Cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, coriander, chilli, cloves and pepper –common names in an Indian kitchen today, and internationally known too, as flavouring for food. Every chef, and housewife as well, knows that a pinch of this and a small fistful of that, in the right proportions, can raise food from the mundane to the sublime. Listen to their stories, and you will know that spices can not only tickle your taste buds, but also provoke your grey cells!
The nutty tale of nutmeg goes way back in History, when the Europeans were coming in droves, eager to colonize new places and find new things to take back home. One among them, the Dutch, hit upon a bonus in the East Indies. When they were busy, looking for precious stones, land and gold, they found — the nutmeg. It became a popular spice in Europe, and that was it. They turned the whole place into one large nutmeg plantation and set a new rule in place. “No native is allowed to grow nutmeg.” And they gave terrible punishments to those who flouted the rule.
Time went by and the Dutch made their millions, monopolizing nutmeg trade. But, maintaining that monopoly meant that they had to police the little islands of the Indian Ocean, making sure that the natives did not grow the spice and sell it off to other Europeans who also scouted the area regularly. This is the story of one such a group, entrusted with the job of making sure that nutmeg grew only in the White Man’s plantations. One day, when they were sailing by an island, they saw something that made them furious. They saw nutmeg trees! They went to the next island, and saw more nutmeg trees! One island after another, all of them had the banned tree growing on it. Enraged by the disobedience of the natives, the Dutch inflicted cruel punishments on all of them.
At their next stop, they saw more nutmeg trees, and by now, the Dutch men were tired of handing out punishments. So, they asked an old native, “Why did you disobey us and plant these trees here?” And the venerable old man replied, “We did not plant them, sir. Birds eat the nutmeg fruit and fly over these islands. And where their droppings fall, new plants grow.” So much confusion and pain, all because of bird droppings!
This peppery tale has an international take. It was a spice over which countries fought and killed, kingdoms tottered and empires were built. And many made their millions with it too!
In the pre-refrigeration days, the Europeans had to preserve meat and the only way to do so was to dredge it in salt. But when this meat was cooked, it was way too salty to eat. Something had to be added to it to improve its flavour, and pepper was the best thing they could use. Chilli was not really an alternative, for it was too fiery for the European palate. So pepper became a necessity to the Europeans.
It was the Portuguese who first came to India for pepper. And they did take a lot of it! At one point, they became a little greedy and hiked the price of pepper by a very small amount, something like three pence a pound. You see, pepper was so expensive and precious those days that it was sold by the corn. Not everyone could afford it; it was reserved only for those with heavy wallets.
The price rise did nothing to make the British happy. They decided to come to India and take pepper by themselves, and so the East India Company was formed, and the rest is history. Of course, this is only one angle to the colonization story, but doubtless, a spicy angle. After independence, India is the biggest player in the world pepper market. The finest Indian pepper is grown in the monsoon forests of the Malabar Coast in Kerala. Each house in Kerala grows pepper creepers, trailing up their coconut palms and jackfruit trees. All extras are sold to pepper cooperatives which play the world market.
Our tangy tale involves – no, not tomato ketchup, but our very own tamarind, without which no South Indian meal is complete. What is South India without sambar and rasam, both of which are tamarind based? Drive down any highway and you will invariably see that it is bordered by tamarind trees. Stories abound of tamarind trees harbouring ghosts and most villages have one or two of these trees to give it the necessary shade, and the necessary goose bumps!! At the end of all this, one could be forgiven for thinking that the tamarind was a local tree. Far from it actually. The tree itself is of African origin, and the name came from the Arabic “Tamar Hindi”, which means Indian date, from the date-like appearance of the dried pulp. Born in Africa, named in Arabia and eaten in India —- globalization indeed.
Our smelly tale involves — asafetida. An essential ingredient in Indian food, a spice with medicinal properties – asafetida is all this and more. It literally means ‘stinking gum’, but a pinch of it can work wonders for the food. No rasam is a rasam without asafetida. Much as the Indians liked it, the British had the last word. They called it ‘Devils Dung’, perhaps because of its obnoxious smell. One man’s flavouring, another man’s olfactory assault?
Spices, as you can see, have gone places indeed. The poem may say “Sugar and spice, and all things nice……..” but spices do have a long history behind them and not all of it is nice. There is no denying their need in the culinary field, and indeed, food would be so bland and colourless without them. What is gravy without the rich yellow glow of turmeric, or a pullav without the red strands of saffron? Viva spices.