The Spice Trail

From nutmeg to ginger and cinnamon to turmeric, read how spices transformed India into a ‘black gold’ bowl.

Pepper, in the culinary world, may have been reduced to a seasoning today, but there is no denying that it was the search of pepper – once worth its value in gold – that began the Spice Route, the maritime route that eventually created the world map. India has been at the intersection of historic maritime routes that spread across either side of the Indian Ocean. The Indian Peninsula lies at the centre of these routes, dominating the Indian Ocean. Ports on the Indian coastline were at the very centre of this flourishing international trade. Pepper, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg brought the world to India, to its historic Malabar Coast, known as Spice Coast.

Spices Sea Trade

Historical spice connect

Tracing the journey of spices

Think about it: Greek navigator Hippalus’ study of the Indian monsoon was egged by pepper (used then as rent and royalties); Pliny feared the rising fascination with pepper to such an extent that he tried banning the trade to keep Roman Empire from bankruptcy. Such was the charm of Black Gold (as pepper was called back then) that Vasco Da Gama while leaving India asked Zamorin of Calicut for a pepper stalk. Though his request provoked the ire of the locals, the chief allowed him, explaining to his courtiers later – “He can take our pepper, but he will never be able to take our rains.” True to the Zamorin’s verdict, the best Gama’s three shipload worth of spices, sandalwood, egg, chicken, silk and pepper plants, did was getting more ships into India – curiously this time not for pepper alone! According to old Kalingapatnam ledgers and Periplus of the Erythraean Sea it was the ‘rains’ (read: spice friendly weather) that transformed India into the Spice Superbowl of the World. Consider this: By 9 CE, India was producing not only the best ginger, cardamom, turmeric, clove and pepper, but also nutmeg, mace, star anise, fennel and cumin as well –spices that it once imported from South East Asia during the early years of Spice Route. Two ports that beautifullyshowcased this transition was Arikamedu, which became the sight of the first Muziris (the oldest portal settlement in South India), and Calicut (now known as Kozhikode), which got the moniker of Spice Emporium of India for being the gateway to the world’s greatest pepper growing regions. For India, however, port stations like Arikmedu, Kozhikode, Pattnam or Tamralipta were, as professor of public history and host of BBC’s Story of India Michael Wood puts it, “places of business where aside the physical exchange of goods, ideas and foods, visitors got a whiff of the new offerings as well.” The real business happened in the interiors and the high land areas connected to the port by little waterways and broken roadways. Like Iddicki, the place in the high nowhere, that produced the finest pepper in the world: always dark and heavy, bursting with flavour. Or ginger and turmeric, which came to prominence when Confucius began advocating it as an allcure antidote in the 6th century, which were an Andhra Pradesh specialty. Considered the best in the world, Andhra turmeric plant ripens faster because of the early orchards and the early sunrise. Ginger, the other cheaper but equally important trade spice, too was a privy of the southern region, with the main producing hamlets strewn in and around the Malabar Coast. According to Ain-i-Akbari, “though ginger was produced in other parts of the country, the best green ginger and sonth (ginger powder) came from Madurai.” Yet another place that made India spice rich was Kappad, a small hamlet across Kozhikode, which was known for its high quality clove, palm and sesame oils. Adds Kalra, “These were among the high demand exports and were milled in indigenously designed home millers strewn around the southern coast.” Cardamom, the other high in demand spice, too, grew around the erstwhile Chola Empire, especially in the region of what today forms the Palakkad, Kozhikode and Kannu region. In fact, the one from Nilgiri was much sought after by the Arabs traders, who used it as part of currency in their Incense Route in the north.

Spices in Food

Tracing Spice roots

How the spices came to India

Old business scrolls, found in the trail of Madurai and Ujjaini, prove how the southern topography and the heavy downpour became the reason behind the rise of South as a spice bowl. It was a magical place blessed with fertile soils and weather, says culinary wizard Jiggs Kalra, “such that every spice that came into the shore could be reproduced here, better in quality. Like coffee that came from Africa and was grown in parts of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and cinnamon and cassia.” An excellent example of this is chillies. Brought to India by the Portuguese, who are also credited for introducing us to tomatoes and potatoes, India soon began growing chillies known for their robust flavours and hotness. Like the varieties from Guntur, Warangal, Khammam, East and West Godavari and Prakasam. To what extent spices – not only pepper – dominated the spice route can be gauged from the accounts of travellers visiting designed cities like Vijayanagar and Surat that were, adds coastal cuisine expert Sandeep Sreedharan, “laden with the best produce of the region, and would often showcase the best in the kingdom through art and food. Like the Tapioca and Toddy Fish.” One of the popular gems at the Muziris, says Sreedharan, “the dish not only showcased the new age spices like bay leaf and chillies, but also was an ode to the brisk business of toddy that was produced across the coastline.” Another creation that showcased the spice wealth of the south was the Paan Mukhwas. Made by pounding betel leaf, cardamom, sandalwood, spices and nutmeg paste, the mukhwas, a fast moving favourite among the sailors and merchants, wasn’t just a great innovation, but a presentation of the spices that originated and were traded in the Silk Route.

