The Spices Board of India, under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry has started an online campaign, called the Spice Train, to educate Indians about the country’s rich spice heritage. The latest video released by the Board lists spices typical to the North Eastern states of India. Ginger, chili, turmeric seem to be common between all states, with Mizoram packing a kick with the deadly bird’s eye chili.
The #SpiceTrain has, until now, travelled to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
Each video, in a few seconds, illustrates the spices grown in a part of the country. It leaves out, however, their rich history. Before these spices became ubiquitous at grocery stores, they were coveted commodities – wars were fought, cities traded and voyages made to gain access to spice plantations.
Black pepper: The small dried berry with its pungent smell was a favourite among European aristocrats and Egyptions in the ancient world. Back then, there was only one small port town which exported the little spice, termed “black gold” – Muziris on the Malabar coast, which is now in Kerala.
Tamil Sangam literature contains descriptions of ships from Europe coming to India laden with gold in exchange for black pepper. It was used as a spice, digestive, aphrodisiac, preservative and currency in West Asia.
Turmeric: Much before the hipsters in New York discovered the turmeric latte, Indian households had been using the golden spice for centuries. Turmeric is still used in India not just cooking but for healing and beautifying. Pots discovered in archaeological digs, which date back to as early as 200 BCE, were found to contain residue from turmeric, ginger and garlic. The spice was used generously in Ayurvedic medicine.
The Western world, however, caught on to this vibrant spice much later. American journalist and health writer, Michael Castleman, wrote in 1991: “The ancient Greeks were well aware of turmeric, but unlike its close botanical relative, ginger, it never caught on in the West as either a culinary or medicinal herb. It was, however, used to make orange-yellow dyes. In the 1870s, chemists discovered turmeric’s orange-yellow root powder turned reddish brown when exposed to alkaline chemicals. This discovery led to the development of turmeric paper … to test for alkalinity.”
Cinnamon: The story of cinnamon, as with many things that turned into global commodities, is deeply tied to slavery. Once the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered the source of cinnamon by coming around the Cape of Good Hope and establishing an ocean route to India, the spice trade became a free-for-all.
Once ruthlessly controlled by the Venetians, the cinnamon trade fell under the Portuguese, who were even more violent. Murder, enslavement, kidnapping were all par for the course for the cinnamon trader sailing from Ceylon.
Cardamom: Eaten as a mouth freshener or crushed into masala chai, cardamom is a versatile spice and prized for its medicinal qualities. It is believed that the West got its first taste of cardamom when Alexander the Great brought it back from India.
Cardamom first came into use around the eighth century and has found mention in Sanskrit texts dating back to 4th century BCE.
Nutmeg: According to culinary historian Michael Krondl, “Nutmeg has been one of the saddest stories of history.” It is said that the island we now know as Manhattan was once traded for nutmeg. During the spice trade, the Dutch enjoyed a monopoly on nutmeg for nearly 200 years.
In 1647, when the trade was under threat due to deforestation of nutmeg producing trees, the Dutch agreed to trade the city over to the British, in exchange for control over one of the smallest of Banda Islands in Indonesia, simply because it was rich in nutmeg. Krondl wrote: “Both had something that the other wanted... The British wanted to hold onto Manhattan, which they’d managed to gain control of a few years earlier. And the Dutch wanted the last nutmeg-producing island that the British controlled, as well as territory in South America that produced sugar.”