Spices and seeds

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Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices

(Song of Solomon 4:13,14)

Awake, O north wind; and come thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out

(Song of Solomon 4:16)

My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens; and to gather lilies

(Song of Solomon 6:2)

Spices are the dried parts of aromatic and pungent plants and include flowers, seeds, leaves, bark and roots. The properties of spices are usually as a result of the presence of essential oils which are oily benzene or terpene derivatives and which tend to evaporate easily.

Herbs are small temperate plants used for their aromatic constituents. In contrast to herbs, the term spice has a tropical connotation


The Spice Route

There are no exact dates to the generically named “spice route”- a hazardous trade and caravan route that linked China, Indonesia, India and Ceylon to the eastern Mediterranean. One of the most commonly used routes traversed Peshawar, the Khyber Pass, Afghanistan and Persia and eventually reached Europe. This it is generally believed to have been used for about 5000 years.

Ship transport was another method of travel. (Herodotus mentions that Africa was surrounded by water and the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa.) Arabians plied the Arabian Gulf and monopolized the trade in cassia and cinnamon. The route they probably used was from China to South India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), from there to the Persian Gulf, and then by camel caravan to the Mediterranean namely Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt.


Spices have been used by human beings from before recorded history. Spices and their trade have played an integral role historical development. Spices were once valued as highly as gold and governments grew rich with this trade and on the accumulation of taxes that they levied on it.

The Spice Trade in Europe grew out of the need for spices as food flavourings and preservatives. They were also needed for their healing and therapeutic properties. The long cold european winters when food was scarce and unappetizing, fuelled this demand. In addition, this was an era where there was no refrigeration, leading to the demand for the spices both as preservatives for fresh food and flavourants to disguise the taste of food gone bad!

Ancient Egypt

Spices were prized and used as flavouring, healing , preserving and purifying agents. Egyptian embalming procedures are said to have used spices like anise and cumin.

Biblical reference

Evidence of the spice trade is found in the Bible. The 37th chapter of Genesis, describes an incident when Abraham's son Joseph is abandoned in a ditch by his jealous brothers. It was then that they saw a group of merchants carrying spices amongst other things.

Usage by the Greeks and Romans

Modern Greek and Italian food uses both herbs and spices in a large degree. There is recorded evidence to show that this tradition was common in the Graeco-Roman empire. Black and White pepper were commonly traded commodities, as also anise, caraway and cumin. The volume of the spice trade with India was so large that the Romans set up a trading ports in south India one of which is in a place called Arikamedu (just outside modern Pondicherry). Infact, the balance of trade eventually became so unfavourable to the Romans that in the 1st century AD, this trade was eventually limited.

Pre-Christian Europe

Sea trade between the Middle East and India increased. There was a Nile-Red Sea canal build in 285-246 BC probably largely to facilitate trade and military operations. After Egypt became a Roman province, traders travelled from India via the Red Sea to Egypt, down the Nile to Alexandria, and then to Greece and Italy via the Mediterranean Sea. Spices were an important source of Roman revenue.


Modern Istanbul was founded by Constantine, Holy Roman Emperor (272-337; Emperor of Rome 324-337).Constantinople, situated as it was at the crossroads of the East and the West became the greatest entrepot of the time. As a via media between Europe, the consumer of spice, and the Orient, the producer of spice, it gained size, fame and wealth. Spices that were largely traded through Constantinople included cloves, pepper, saffron, and nutmeg.

After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire centred at Constantinople, commercial activity declined as a result of political instability. Spices however continued to remain in demand. The spice trade was controlled in the East by the Arabs and in the Adriatic by the Venetians. Travellers like Rabbi Benjamin (1160-1173) visited Europe, Africa, and Asia. Marco Polo (1254-1324), Venetian, visited the Kublai Khan in China and established trading relations with the area.

Spices and the rise of Colonial Empires

The unflagging demand for spices in Europe, and the Venetian and Arab control of this trade fuelled the desire by other European powers to find new ways to access this source of wealth. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, Venice fell into decline- a vacuum soon filled by Portugal’s rise as a great naval and trading power.


took the lead in this matter, helped largely by Royal patronage.Prince Henry the Navigator (b 1394) was himself a keen explorer and set up institutes of training focussing on sea-craft and navigation, naval engineering and instrument and ship building.

The Portuguese crossed the equator in 1471 after which there was no looking back. Bartholomew Diaz rounded the southern tip of Africa in 1487 and accessed the Indian Ocean by sea, while Pedro de Covilhao took the land route and reached Calicut, Goa, and Hormuz in 1487.Ten years later Vasco de Gama sailed around the cape, taking the route that Diaz had taken, reached Mozambique in Africa and then travelled to India and Calicut. Once this route had been discovered, the Arab-Venetian combine and the Venetian control of the Mediterranean spice trade were at an end.

