THE HISTORY AND CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF INDIAN MASALAS
No lunch or dinner in India (or the subcontinent, rather) would be complete without them, and no tale about the subcontinent would be authentic without mentioning Indian spices. Spices are so deeply intertwined with Indian history and culture that even Indian films are called "masala movies" – masala is the Hindi word for "spice". (This is because many Bollywood blockbusters are a spicy blend of drama, action, humor, and romance)
Now, do you know that India produces more than two million tons of spices in a year?! India is one of the world's largest exporters of spices, accounting for more than 40% of the global spice trade.
The history of Indian spices
The history of spices from India goes back thousands of years, making it the "Spice Bowl of the World" right from ancient times. Ancient Indian tribes used herbs and spices for almost as long as the start of civilized human settlements. Additionally, incoming and conquering tribes, from the Assyrians and Babylonians to the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Arabians, Chinese, Portuguese, and finally the British, invaded India with the same purpose - to profit from the vast natural resources and its seemingly unending reservoir of delicious spices of India!
The great and ancient Indian tomes of knowledge such as The Rig Veda (about 6000 BC) and Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda, contain the first written records on spices in India. During the Vedic period, information was usually passed down orally from generation to generation via hymns. The Rig Veda references several spices, and the Yajurveda mentions black pepper!
Indian masala spices abound in the fertile valleys, lush green fields, tropical rainforests, highlands, marshy woods, and even marshes! The history of Indian spices is the story of the richness and kindness of nature.
Indian spice trade during ancient times
The name and fame of spices from India gradually wafted its way across other great ancient civilizations of the time in countries like Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Arabia centuries before the Greek and Roman civilizations came into existence.
Later, Greek merchants would come to the port-cum-marketplaces of south India to purchase different luxury commodities where spices were usually at the top of their list. Historians have reasoned that the Parthian wars were fought only to keep trade routes to India open. The exotic spices of India and other luxury commodities originating in India enticed numerous explorers to undertake voyages and crusades to the East over millennia.
The same Indian masala spices prompted Arabian traders (of cinnamon and cassia) to lie about the origin of these spices to safeguard their economic interests. Because of these cooked-up stories and legends, the ancient Greeks and Romans had wild theories about where these Eastern spices came from.
As per the great Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BCE), he received information from Arab spice dealers that cassia grew in marshes and was defended by hazardous winged bat-like animals that gave out harsh and blood-curdling cries.
The Arabs told even more ludicrous tales about cinnamon, which grew on high peaks near Arabia. According to these stories, gigantic birds carried cinnamon sticks to their nests made on inaccessible rocks. Now, to obtain these cinnamon sticks, the people would arrange chunks of fresh donkey flesh near the nests of these birds, and the birds would immediately take the hefty meat chunks to their nests. Their towering nests would collapse from the weight of the meat pieces and tumble to the ground. The villagers would then gather the cinnamon sticks and sell them to the Arabs at exorbitant prices.
Indian spices, as the world knows them today
It did not take long for the rest of the world to notice that Indian food was an absolute smash hit. When the British came to India, they carried spices of India with them wherever they went as their empire expanded to gigantic dimensions.
Today, people regard many Indian dishes and curries as mainstays in the United Kingdom, and every major city in the world offers Indian culinary options ranging from Vindaloo to Tikka to Tandoori. Not to mention the essential item to enjoying all these recipes – Indian spices, of course!!
For modern Indian dishes and curries, the most commonly used Indian spices are turmeric, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, and black mustard. When combined in different proportions, the role of Indian Spices in Indian history provides some of the most heightened and exquisite tastes known to man.
Whether you want it mild or spicy (why even extra spicy!), salty or sweet, using exotic Indian spices plus a little salt or sugar will almost certainly satisfy your cravings for Indian food. The well-known and iconic curry powders like Alcoeats curry powder, for instance, and most other curry pastes use these top five spices in some form and combination or other.
The world’s oldest stream of medicine, Ayurveda, has been practiced for millennia. This age-old technique is prevalent even today in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. Indian spices are utilized for making ayurvedic medicines when medicinal herbs are burned, pastes are applied, or smells are employed to change, improve, or otherwise impact a patient who's receiving Ayurvedic treatment.
Do you know these same spices (and many, many more) were used extensively to flavor Indian food for both luxury food as well as daily staples? These spices gradually but surely made their way throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond as world travelers traveled through the area. Invaders and rulers have long sought India's golden mine of spices, from Genghis Khan of the Mongol Empire to the multitude of rulers from the British Empire.
Because of this increased interest in Indian spices, India eventually became the global hub for what became known as the "Spice Trade." The world couldn't (and still can’t!) get enough of India's culinary tastes, from saffron to sage, black pepper to black mustard seeds, and cumin to coriander.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What is the history of Indian spices?
Spices from India were amongst the most precious trade items in ancient and medieval times. As far back as 3500 BC, the ancient Egyptians used many spices originating from India for flavoring their food, in cosmetics, and even for embalming their dead. Thus, the use of Indian spices spread through the Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean and Europe.
Who discovered Indian Masala?
The general explanation is that masala originated in a restaurant in Glasgow, Scotland. The story recounts how Ali Ahmed Aslam, a British-Pakistani chef, and proprietor of a restaurant in Glasgow, invented masala for making chicken tikka by improvising on a sauce made from a tin of condensed tomato soup and Indian spices.
What is the history of masala spice?
Garam masala is said to have originated in Northern Indian cuisine, where it is used commonly in traditional Mughal dishes. In Ayurvedic medicine, the spices in garam masala are used for warming the body, meaning that they increase the metabolism rate (rather than being spicy/hot in flavor).
What are the most common spices in India?
- Red Chili Powder
- Saffron. Saffron is not a commonly used spice but is necessary for certain Indian dishes.
What is the oldest spice?
Cinnamon is the oldest spice. It is an ancient spice that predates all recorded history of culinary applications of any spices. As such, cinnamon is called "the world's oldest spice," which might be correct, knowing that it was used in ancient Egypt for embalming recipes.
What is the origin of Indian spices?
Indians have used spices and herbs like cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, and cardamom for millennia for both culinary as well as health purposes. Spices indigenous to India (like turmeric and cardamom) were cultivated as early as the 8th century BC in the gardens of Babylon!