Indian Spices


Influencing other region’s cuisines

India’s generous spice resources and existing culinary techniques also influenced the creation of Malaysian food repertoire. According to Susheela Raghavan, author, Flavors of Malaysia, “The trade with India had a profound and permanent effect on Malaysian culture and food from the 1st CE, when most of the Malay curries were prepared with a blend of dry spices or wet spice pastes, picked up from these port cities and stations. It is also said that it was the Khmer cooks who introduced Indian food – such as curries and boiled red and white sweets – to Siamese King Ayuttaya’s court. This could be the reason why the flavour profiles of most of Siamese dishes have a resemblance to the South Indian curries – at least those that existed back in time. The other reason for this commonness is Buddhism, which was a gift to the world by India. Kantakasela, one of the oldest ports of Andhra Pradesh, was known for its dried bay leaf; while Thanjavur rose to prominence because of its coconut varieties – and was among the oldest port town to have a mill for oil and coir. In fact, the oriental essential spice, sesame too was an important export from South, but mostly as oil. Alongside clarified butter (ghee), which according to European Fryer Las (1672) was one of India’s oldest oil form, the port station also traded in sesame oil, which was in demand in Rome and Ottomon Empire both for medicinal as well as ‘flavourful oil’. It is said that Uzbeks used it to flavour their semi dry bread for their evening Chai Khanna. In fact, cinnamon and cardamom were the two spices that they discovered en route to Tamil Nadu from Kerala, later used expertly to lure the other nations to India. It is said that the traders would often tell of how large mythical birds protected the plants in tropical jungles of India. The truth in this was the tropical jungles that made South a conducive place for spices – even coffee to grow – and how.

Spice fusion

Influencing the Indian cuisine

Spice route’s biggest contribution, however, remains the Spice Wars. Says Zeaside owner, Arun Kumar, “Back then, thanks to the rich natural resources and proximity to other South Asian countries, India was at a vantage point, and could command a premium for anything sold in the spice market. This was the mystery that many voyagers later on came to solve, and instead found an opportunity to stay back – and eventually become a part of India or rule.” Of course, each came with a new spice to add to the basket too. Take the case of the Arabs, whose journey into India was primarily for the trade supremacy, but eventually led to many of them settling down, creating a new community we call the Mappilas in South and Khojas in Gujarat – each contributing to the culture and food.

Like the Mutta Mala (Egg Garland), the technique of which eventually inspired the khansama of the Nawab of Lucknow to make the moti pilaf, where the egg white was steamed to resemble pearl. Or the Pathiri, which came as a replacement of the Arabian bread, was inspired by fateeras. The Hyderabadi Khatti Dal was a culinary confluence of Persian influences on Deccan cooking. The dal, which the Nawab of Lucknow called ‘basi’ (stale), was developed by the Persian Shi’ites who found employment with a Bahamanid Sultan after the Persian Empire lost power. It is also said that Persians popularised the use of shredded coconut and coconut milk, with the tang of curry leaves and the astringent bite of fresh fenugreek leaves and sourness of tamarind into Deccan cooking. But the start of the influences was with the Arabs and Bene Jews, who gave coastal Kerala its own, distinct culinary branch.

There is a possibility that eggs in sweets became a practice with the Arabs. Yet another creation was Aleesa, a blend of whipped wheat meat inspired by the Harees in the Middle East, and the Suleimani chai made with black tea, cardamom and lemon. It was the trade route that gave Kerala its baking culture too. According to a famous folklore, in 1883, when Carmae Brown (son of Murdoch Brown who built Ayisha Manzil), an English planter with cinnamon estates at Anjarakandi, asked a local biscuit maker Mambally Bapu to bake a plum cake for Christmas, he said yes without having a clue. But resourceful as he was, he sourced the recipes from English women and using homegrown spices like cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, created the finest plum cake possible. And with that began Kerala’s bakery revolution! Fritto, which became pakoras in India, were also a technique picked by merchants from the markets in Spain and candied fruits from Uzbekistan. It is likely that the candied fruit eventually led to dried fruits and murabas. The Chicken 65 (which got its name because of its number in the menu) was, of course, the Asian influence that brought in the sauces. Spice mixes were also the result of influences that came along the spice route, especially the Paanch Phoran, Chettinand Masala and the Chandraseniya Kayashta Prabhu (CKP). The latter two spice mixes, in fact, says Kumar, “define the pepper trail – at least one that defined not only the cuisine of India, but also maritime history.”

written by: Madhulika Dash

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