8:19 am - Wednesday February 22, 2017

Indian Spices

India is known the world over as “The Home of Spices”, thus Spices and condiments need no introduction. The climate of the country is ideal for the growth of almost all spices. Spices are an important group of agricultural goods, which are virtually indispensable in the culinary art. They also play a significant role in our national economy and also in the economies of several spice producing, exporting and importing countries. India accounts for about 45% of the global spice exports. In India, from the point of view of both domestic consumption and export, spices are important commercial crops.

According to the International Organization for Standardization [ISO], there are about 109 spices and India produces as many as 75 in its various agro climatic regions. The term “spices and condiments” applies to “natural plant or vegetable products or mixtures in
whole or ground form, which are used for imparting flavor, aroma and piquancy to the food items”. Spices are also being used within the country for flavoring foods and in medicines, pharmaceutical, perfumery, cosmetics and several other industries.

History of Spices

The fame of Indian spices is older than the recorded history. The story of Indian Spices is more than 7000 years old.Centuries before Greece and Rome had been discovered, sailing ships were carrying Indian spices, perfumes and textiles to Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt. It was the lure of these that brought many seafarers to the shores of India.

Long before Christian era, the Greek merchants thronged the markets of South India, buying many expensive items amongst which spices were one. Epicurean Rome was spending a fortune on Indian spices, silks, brocades, Dhaka Muslin and cloth of gold, etc.It is believed that the Parthian wars were being fought by Rome largely to keep open the trade route to India. It is also said that Indian spices and her famed products were the main lure for crusades and expeditions to the East.

Today when spices cost so little, it seems unbelievable that they were once a royal luxury and that men were willing to risk their lives in quest of them. Though it were the Dark Ages, but there were rich people who had gold to exchange for pepper and cinnamon. It was in the year 1492 A.D., that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Five years later, four tiny ships sailed southward from the port of Lisbon, Portugal, under the guidance of Captain Vasco Da Gama. Like Columbus, Vasco Da Gama too was searching for a new route to the spice lands of Asia. While Columbus failed to achieve the goal, Da Gama succeeded. In a two year, 24,000 miles round trip, he took his ships around the continent of Africa to India and back to Lisbon. Only two of the four ships survived to reach their homeport. These two ships brought back a cargo of spices and other products worth 60 times the cost of the said voyage. The spices of the East were valuable in those times.

The Arabians had brought the cumin and coriander that mixed with Indian pepper, ginger and turmeric make up the base of so many South Asian dishes. It was this combination of spices that centuries later British sailors spread throughout the world as curry powder. In
India, Arabian traders got the rare and exotic spices of the Far East from local spice merchants. India had spent the previous two millennia spreading its culture to the Spice Islands of the east. Arabian traders were able to make good money supplying these spices, even with the high prices paid to the Indian middle men, not only to their countrymen back home, but to Europe as well. These traders of spices paid for the Art and Education for which Arabia became famous in the present day. In many ways the culture of Arabia loved studying and learning different things. Many great Greek and Roman plays were translated in Arabic, so too were the geographic writings of Pliny and Ptolemy telling of the general location of the tabled spice islands.The fascinating history of spices is a story of adventure, exploration, conquest and fierce naval rivalry.

The people of those times used spices, as we do today, to enhance or vary the flavors of their foods. Spices were also flavor disguisers, masking the taste of the otherwise tasteless food that was nutritious, but if unspiced, had to be thrown away. Some spices were also used for preserving food like meat for a year or more without refrigeration. In the sixteenth century, cloves were used to preserve food without refrigeration. Cloves contain a chemical called eugenol that inhibits the growth of bacteria. It is still used to preserve some modern foods like Virginia ham. Later, mustard and ground mustard were also found to have preservative qualities. When spices were not available people went hungry because they could not preserve their foods to carry them over to the winter. Such was the
importance of spices those days.

Broadly, there are two main subdivisions of spices one being the major spices and the other is minor spices. For example the spices like pepper, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, chilies etc., comes under major category. The important minor spices grown in India are ajowan, aniseed, caraway, celery, coriander, cumin, dill seed, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, onion, saffron, vanilla etc.

Types of Spices

There is a popular belief that spicy foods are bad for health. This belief is not only far from the truth but also that; spices in fact have medicinal properties and are good for health. Spices are well known as appetizers and digestives and are considered essential in the culinary art all over the world. Some of them have anti-oxidant properties, while others have preservative properties and are used in some foods like pickles and chutneys, etc. Some spices also possess strong anti-microbial and antibiotic activities. Many of them possess medicinal properties and have a profound effect on human health, since they affect many functional processes. The spices according to their origin are divided into the following :

Seeds :

Seeds are a fertilized ripened ovule, almost always covered with a protective coat. Some spices come in the form of seeds. These spices
are used in their original forms to enhance the flavors of certain food items and at times these are grounded and made into a powdered form or a paste and then used. The seeds are also the fruits of that particular plant but because of their tiny size they are referred to as seeds. Some common seeds which are used as spices are Ajowan, Anardana, Aniseed, Caraway, Celery, Celeriac, Coriander, Cumin, Indian Dill, Fennel, Fenugreek, Mustard, Poppy Seeds

Leaves :

Leaves of some plants are used as a flavoring agent. These leaves have a distinctive flavour and when added with some other food they lend their flavour making it more tasty and delecious. Various leaves are used all over the world for culinary, medicinal and many other uses. Some of the commonly used spices which come under the leaf category are : Basil, Laurel Leaves, Tejpat, Chervil, Chives, Curry leaves, Hyssop, Peppermint Leaves, Marjoram, Billilotan, Thyme Leaves, Mint, Origanum, Parsley, Sage, Savory, Spearmint, Tarragon, Rosemary Leaves

Flowers :

Some flowers of a certain plant are used as spices. They have a certain flavour and taste which they lend to the ingredients they are used with.Some common flowers which are used as spices are Rose, Caper, Rhododendron and Saffron.

Fruits :

Some fruits are also used as spices. Some famous fruits which are used as spices are as follows : Cardamom, Juniper, Kokam, Mace and Nutmeg, Kababchini, Star Anise, Tamarind, Vanilla.

Roots :

The roots, or parts of roots, of many plant species have become specialized to serve as spices. The following spices are basically roots used as spices and condiments. Galangal, Garlic, Ginger, Horse Raddish, Onion, Stone Leek, Lovage, Shallot, Sweet Flag, Turmeric.

Bark :

Some spices constitute the bark of a plant. These barks are highly flavoured and impart taste to a certain food item. Some very common spices that are barks of plants are : Jangli Darchini, Cassia China, Cinnamon.

Misc spices :

Some spices do not come under any category of seed, fruit etc but yet belong to the family of spices.They are also used to impart flavour and taste to the food.Some common miscellaneous spices are as follows : Black Pepper, Long Pepper, Chabika, Clove, Amchur, Asafoetida, Karpoor, Arrowroot, Musk Mallow.