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How Spices Have Made, and Unmade, Empires

By Ligaya Mishan


A chayote centerpiece surrounded by turmeric root, saffron threads, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods. (Photo by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Suzy Kim. Photo assistant: Carlos J.)


A satchel of ginger root arranged with turmeric root, vanilla beans and saffron threads. (Photo by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Suzy Kim. Photo assistant: Carlos J.)


In the hilly Boaco region of central Nicaragua, the turmeric plants on Celia Dávila and Gonzalo González’s farm stand over four feet tall — thriving giants, although as natives of South and Southeast Asia, they’re actually newcomers to this land. Coffee once ruled these fields, but as its price has grown unstable, smallholder farmers like Dávila and González, 52 and 65, respectively, have had to turn to alternative crops, among them this strange arrival that yields knobby rhizomes of shocking orange flesh, rarely eaten unadulterated; instead, the underground stems are dried and pulverised into a musky powder with a throb of bitterness, which is most widely recognised worldwide as the earthy base note and colour in many Indian dishes. Nicaraguans have no particular use for the spice, which has yet to make inroads in the local diet. But Americans do, having suddenly and belatedly awakened to turmeric’s health benefits, some 3,000 years after they were first set down in the Atharva Veda, one of Hinduism’s foundational sacred texts.

It’s a story at once old and new, a latter-day spice route making unexpected connections between the grandmother in India, stirring turmeric into warm milk for a sniffily child; the Goop acolyte in California, sipping an après-yoga prepackaged turmeric “elixir,” whose makers extol the “body harmonising” powers of the spice’s key chemical compound, curcumin; and Dávila wielding a pickax in rural Nicaragua. She is not alone in her embrace of this new harvest: Farmers in Costa Rica, Hawaii and even Minnesota are planting turmeric with an eye on an expanding market. Nor is turmeric the only spice to flourish far from home. The food writer Max Falkowitz has documented the work of small-scale farmers in Guatemala, mostly poor and of indigenous descent, who now grow more than half the world’s cardamom, a crop that belonged for millenniums to India and was brought to the Central American cloud forests by a German immigrant in the early 20th century. Cardamom is one of the most expensive spices — so valuable that all of it departs Guatemala for sale elsewhere. As with turmeric in Nicaragua, its absence is hardly registered by local cooks, to whom the spice is an interloper.

Spices were among the first engines of globalisation, not in the modern sense of a world engulfed by ever-larger corporations but in the ways that we began to become aware, desirous even, of cultures other than our own. Such desire, unchecked, once led to colonialism. After Dutch merchants nearly tripled the price of black pepper, the British countered in 1600 by founding the East India Company, a precursor to modern multinationals and the first step toward the Raj. In the following decades, the Dutch sought a monopoly on cloves, which once had grown nowhere but the tropical islands of Ternate and Tidore in what is today Indonesia, and then in 1652 introduced the scorched-earth policy known as extirpation, felling and burning tens of thousands of clove trees. This was both an ecological disaster and horribly effective: For more than a century, the Dutch kept supplies low and prices high, until a Frenchman (surnamed, in one of history’s inside jokes, Poivre, or “pepper”) arranged a commando operation to smuggle out a few clove-tree seedlings. Among their ultimate destinations were Zanzibar and Pemba, off the coast of East Africa, which until the mid-20th century dominated the world’s clove market.

The craving for spices still brings the risk of exploitation, both economically, as farmers in the developing world see only a sliver of the profits, and in the form of cultural appropriation. In the West, we’re prone to taking what isn’t ours and acting as if we discovered it, conveniently forgetting its history and context. Or else we reduce it to caricature, cooing over turmeric-stained golden lattes while invoking the mystic wisdom of the East. At the same time, a world without borrowing and learning from our neighbours would be pallid and parochial — a world, in effect, without spice.

Spices are luxuries, ornamental to our lives. They provide little nutritional value and, beyond a few medicinal applications, are entirely unnecessary to survival. What they offer is an escape from tedium — a reason to take joy in food beyond the baseline requirements of existence. Where herbs are often chosen to complement and flatter the ingredients they adorn, spices call attention to themselves, transforming and sometimes even usurping a dish, so it becomes a mere vehicle and excuse for spice itself. Roast spices in a pan before cooking with them, as is done in India, and they seize the air, the fragrance like a liberated genie.

There’s righteous bemusement in India over newly converted Americans proselytising on behalf of turmeric. For centuries, the West ignored it. Other spices from the East were coveted and fetishised, launching a thousand ships, notably cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper and cloves. But turmeric languished, overshadowed by its cousin ginger, punchy and sweet, and coming off the worse in its superficial kinship to lofty saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, although the two share little beyond the ability to turn whatever they touch the colour of gold. (This hasn’t stopped spice sellers and cooks throughout the ages from trying to pass off turmeric as a cheaper saffron; even its scientific name, curcuma, comes from an Arabic word that originally meant saffron, kurkum, a wistful reminder of its status, in Western eyes, as a dupe.) Meanwhile, haldi, “turmeric” in Hindi, manifests in over 95 percent of Indian dishes, according to the Delhi-based food writer Marryam H. Reshii, who writes in “The Flavour of Spice” (2017) that its absence in cooking “is often considered blasphemous or at least idiosyncratic.”

