Inside India #11: A brief history of Indian spices

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

Spices. No Indian meal would be the same without them, and no story of the subcontinent complete without reference to them. So woven are spices into the history and culture of India that even Indian films are called ‘masala movies’ – masala being the Hindi word for spice. (So-called because many Bollywood blockbusters are a ‘spicy’ mix of comedy, drama, action, and romance.) 

Picture attribution: Spices in Mapusa Market, Goa, India by Judepics

Today India produces more than two million tonnes of spices every year. It is one of the world’s largest exporters, accounting for over forty-percent of the world’s spice trade.

Where did this love affair begin?

Indian spice farming developed throughout the subcontinent some two thousand years before Christ. The earliest spice crops were cinnamon and black pepper; these became the basis for numerous trade relationships – including with the Arabians and the Romans – and, eventually, among the world’s most valuable commodities. At one point, in the 1300s, a pound of nutmeg in Europe was more valuable than gold.

In 1498, Vasco da Gama voyaged to India via the southernmost tip of Africa, driven by a desire to plot a direct route to a land where spices were plentiful and cheap. His arrival on India’s Malabar Coast, the centre of the spice trade, marked the start of direct trading between Europe and South East Asia.

Within a few short years, the Portuguese had assumed control of the coastal spice-producing region, establishing a near monopoly on the Indian spice trade that lasted for over a century and proved fantastically profitable for the Portuguese empire. 

Spices didn’t just make men rich – the spice trade powered exploration to discover new lands (Columbus was searching for a quicker route to India when he stumbled across the Americas) and trade routes, and helped tipped the balance of world power. 

In Europe, Indian spices altered local palates, and, more importantly, became a way to define wealth and social status. 

But why India and not elsewhere? 

India’s success at growing spices is largely based on her physical attributes. The environment is perfect for growing spices – high humidity, and a range of climatic conditions produce ideal conditions for cultivating a wide variety of spice crops. Turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, clove, coriander and red chilli, to name just a few. Many of these are native to the subcontinent, but others have arrived from elsewhere in the world. 

And it’s not just for their culinary benefits that spices are popular in India.

Spices such as ginger, turmeric, and fenugreek have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, even earning mention in ancient Vedic scriptures. Ginger prevents dyspepsia; turmeric is deemed to cure stomach ulcers; pepper acts as an antihistamine. 

Spices have also traditionally been used in food preservation – it has long been known that spice slows down the growth of bacteria. There are many places in India where people still preserve their food using this technique due to the lack of availability of electricity (and thus fridges). Some spices such as cloves, fennels and cardamom are used as mouth refreshing agents, often dished out in restaurants after a meal to aid digestion and prevent heartburn.

Today, as India marches on to become a global power, the relationship between the country and spices has never been more important, an integral element of her national identity. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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