The pursuit of ‘imported spice’ in our kitchen continues. Take a look at our spice jar, and it explains it all. Spices were not just traded for their colour, texture and taste, they were also known for their medicinal properties.
In the absence of refrigerators, in the medieval times spice powder was smeared on food to preserve them or to prevent them from smelling. The world may have moved on — but some things never change — spices continue to mask flavours. “Today, in many parts of India, the muddy aftertaste of river or pond fish is camouflaged with ajwain, which is probably a native to Egypt, the Fish Amritsari being a classic example,” explained Krishna Shantakumar, General Manager, Aswati Group, which owns fine dining restaurants like Ebony and On the Edge in Bangalore.
Ah, now I’m wondering, can we do without ajwain (also called carom)? No, it’s not just a digestive, but just a pinch of ajwain makes a difference to the dish. Rajasthan and Gujarat grow ajwain. They add a delectable touch to cookies.
Cinnamon is another example of a spice which has the ability to preserve food and this property of cinnamon has been put to use by chefs since centuries. History has it that it has been in use since 1000 BC and that many parts of the world source cinnamon from India and East Asia. If we look at it in today’s context, we grow cinnamon in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Moving on, let’s look at Nigella seeds or Nigella sativa also called kalonji. Reportedly Nigella seeds were found in Turkey sometime in second millennium BCE. And when it finally came to India, what an impact it made on our food. It’s a must-have spice in Bengali cuisine and is one of the five whole spices or panch phoran.
Going beyond fancy names like Nigella seeds, even our basic coriander is ‘phoren.’ The official website of the Spices Board of India (www.indianspices.com) describes coriander as a tropical spice crop which is a native of Mediterranean and commercially produced in India, Morocco, Russia, East European countries, France, Central America, Mexico, and USA. Both north and south India use it extensively.
Again, the Spices Board website indicates that cumin is indigenous to Northern Egypt, Syria, the Mediterranean region, Iran and India. It’s as much desired in curry powders as it is in medicine where it functions as an astringent.
I can go on with the foreign spice list. For instance, both Fennel and Fenugreek have Greek/Roman/Mediterranean origins. Likewise, clove and nutmeg can be traced to South Asia/Indonesia.
The spice trade has enriched port cities of the world thanks to an enterprising bunch of spice merchants, who mapped out navigational routes that linked the east with the west. In this exchange of spices, cuisines began to bear cross cultural influences.
For us in India, our food is nothing short of a gastronomic delight; deriving the essence of spices which come from distant lands. No surprise that India’s grand culinary experience packs in quite a punch. I’m sure you agree.