The Spanish

soon joined their neighbours in these explorative missions and in 1492 Christopher Columbus, sailing west, quite by accident discovered America. He also discovered Capsicums (red pepper) and Pimenta officinales (allspice). In his journal he writes:

We ran along the coast of the island, westward from the islet and found its length to be 12 leagues as fas as a cape which I named Cabo Hermoso (Cape Beautiful), at the western end. The island is beautiful, ....I believe that there are many herbs and many trees that are worth much in Europe for dyes and for medicines; but I do not know them and this causes me great sorrow.

The Portuguese were however still in the lead of this racePedro Alvares Cabral of Portugal discovered Brazil and Madagascar, and Amerigo Vespucci dispatched on a Brazillian mission ended up sharing his name with America.

A large western coastal tract of land on the Indian sea board was in Portuguese control and remained so till 1952. In 1502, Vasco da Gama gained control of Goa, and Francisco de Almeida eventually assumed title of Viceroy of India. After him the title passed to Alfonso de Albuquerque who used war as a means of controlling trade.

Even further east, the islands variously known as the Spice Islands, Malluccas and modern Indonesia were discovered in 1509. Hormuz, a strategic halt in the Persian Gulf came under Portuguese control till 1622.

The rest of Europe enters the fray

Francis Drake, English captain and pirate, circumnavigated the globe and discovered San Francisco in 1579. The defeat of the Spanish Armada by England was the beginning of the end for of Iberian domination of the World Spice Trade. Post this, the British and the Dutch largely controlled this arena.

Spice Timeline

For a detailed spice timeline visit

Modern Categorisation

Spices are generally defined as seasonings for food of plant origin. They can be from any part of the plant. The American Spice Trade Association (ASTA). provided a much more exact and specific definition. This organisation defines spices are 'any dried plant product used primarily for seasoning purposes.' This definition covers a wide range of plant and plant parts: tropical aromatics, leafy herbs, spice seeds, roots, dehydrated vegetables, and spice blends.

Till recently leaves like basil and oregano were categorised as herbs and only dried plant parts pepper, cinnamon, and cloves were named spices. The term spice is now more generic and extends to a large number of flavour enhancers of plants origin including herb and spice mixtures and dehydrated vegetables.

The law states that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shall still categorise dehydrated vegetables and spices used for colouring food like paprika and saffron (these are labelled 'spice colouring' )separately from spices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules are similar to the FDA.

Traditional knowledge of the medicinal quality of spices- Modern relevance

Traditional societies used particular combinations of food and spices for good reason. For example, in North India, cauliflower, a winter vegetable, has a high sulphur content. The sulphurin the vegetable results in wind. To counteract this, cauliflower is traditionally cooked with asafoetida, ginger and cumin. All three of these spices are natural antiflatulents, and provide "heat" to the body, negating the discomfort of eating large quantities of cauliflower. Unfortunately, changing dietary habits are eroding these traditional combinations. [1]

There is an interesting scientific finding about the changing dietary habits in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and its impact on the health of the people of the region. The ground water in certain regions of Andhra has a very high flourine content. A widespread outbreak of flourosis, an extremely painful disease that attacks the bones, and causes permanent damage and deformity, gave impetus to a study into the origins of this epidemic. It was found that tamarind, originally used as a souring agent in the local food was a flourine inhibiter and its modern replacement, tomatoes were unable to do the same job. The uninformed decision to replace the traditionally used tamarind with tomatoes had huge health repercussions.

For a list of spices and their most well known medicinal uses visit


Spices in the Modern Kitchen

Fresh grinding spices adds substantially to the flavour of the prepared food. Spices may either be dry ground after roasting or dry frying them, a process that releases their essential aromatic oils or wet ground to produce a curry paste. The latter process often uses fresh spices like fresh green chillies along with dry spices like cumin and coriander seeds. The former method is almost invariably for dry spices.

Spices may be used in whole pieces and singly like cardamom, star anise or cinnamon to perfume rice or in combination like the Japanese seven spice seasoning powder shichimitogarashi made from ground hot red peppers, ground Japanese pepper leaf (sansho, the leaf of the prickly ash), sesame, mustard, rape and poppy seeds and dried tangerine peel.

The French quatre épices is another popular combination of ground peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Many modern cooks combine allspice berries and black and white peppercorns in peppermills for on the table use. The art of blending spices is extremely subtle and cooks vary mixtures according to personal preferences.

Heat levels in spices

For a categorisation of spices by degree of "heat" visit

Fair Trade Spices

The Fair Trade Movement attempts to ensure that producers and farmers receive a fair remuneration for their produce.

Visit the following websites for more information on localised movements.

To get a general introduction to the concept of Fair Trade Practices and a list of FAQs see

To read about the 2005 Fair Trade Fair held in Hong King

To Shop Fair Trade


The Book of Ingredients: Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey; Penguin/ Mermaid Books 1993

The Essential Andhra Cookbook: Bilkees I Latif; Penguin India 1999

See Also