Ever wanted to travel the world on a budget? Try exploring the world of spices! Spices allow us to experience the world of food from the comfort of home. Spices include seeds, fruit, roots, bark (like cinnamon, for example) and plants. As you can see, they come in all different shapes, sizes, colors and, most importantly, flavors. Spices are the flavor gateway to different cultures and periods of history.
History of spices
Starting in 2000BCE, a labyrinth of sea routes linked the East and West. They stretched from the coast of Japan, through the Islands of Indonesia, then to India to Iran, followed by the Arabian Peninsula and, finally, Europe. This enabled a large-scale spice trade that covered a distance of almost 9,500 miles. These ‘spice routes’ were just one part of the Silk Road’s expansive maritime trade network.
As early as 2000BCE, sea exporters traded spices (such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cassia from China) along the Silk Road as far west as the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. As was often the case with goods traded along the Silk Roads, the ports where spice traders stopped along their journeys acted as melting pots for a broad exchange of ideas and information. Every ship that set sail carried knowledge from neighboring countries. Each port united nations with food, acting as a cultural database, if you will.
The word ‘spice’ comes from the Latin word species, or ‘special wares’, which signified that spices were different than most ordinary trade items. Why were spices considered ‘special wares’? Aside from their great taste, spices were an important part of religious and medicinal rituals. Healers burned spices as incense in religious ceremonies, believing that they purified the air and carried prayers. They added spices to healing ointments as well as antidotes for certain poisons. Spices were burnt daily to mask common household smells. They were also used as cooking ingredients, creating new flavors and helping food that was sometimes far from fresh, particularly in hotter climates, taste better.
The geographic scarcity of spices also made them valuable. Spices grew only in the tropical East, the South of China, Indonesia, Southern India and Sri Lanka. They also grew abundantly in the Moluccas (mountainous islands in the Pacific Ocean) between Sulawesi and New Guinea. Some spices, such as clove and nutmeg, grew nowhere else in the world.
The bigger question is how and why did they connect an island chain in the Pacific Ocean (Moluccas) with the Arabian Peninsula and Iran? The short answer is religious and spiritual beliefs. The long answer is that as spices spread through South and Central Asia, they crossed paths with routes to Western Asia, eventually mingling with regions in Northern Asia that added their own religious and spiritual beliefs to this vast melting pot of cultures. So, you can imagine how spices were cherished during this time. And they should be today as well. They connect us.
The influence of spices and foods traded along the Silk Road left a legacy of shared heritage and gastronomy that is enjoyed the world over. The history of the Silk Road and spices tells a story of what food was like and how it could be reimagined to taste better. So, let’s get cooking with some spices and jazz up our food!
Farm2ChefsTable Recommendation for Spice Merchants:
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Cold Spring, NY 10516
Hours: Sunday 10am – 4 pm, Monday 10am – 5pm, Thursday 10am – 6pm, Friday 10am – 6pm, Saturday 10am – 6pm
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New York, NY 10019
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