A History of Spice

The age of exploration has been taught in American elementary schools for decades. We’ve sat in classrooms listening to our teachers drone on about Christopher Columbus “sailing the ocean blue in 1492” to discover the New World for years. But what is it that made these explorers spend years exploring the seas?

Upon thinking of reasons why explorers like Vasco de Gama or Christopher Columbus scoured the seas for the fastest routes to different continents, motive s of missionary work and discovering wealth may come to mind. But the true reason is much more simple, that is, that they wished for spices. The goal was to discover the most efficient trade routes to places like South and East Asia, as cultures in these areas were known for their heavy usage of spices for food and medicinal purposes.  These routes were called the Maritime Spice Routes, and stretched from the east of Japan, across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Cinnamon from Sri Lanka, cassia from China, and turmeric from India were sought after tremendously, as explorers from Portugal, Spain, and other European countries got caught up in a race to discover the most efficient access to these spices.

So what was it about spice that drove these explorers in a frenzy to find the best way to get to them? Maybe it was the fact that spices covered the taste of spoiled meat, or maybe it was that spices had highly regarded medicinal properties. But I like to think of the truth as much simpler — spice allows humans to connect to their culture through food.

The spices a community uses differentiates them from other cultures. Food plays a role beyond providing sustenance for our bodies, that is, it brings a community together. It is more than just a necessary avenue of energy, in particular, it is a way to show love and nurturing. In a way, we often associate the food we love with our home, from where our roots lie. For instance, that connection to home for me is the smell of ginger and garlic that wafts from the kitchen every time my mother cooks, leading me to wonder if it’ll be curried eggplant (my favorite) that day or another tempting dish. Another place in my heart exists for the smoky paprika used in barbecue, as it allows me to connect with my Texan community. For an Italian, that association to home may occur through basil, a common herb in Italian cuisine. Differences in cuisine and use of spices span our globe immeasurably, as

Perhaps the reason we are so consumed by individualizing our food is because it touches a much more basal aspect of our humanity than any other element of our culture does. Our cuisine is a direct appeal to our senses, something that connects our sense of taste to our bodily need for food. As a result, exploring cuisine and its different variations means connecting the animalistic with the humanistic. Consequently, discovering spices was extremely valuable and was treated as an ultimate commodity.

So maybe the European explorers believed attaining spices was just another way to gain wealth, but it is much more exciting to believe that it was a way for them to bring the appeal of culture from the East to the West. Something about the sting of turmeric or the warmth of cumin drove the Europeans crazy, even driving some to displacing indigenous peoples in the process of acquiring said spices. Although history suggests that spice was merely an item of trade, there exists much more to be said about the deeper, cultural implications spice has on a community.

About the Author

As a lover of both science and philosophy, Alisha Ahmed enjoys doing research and stressing over the metaphysical implications of said research. Other than contemplation, some of her interests include shopping impulsively and hiking.