During the holiday season I do a lot of baking and cooking filling the house with spicy aromas. When I received a beautiful box of baking spices as a Christmas gift I got to wondering how far these spices had to travel before they arrived in my kitchen. I was further intrigued by an article in the Sunday New York Times, The World’s History in a Clove Tree by Amitav Ghosh which urged me on to further investigations.
Ghosh began with the Mulaku islands (formerly known as the Moluccas) also known as the Spice Islands, which were the only place in the world where cloves and nutmeg with its covering called mace were grown. These spices are common now but were incredibly expensive for hundreds of years because of their rareness, and rigors of transporting them to Asia and Europe. “Cloves from around 1700 BC have been found at the site of a settlement in Tell Ashara, Syria. To get there, they would have had to travel more than 6000 miles, through the ports of the Indian Ocean and overland through Mesopotamia. At every stop their price would have increased,” Ghosh wrote.
The world of spices is a large one. All of us use pepper (which originated in India) and salt without thinking about them as spices, but even they were prized. Along with cloves and nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger and other spices they all traveled over the Silk Road by camel caravans. It was trade along the Silk Road that linked the great areas of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Rome for centuries.
Beginning in the 16th century trading companies like the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company carried spices across the seas and competed violently to create monopolies.
In fact, the Dutch and British companies were such bitter competitors that in 1623 the Dutch beheaded 10 Englishmen along with many others in a mass execution, the Massacre of Amboyna. That caused the British to give up their enterprises in all the Spice Islands except for the island of Run. However, in 1667, the British wanted to reestablish themselves in Manhattan, then New Amsterdam, and the Dutch wanted them totally out of the Spice Islands. The result was an agreement to swap. The Dutch gave the island of Manhattan away to the British who then left RunIsland.
Cumin is among the most ancient spices originating over a large area from the eastern Mediterranean to south Asia. I first encountered cumin on the skewers of barbecued meat prepared by the Beijing Muslims in what we called the Uigher Alley when we lived in China. Those little pieces of spiced meat were delicious. Cumin is made from the seed of the Cuminum cyminum which is then pulverized.
Many of these prized spices were often more important for their medicinal properties, frequently digestive, than for the flavor they brought to the dishes served during the Middle Ages. Over time spices were no longer needed for medicinal remedies or preserving meats.
While many of these spices originated in a particular area it was inevitable that the trees and plants that produced them would spread along the trade routes. Ultimately prices came down and today we can afford all those spices.
Cinnamon may be the spice I use most often in my kitchen. At some point I realized that not all cinnamon tasted the same. In my Christmas box of spices there were two jars of cinnamon. One was labeled China or cassia cinnamon which is mostly grown in Indonesia where the Cinnamomom cassia tree is harvested. The label said it has a stronger fragrance and flavor, and it is the kind used in supermarket brands. The second jar labeled Ceylon cinnamon originated in Sri Lanka, and most of it is still produced there. According to the label it has a milder sweeter flavor and is suitable for coffee and hot chocolate as well as regular baking. Later I learned the only difference is that it is the Sri Lankan tree Cinnamomon verum tree that is harvested.
We cannot grow many spices here in Massachusetts. However, Old Friends Farm in Amherst grows both ginger and turmeric in unheated hoop houses. The ‘baby’ ginger that they sell at food coops and at farmers markets does not look like the brown roots that show up at the supermarket. Fresh baby ginger does not have the familiar dried skin, but a pink blush on the white root. It is not as fibrous and will not last long once it is harvested but it can be frozen and used as needed.
Old Friends Farm also grows and sells turmeric which is such a staple of many Asian dishes.
We can all plant cilantro which is an herb. Coriander is considered a spice, but coriander is the seed produced by cilantro. Those of us who have grown cilantro know how quickly it produces seed encouraging us to make successive plantings if we want to have a long season of this strongly flavored herb.
One point Ghosh wanted to make is that the thing we call globalization has been around for centuries with international trade flourishing and demanding communication and agreements between nations. I was drawn to the idea that the most common ingredients like pepper and cinnamon in our kitchen traveled far and have long and exotic histories.
Between the Rows January 7, 2017