The history of Indian spices is rooted in Mother Nature's richness and kindness.
Spices from China, Indonesia, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were formerly transported by donkey and camel caravans from one location to another. The Arabs dominated the spice trade for about 5000 years until Europeans discovered a maritime route to India.
Many maritime journeys were undertaken to find a more cost-effective method of obtaining spices. To name a few, Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus. After travelling through Africa in 1497, the Portuguese Vasco da Gama found Kozhikode on India's southwest coast in 1498. He returned with a massive haul of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorns.
Role of Indian Spices in Indian History
Spices are often regarded as one of the most outstanding components of Indian cuisine. The complex flavours of Indian food do not come through in the absence of spices. Because of the exceptional flavour of Indian Spices in every kitchen, Indian food is becoming increasingly popular these days. Therefore it can be stated that Indian Spices and cuisine go hand in hand since traditional food items in India are seasoned with a diverse range of Spices. Indian chefs employ a variety of seasonings in various forms and colours. Golden turmeric, ginger root, and cardamom are typical spices used in Indian cooking. Depending on the cuisine, such as vegetables, chicken, fish, or red meat, spices are added throughout the cooking process and are available in every Indian household's masala box.
The story of the Indian masala trade during the ancient age
The history of spices in India made its way to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Arabia centuries before the Greek and Roman civilizations. Later, Greek merchants would ship for the port marketplaces of south India to purchase different luxury commodities, among which spices were usually at the top of their list. Historians think that the Parthian wars were fought to keep trade routes to India open. Spices and other luxury commodities from India enticed numerous explorers to undertake voyages and crusades to the East over the years.
The same Indian spices drove Arabian traders (of cinnamon and cassia) to lie about the origin of these spices to safeguard their economic interests. Because of these made-up legends, the ancient Greeks and Romans had some ridiculous theories about where these Eastern spices came from. According to Herodotus (5th century BCE), a great Greek historian who received information from Arab spice dealers, cassia grew in marshes and was defended by hazardous winged bat-like animals that sent forth harsh cries. The Arabs told even more incredible tales about cinnamon, which grew on high peaks near Arabia. Gigantic birds would carry cinnamon sticks to their nests on inaccessible rocks.
To obtain these cinnamon sticks, the people would arrange enormous portions of fresh donkey flesh near the nests of these birds, and the birds would take the hefty meat chunks to their nests. These towering nests would collapse from the weight of the meat pieces and tumble to the ground if they had sufficient support. The villagers would then gather the cinnamon sticks and sell them to the Arabs at exorbitant prices.
Indian spices: A journey of history and flavour
When it comes to spices, it's difficult not to think of India first. Regional spices have been utilized in India for millennia, both in cuisine and in traditions like Ayurvedic healing. This age-old technique, the world's oldest type of medicine, is being practised today in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. Spices are utilized when herbs are burned, pastes are applied, or smells are employed to improve, change, or otherwise impact a patient receiving Ayurvedic treatment.
However, these same spices and many others were employed to flavour Indian food in both luxuries and daily staples. These spices steadily made their way throughout the continent as travellers travelled through the area. Invaders and rulers have long sought India's golden mine of spices, from Genghis Khan of the Mongol Empire to the many rulers of the British Empire. Because of this increased interest in Indian spices, India eventually became the global hub for what became known as the "Spice Trade." The globe couldn't get enough of India's tastes, from cumin to coriander, saffron to sage, black pepper to black mustard seeds.
Spices as we know them today
It didn't take long for the rest of the world to notice—Indian food was a smash, and the British brought it with them wherever they went as their empire expanded to gigantic dimensions. Many Indian meals are now regarded as mainstays in the United Kingdom, and almost every major city in the world offers options ranging from Vindaloo to Tikka to Tandoori. Not to mention one essential item to enjoying all of these recipes. The spices are the key to all the flavour with Indian food!
The principal Indian spices are coriander, cumin, turmeric, black mustard, and cayenne pepper. When combined in varied proportions the role of Indian Spices in Indian history provides some of the most heightened and exquisite tastes known to man. Whether you want it spicy or mild, salty or sweet, these fundamental spices plus a little salt or sugar will satisfy your cravings. In reality, the well-known curry powder and any other curry paste use these top five spices in some combination.
Ayurvedic medicine, for example, has been practised for millennia. This age-old technique, the world's oldest type of medicine, is being practised today in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. Spices are utilized when herbs are burned, pastes are applied, or smells are employed to improve, change, or otherwise impact a patient receiving Ayurvedic treatment.