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.
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.