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The Spice Trail in India

Nov 17, 2018 | 7 Mins

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What would Indian food be if it wasn’t for the abundance of spices to flavour the food?

The history of spices is so old that there is a mention of cloves in the Ramayana! Early documentation also suggests that the use of herbs and spices for flavouring meat and other kinds of food was an accidental discovery. Back in time when people lived as mere hunters and gatherers, wrapping meat in leaves led to the realisation that the process greatly enhanced the flavour of the food. In Egypt, herbs were also used for mummification. It was a few years later that these herbs and spices were used for medicinal purposes and trade.


Spices have always played an important role in Indian cooking and local home chefs are the best food guides on explaining the role of each in their regional local food. Understand the use of spices in regional Indian cooking and enjoy homemade meals at Authenticook

In India, spice trading meant inviting two kinds people into the land - traders and invaders. For centuries India has played a major role in the spice market of the world and maintained friendly trade relations with Egypt, China, Mesopotamia, Sumeria and Arabia. This goes back as far as 7000 years ago. Arab traders would visit India, deal in spices and supply these to the West. But they were careful not to reveal their sources. In a time where spices were valued more than gold and pepper was used as a currency, none of these traders would want to let go of their sources. In fact, absurd stories were spread around to discourage others from finding out about these sources. It was only in 1st century AD that the connection was established between the Arab stories and the inflation in the prices of herbs and spices.

Everyone is well aware of Kerala being the Land of Spices. These traders made their way into the country through the southern parts of India and docked their ships along the Malabar coast. The advent of invaders began when Vasco da Gama established a sea route from Europe to India and broke the Arab monopoly on spice trading. This created a path for the Portuguese to eventually colonize and rule parts of India and also make way for the French, Dutch and the British. Each of these colonies have taken ships loaded with spices back with them and is the reason why so many Indian spices are easily available in every part of the world.


The history of cloves can be traced back to the epic mythology, Ramayana!

From the cathartic crackling sound of mustard seeds being tempered to the strong aroma of saffron that wafts from the big vessel of biryani being cooked, Indian spices have the power to appeal to all our senses. The use of spices in Indian cooking is a delicate art that requires time and practice to perfect. One can use them whole, dried, fresh or multiple spices can be grounded together to make a special masala. When the British ruled India, they were so fascinated by these masalas that they came up with the Curry Powder - basically a one-step solution to make Indian curries (and is still used in the United Kingdom as well as other parts of the world).

These garam masalas also vary from region to region, community to community. The Pathare Prabhu community of Mumbai have their own special garam masala known as Sambaare which is used in almost every dish. What’s interesting is that the flavour of the dish completely changes based on the quantity used. In West Bengal, Odisha, Nepal and parts of Bihar, Panch Phoron (5-spice mix) is used which comprises of 5 crucial spices - fenugreek, cumin, nigella, black mustard and fennel to prepare dishes. Even the Malvani community has its own masala that they use in preparing their fish curries.


Home chef Snehal used her own homemade Malvani masalas to flavour the fish curries and meat preparations. You can check out details about her home dining experience in Goregaon West, Mumbai here

In North India, Cumin Seeds (Jeera) is often used for tempering or as the basic spice while preparing any dish. In South India, Mustard Seeds replace Cumin Seeds. While pepper is the king of spices in the south, saffron rules in the north. Mustard seeds, cumin (jeera), red chilli powder and turmeric form a part of day-to-day cooking in almost every home in India, there are some spices that are unique to the region, community or style of cooking they originate from. Take Jakhiya for instance - they are granular seeds with an earthy aroma that come from an wild edible plant found in the Himalayas. In the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, Jakhiya is used for tempering instead of cumin or mustard seeds. Another example would be the Tirphal (kind of a schezwan pepper) found in the Konkan region of India. From Malvani to GSB to Goan, communities residing in this part of the country make use of tirphal in their food. The flavour is quite strong so the spice is used in minimal quantity. Another regional kind of this schezwan pepper is found in Meghalaya and goes by the name Jaiur. It is not pungent but has a slight lemony aftertaste.


Tirphal is often used in Goan, Malvani and Saraswat cuisines

Do you know why the rich red colour on the meat in Kashmiri Rogan Josh is so difficult to obtain? While today they are obtained using substitutes or synthetic colours, in earlier times, ratanjot was used to get that signature crimson colour. Another interesting spice is kalpasi (also known as dagad phool or black stone flower). It has no flavour on its own but when used while cooking, it imparts a unique flavour to the food. In Maharashtra, it is used in making the goda masala, Potli masala in Lucknow and is also used in the traditional Indian garam masala but many tend to leave it out today.

Such is the beauty and charm of Indian spices that it created a place for India in world trade. The diversity in Indian food can be credited to the variety of local ingredients and spices that makes the food taste so good.


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