Friends as I pursue the spice route, I can't help admiring the way in which many 'foreign' spices have made it to desi kitchens. In fact these spices have so nicely integrated into our food it's difficult to imagine that the source lies in some distant land and that these spices navigated seven seas till they reached Indian souks.
The history of spice in India has a mosaic of influences, let’s look at the Arab rulers who came from Arabia and Persia as early as 7th century and continued to trade with India till almost 15th century. They came on sturdy Bactrian camels and sailed through the seas covering Cape of Good Hope, Tigris, Euphrates, Persian Gulf and Red Sea, among others. The journey was mapped in the cities of the ancient world and spice sacks were unloaded in Petra, Carthage, Syria, Damascus, Mesopotamia and Alexandria, among other places.
Tales of Sinbad the Sailor are legendary. “Even before Vasco Da Gama, traders from Arabia and Egypt came to India through the ‘Spice Islands’ to trade in spices like ginger, turmeric and pepper. The caravan of the spice route traveled to the Axum kingdom in Mesopotamia before reaching the heartland of Europe. When merchants took home Indian spices, pepper caught on with the western world. Spice exchange between India and the West also had socio-cultural influences. Many cathedrals in Portugal are adorned with pepper corn motifs, as a tribute to pepper which came from our country,” highlighted Krishna Shantakumar, General Manager, Aswati Group, which owns fine dining restaurants like Ebony and On the Edge in Bangalore.
The Arab influence continued. “Though Spain is associated with saffron, the Arab rulers brought saffron to India, apart from cumin and coriander. Saffron is cultivated in India and Spain,” added Shantakumar.
Adaptation of unknown spices in Indian food makes it an interesting story. Many of us in India didn’t know of Nigella seeds...or star anise.
We’ve tweaked the flavours and Indianised many of these spices. Given their growing popularity, many government led-initiatives have resulted in the commercial cultivation of several spices. At an individual level, many of us grow them in our kitchen garden. These spices have pepped up our cuisines and are responsible for giving a signature touch to many dishes.
I’ve put together a few examples of such spices. Take the case of star anise or star aniseed, a dried fruit of an evergreen tree found in southwest China, and is commercially grown in China and Vietnam. The spice is derived from the bark and consumers identify it as an eight-pointed star, popularly used in South East Asian cuisine including Burma.
This aromatic spice wowed the Indian platter when Chettinad in Tamil Nadu established trade links with Burma. Chettinad forged strategic business deals with Burma, and with cross-cultural ties it wasn’t long before star anise or anasipoo became a key spice in Chettinad cuisine. The rest, you would agree, is anyone’s guess. This spicy-sweet flavour caught on with curries and masalas in other parts of the country. Today, in many households, garam masala is incomplete without star anise. It’s no surprise that Arunachal Pradesh produces a small quantity of star anise.
Star anise is just one example and from there, we move on. Let’s look at other spices like cinnamon. It is from Sri Lanka though the cassia version traces its roots to China and South East Asia. But today, we seem to have imbibed it so beautifully, barks and curls of cinnamon enrich our rice, curries and desserts. We were quick to realise the flavour of this spice and began to nurture it in parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. History has it that during the rule of the Dutch East India Company, cinnamon ranked among profitable spices.