The history of spice is almost as old as human civilisation. It is a history of lands discovered, empires built and brought down, wars won and lost, treaties signed and flouted, flavours sought and offered, and the rise and fall of different religious practices and beliefs. Spices were among the most valuable items of trade in ancient and medieval times.
As long ago as 3500 BC the ancient Egyptians were using various spices for flavouring food, in cosmetics, and for embalming their dead. The use of spices spread through the Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. Spices from China, Indonesia, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka ) were originally transported overland by donkey or camel caravans. For almost 5000 years, Arab middlemen controlled the spice trade, until European explorers discovered a sea route to India and other spice producing countries in the East.
The search for a cheaper way to obtain spices from the East led to the great Age of Exploration and the discovery of the New World. European explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Bartholomeu Dias began their long sea voyages to discover a sea route to the sources of spices. Christopher Columbus went westwards from Europe in 1492 to find a sea route to the lands of spices but found the Americas. Eight years later, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route around the southern tip of Africa, eventually reaching Kozhikode on the southwest coast of India. Da Gama returned from his voyage with a cargo of nutmegs, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorns.
During the Middle Ages, spices were as valuable in Europe as gold and gems and the single most important force driving the world’s economy. The lack of refrigeration and poor standards of hygiene meant that food often spoiled quickly and spices were in great demand to mask the flavour of food that was far from fresh. Fierce competition among European nations for control of the spice trade was the driving force behind the colonisation of India and other Asian lands.
At various times, the Portuguese, Dutch, French, Spanish, and English established monopolies over various parts of the spice trade. This period saw empires founded and fortunes made and was also characterised by brutal conquests, piracy, and greed. This era saw the formation of trading empires such as the British East India Company.
In recent times, migration has had a profound influence on the use of spices, including here in New Zealand. Immigrant communities have brought their authentic traditional cuisine, and many dishes make good use of spices. Now many of us delight in a more varied, tasteful, and interesting cuisine.