Spices are what bring our food to life. No meal, no culinary experience would be the same without the myriad flavors that the innumerable spices of the world bring to our tables. When one thinks of food and different cuisines, it’s easy to say that we are spoilt for choice. This, however, was not always the case.
The History of Spices
There is a reason the spices we eat conjure such an astounding variety of tastes, feelings, emotions, and imagination. Whether it’s Cajun, Creole, Curry, or Cayenne, a Thai chili or a spicy Habanero pepper, our experience of these flavors is both in the taste buds and the mind. Spices, in fact, used to be worth their weight in gold and then some. Saffron still is. A great deal of Asian and European history revolves around the trade, exploitation, and transportation of spices from and through the Asiatic regions. The famed Silk Road, as well as the travels of Marco Polo, are both examples of this ancient enterprise.
Because of the difficulty in acquiring them and the vast distances merchants had to travel to gather them, spices were reserved only for kings, queens, sultans, tsars, and other royals of the highest order. Undoubtedly, one can imagine the smells wafting from the kitchens of these high courts drifting out over the cities and towns, where the common folk would be forced to savor the aroma without the joy of getting a taste.
Eventually, though, and fortunately for us today, the spice trade grew to be so large that the merchant trains grew with it, and the cross-continental routes became well-worn. Spices had made the leap from kings to commoners, and slowly but surely even the most expensive flavors were becoming accessible to the working class. Owing to these past struggles, the flavors of Asia, Polynesia, Africa, and the remaining Global South are now available everywhere, to everyone!
The Magic of Indian Flavors
It’s hard to not first think of India when talking about spices. In India, regional spices have been used for millennia, both in food and in practices such as Ayurvedic medicine. This ancient practice, the world’s oldest form of medicine, is still wisdom today in many regions of the Indian subcontinent. Spices come into play when herbs are burnt, pastes are applied, or scents are used to enhance, alter, or otherwise affect a patient who is being treated through Ayurvedic practices.
However, these same spices, and many others, were used in delicacies and daily staples alike to flavor Indian food. As travellers passed through the area, these spices slowly made their way across the continent. Throughout the centuries, invaders and rulers—from Genghis Khan of the Mongol Empire to the several viceroys of the British Empire—always had their eyes laid on India’s treasure trove of spices. This growing interest in Indian spices led the country to eventually became the global center for what has gone down in history as the ‘Spice Trade’. From cumin to coriander, saffron to sage, black pepper to black mustard seeds, the world simply couldn’t get enough of the flavors India had to offer.
Spices as we Know Them Today
It didn’t take long for the rest of the globe to catch on—Indian cuisine was a hit, and the British took it with them everywhere as their empire grew to vast proportions. Many Indian dishes are in fact now considered staples in the United Kingdom, and nearly every major city on the planet has offerings that range from Vindaloo to Tikka to Tandoori. Not to forget that there’s one thing that is crucial to enjoyment of all these dishes. It’s the very secret to all the deliciousness that comes with Indian food: the spices!
Coriander, cumin, turmeric, black mustard, and cayenne pepper are the primary Indian spices, and in varying ratios, they can create some of the most heightened and delectable flavors known to man. Whether you like it hot or mild, salty or sweet, these core spices plus a little salt or sugar will provide you with what you seek. In fact, the famous curry powder and every other curry paste utilizes these top five spices in some combination as well.
Although all parts of coriander are edible, and many consume the leaf (which we know of as cilantro), the primary ingredient in Indian dishes is the coriander seed. Lightly toasted to release the flavor, the seeds can then be ground into powder or fried and crushed in oil to make a paste. The aroma is practically unmistakable, and the flavor is tart with hints of citrus. Curries, dal, and many other Indian dishes have coriander seeds as their base spice.
Native to Central Asia and parts of India, cumin is one of the oldest known spices ever used in foods. It is also used in Ayurvedic medicine, owing to its age and its alleged medical benefits. Cumin, also toasted like coriander seeds, is generally crushed into powder after toasting or bought pre-powdered. The flavor and aroma profiles are generally somewhat milder than coriander, though it provides earthy flavors and textures that cannot be ignored in any rich, thick curry.
Turmeric is a staple in nearly every curry, including Southeast Asian and Central Asian curries, not just Indian curry. A member of the ginger family, this root is first boiled then dried before being added to curry powders, pastes, as coloring in nearly any dish, or to add an earthy, peppercorn-like flavor to food. Turmeric, along with cumin, is used in Ayurvedic medicine for several purposes.
Black Mustard Seed
Black mustard seed is an Indian variant of the more well-known mustard seed. These are generally roasted until they pop and then ground into pastes or powders to impart a lasting, tangy bitterness to a dish. These are used as a spice throughout Asia, and they serve as a rich source of oil and protein. These will typically be used in heavier curries, such as vindaloos, when richness and oiliness are there to cut through the bitterness of the seed.
Hot, hot heat! This is where Indian curry gets its kick! Cayenne is not your average chilli powder, though it can itself be powdered and this is often how the spice is used. It can be added to nearly any dish to give it a little something extra, but Indian curries lend themselves particularly well to Cayenne. Its origins are likely in Northern Africa, though it has been used in India for centuries.
We do hope you’ve enjoyed our tour of Indian flavors and the spices of the world. It’s hard for us to imagine a world without spices – essentially that’s a world without curry! Feeling hungry? Time to dig into some comfort Indian food.