Sometime in the 15th century, fleets of ships from West Europe, laden with gold, would make their way to India’s west coast. Only to return home, laden with gold again, albeit a different kind. Sacks of pepper, considered so essential to European life, would fill up the containers of these vessels. In the olden days, pepper was likened to gold, and cleverly monikered “black gold”, an item so precious that it is believed that a sack of it was worth a man’s life!
The Spice Trade started as far back as the 1st century BC, but then it really flourished when the Europeans came into the picture. Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in Calicut in 1498 spurred on what later went on to become an international power struggle between the Western European nations of Portugal, Spain, France, Holland and Britain to control the lucrative spice-rich countries of the East. Kerala, then known as the kingdom of Keralam, was tiny but had already established itself as a key player in the historical trade.
Among the many monikers Kerala has, the most flavoursome of all has to be the one referring to it as the Land of Spices, and sometimes the Spice Garden of India. So there I was in the summer of 2015, spending a few good weeks in the “Spice Garden of India”. It was my second time in Kerala but my first at Alleppey’s Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere — a boutique resort situated on the Vembanad. The old spice route (a veritable path traced across continents) came up in conversation while I was sitting at Mystic Spice, the resort’s 24-hour restaurant based on the spice route of Kerala.
It was probably pepper which earned Kerala transnational fame. The Idukki district has had, since time immemorial, one of the world’s largest collections of peppercorn. But it wasn’t just peppercorn which exchanged hands, but cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, ginger and cloves all functioned as culinary additives, medicines, or perfumes in European life.
While the old trade led to bloodiest of wars and realigned the entire map of the world, there’s one more, very direct influence it has had: food, and by extension, our lives. What’s life without spice, said a wise man long back. And I couldn’t agree with him more. I looked at the walls of Mystic Spice, one of which were lined with see-through jars filled with spices used in Indian cooking. There was pepper, the undisputed king which had its origin in the dried berry of Piper nigrum. Apart from adding flavour to your dish, pepper is a popular home remedy for a sore throat, improves digestion, and even acts as a carcinogenic. White pepper comes from the same plant but is used in dishes like light-coloured sauces or mashed potatoes. If pepper is king, then the pleasant tasting cardamom is the queen of spices. Turmeric which comes from Curcuma longa an essential in all kinds of Indian cooking is also a natural antiseptic and antibacterial agent. The leaves of the curry tree which are native only India and the island of Sri Lanka are an important component of most South Indian dishes. Cumin (or jeera) is a big part of the Kerala Ayurvedic system as well as Indian cuisine and an important component of garam masala, curry powder and chilli powder. Mace and nutmeg are both used interchangeably in sweet as well as savoury dishes.
Data shows that “the international trade in spices has grown to an estimated 500,000 ton of spices and herbs valued at more than 1500 million US dollars.”1 I couldn’t believe that the tiny state of Kerala controlled the bulk of this production. As well as the production and marketing of tea and coffee. But before I could wonder more, I was quickly ushered to eat. Find out what in my next blog post, THE MYSTIC SPICE SERIES PART II.