Spice of History, or the Long Winding Road and Some Spice Blends for Today

Spice Display (Used by permission of Tinou Bao.)
Spice Display (Used by permission of Tinou Bao.)

“Variety’s the spice of life,

That gives it all its flavor.”

~~William Cowper, English Poet~~

Spice Market (Used by permission.)
Spice Market (Used by permission.)

Picture narrow passages, in some exotic locale, thronged with humanity peering at bulging baskets of spices and herbs, heavily laden donkeys swaying along behind them. You’re breathing the smoke-filled air, the smell of the smoke competing with the odor of freshly baked bread and strong brewed coffee. Throw in a little diesel fuel odor, too. But most of all, it’s the whiff of the spices that imprints on your olfactory nerve.

This scene repeats itself daily in Fez, Morocco and Kolkata, India (formerly known as Calcutta) and all over the world, actually.  The spice market has not changed much since the days of Arab traders, Portuguese explorers, and Spanish adventurers. The Spice Route, followed by multitudes of camel caravans, literally changed the history of the world.

Food never tasted the same again after the Byzantines began to spice up their recipes. The Crusaders ate this strange fare, returned to Europe with pinches of this and that spice in their tunics, and infected the people at home with more than smallpox and plague.  People, mostly from the noble classes, clamored for these wonderful tastes that masked the rotting flavors so characteristic of food in the days before refrigeration. And it wasn’t all about avoiding the rank taste of old food – spices generally just made everything taste much better. Lady Elinor Fettiplace’s manuscript cookbook, dated 1604, includes recipes using “cinamon [sic],” mace, and nutmegs.

But with the growing demand for spices came the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the fall of Byzantine around 1453. The Spice Route closed suddenly, cutting off the supply of spices to Europe. This state of affairs drove the Age of Exploration, as enterprising merchants and explorers vied with each to find an economical sea route to the Far East, domain of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and other ambrosial tastes.

Spice blend for curry (Used by permission.)
Spice blend for curry (Used by permission.)

Wise and wizardly cooks created blends of spices, depending upon the availability of the spices, their costs, and the preferences of the people. A recipe in a medieval manuscript from the Venetian area, compiled and annotated by Ludovico Frati, for  “Fine spices for all foods” encourages the cook to “Take an onza of pepper and one of cinnamon and one of ginger, and half a quarter [onza] of cloves and a quarter of saffron.”

In certain recipes, those spice blends are still with us today, having passed through centuries of critical palates and colonial domination of the Far East by Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Mincemeat, pumpkin pie, Moroccan stews or tagines, Sicilian sweets, and Christmas cakes all whisper of a past fraught with intrigue and mystery.

But history moves on. There’s always room for change and improvisation. Creating your own spice blends is a little like traveling on the Spice Route, a true adventure, because according to your taste preferences, you can create entirely new flavors by changing the proportions of the spices.  Taste-wise, you never know what’s around the bend.

There’s nothing difficult about creating your own spice blends, but it helps to know a few rules before starting out:  1) buy all your spices in small quantities and store them away from heat and light, 2) buy spices in jars (or if you buy them in bulk, store them in well-marked glass jars.  You wouldn’t want to add cinnamon to chili beans, would you?), 3) change your spices every six months, because they lose their strength quickly, and 4) use new spices and spice blends sparingly at first, in order to determine just how much you like.

Once you discover how fascinating (and educational) it is to travel the globe with the tip of your tongue, your spice cupboard will slowly take over your kitchen and you will want to find more time to cook.  And read — see the books listed at the end of this article. There’s so much to discover and so little time. It’s a big tasty world out there, after all! Why not start today?

Note: The following spice mixtures can be used in many different ways, but most will be useful additions to stews, bean soups, and braised or grilled chicken or fish.  These suggestions are only guidelines. Take a look at Gernot Katzer’s Spice Page, too, while you’re at it.

CARIBBEAN SPICE MIXTURE

2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 T. green onions (green part only), chopped

4 cloves garlic, mashed

1 small hot pepper, deveined and seeded, minced

1 t. dried oregano

1/4 t. ground allspice

1 t. salt

1 T. or more lime juice (to taste)

(Mix all ingredients, add to beans or use to marinate and grill fish.  Cut slits in fish flesh, pack with mixture, and grill as desired.)

CHINESE FIVE-SPICE POWDER

2 T. crumbled star anise

1/2 T. ground cinnamon

1 T. ground fennel

1/2 T. ground cloves

1/2 T. Szechuan peppercorns

(Grind spices in a blender until pulverized.  Use to braise chicken or fish with soy sauce, rice wine, and honey.)

GREEN MASALA (INDIA)

1 T. fresh ginger

6 green chilies

1 c. fresh coriander leaf

3 cloves garlic

1 t. salt

(Grind all the spices and herbs in a blender.  Bake a whole fish by cutting slits in the flesh and stuffing the slits with the masala.  You can also pour a can of coconut milk over the fish, if you wish, cover fish, and bake as desired.)

CAJUN MIX  (LOUISIANA)

2 T. paprika

1/2 t. ground red pepper (optional)

1/2 t. salt

1 t. onion powder

2 t. garlic powder

1 t. ground white pepper

1 t. ground black pepper

1 1/2 t. powdered thyme

1/2 t. celery salt

(Mix all the spices together and pat into fish flesh. “Grill” on hot cast-iron skillet.  Watch out for smoke!)

MILD CURRY POWDER  (INDIA)

1/2 T. freshly ground black pepper

1 T. ground cumin

1/2 T. ground coriander

Pinch ground cloves

1 t. ground cardamom

1 T. turmeric (powdered)

1/2 t. cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes

1/2 t. ground fenugreek

(Mix all spices together, fry in oil or on a dry cast-iron skillet before adding to braising liquid.  Example: add curry powder, fried onions, and garlic to plain yogurt for braising chicken; delicious.)

PIRI-PIRI (MOZAMBIQUE)

1 T. ground paprika

1 t. ground hot red pepper (or to taste)

1/4 t. salt

Juice of three freshly squeezed lemons

4 garlic cloves, mashed

1/2 cup chopped parsley leaves

3/4 cup oil

(Mix all ingredients together except oil if spice mixture is used as marinade. Grill chicken or fish as desired. For sauce, mix all ingredients; piri-piri is excellent for braising shrimp.  Cook shrimp in sauce (add 1/4 cup water) and serve with chunks of French bread to sop up sauce.)

Want to know more? Check out these books:

Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan House Cooking, edited and annotated by Hilary Spurling (1986)

Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination, by Paul Freedman (2008)

The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade, by Charles Corn (1999)

Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner (2005)

The Spice Route: A History, by John Keay (2007)

The Spice Trade: A Bibliographic Guide to Sources of Historical and Economic Information, by Jeanie M. Welch (1994) [A bit out of date, but still useful.]

Spices, by John W. Parry (1969) [One of the luminaries of the study of The Age of Exploration]

The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spices, by Michael Krondl (2007) [Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam take center stage.]

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

Pepper tree (Used by permission.)
Pepper tree (Used by permission.)
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