Then again, the West has always been late to the party, sidelined geographically from the bounty of the East. Many of the spices used in Western cooking come from the seeds, bark, roots, rhizomes, flowers and fruits of plants born in Asia. Traders brought cloves north from Southeast Asia to Han dynasty China, where courtiers were not allowed to speak to the emperor unless their breath had been purified by cloves (known as “chicken-tongue spice”); and to arid Arabia, where in the 1970s cloves were excavated, still intact, from a ceramic pot in a house dating back to 1750 B.C. in the Babylonian city of Terqa in modern Syria.

Not until Greek and Roman antiquity did the West learn of these treasures, as Arab traders became the intermediaries between the hemispheres. They tried to keep the origins of spices shrouded in mystery to prevent customers from finding or planting them on their own; in the fifth century B.C. the Greek historian Herodotus reported tales of cassia gathered from a lake guarded by “winged animals, much resembling bats, which screech horribly, and are very valiant,” and of cinnamon sticks knocked out of the nests of enormous birds, both in unknown Arabian locales. To the ancient Greeks, spices were “the product of an exceptional union between the earth and the fire of the sun,” the Belgian historian Marcel Detienne writes in “The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology” (1972) — a literal embodiment of their often tropical origins. They served as emblems of all that lay beyond the known world, be that defined in terms of geographic distance or the more nebulous passage between life and death; the Greeks, Detienne argues, used spices “to mediate between the near and the far-away and to link the above and the below,” notably in funeral rites and sacred devotions. In one version of the phoenix myth, when death finally looms after a thousand years, the bird readies a nest of cinnamon and frankincense to help ensure its resurrection. During the Roman Empire, Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon at the funeral of his second wife, Poppaea, perhaps regretting that, as recorded by early historians, he himself had murdered her. (On a more earthly note, spices were also employed as tools of seduction — Caesar was reportedly beguiled by the cinnamon wafting from Cleopatra’s hair — and served practical purposes, mitigating the salt in preserved foods and masking bad breath and odours from poor sanitation.)

The Romans eventually figured out how to bypass the middlemen to find the sources of those spices themselves. Their yearning for these potent scents and flavours drove them into the monsoon winds — an advancement in navigation skills — toward India and its cache of black pepper. In the first century A.D., pepper was “bought by weight like gold or silver,” as recorded by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, who worried that the empire would squander its wealth on such spices. At its height, a pound of pepper cost half a month’s wages; Alaric the Visigoth, on the verge of sacking Rome in 410 A.D., exacted 3,000 pounds of black pepper as part of the city’s ransom.

Pepper’s value was sustained in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, as landlords accepted peppercorns as rent and daughters were married off with peppercorn dowries. Only in the mid-17th century did Europeans begin to turn away from spices, in part because they had become more readily accessible and lost their ability to confer status on those wealthy enough to afford them, but also, as the historian T. Sarah Peterson has argued, because of advances in science and medicine and a new scepticism toward spices’ supposed occult capabilities. The historian W.E. Mead, writing in 1931 in “The English Medieval Feast,” dismissed Middle Age diners as “coarse eaters” with palates dulled from overexposure to spices “by which the most innocent meats and fruits were doctored and disguised until the cook himself could hardly distinguish from the taste what had entered into their composition.” In the meantime, in the regions of the world where spices were native, they simply continued to be part of the landscape and culture, subjects of neither idolatry nor condemnation — until Europeans brought their new, more minimalist culinary standards to the countries they colonised, suppressing indigenous cuisines and the very ingredients they once fought wars over.

IN NICARAGUA, Dávila and González leave their turmeric plants in the fields for two years instead of the typical six to 12 months, and that longer gestation — abetted by partial shade instead of direct sunlight — appears to have boosted the amount of curcumin in the rhizomes as well as deepened their orange hue. Reshii’s “The Flavour of Spice” reports a high of 6.5 percent curcumin in turmeric from Kerala, India, compared to an average of 3 to 3.5 percent in the crop from nearby Tamil Nadu; Nicaraguan turmeric has registered at 7.9 percent. It’s ideal for a market primarily interested in the spice for its curative rather than culinary properties, even as the health benefits of curcumin remain unproven beyond a few preliminary clinical trials that suggest its potential as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant.

Dávila and González’s current crop is still in the ground, but the harvest of fellow farmers in their cooperative is available in the United States through Burlap & Barrel, a spice purveyor based in New York. Ethan Frisch, one of the company’s founders, visited the couple last spring and was intrigued to find that they had no plans to use their turmeric in the kitchen. He asked if they might try the leaves, if not the spice itself, the way they use banana leaves, to wrap tamales. Eyebrows were raised. A crazy notion, to change the way things have been done for hundreds of years.

It may take time, but the spice could still win converts here. Consider what happened to nutmeg, which once grew only on the Banda Islands of modern Indonesia and now flourishes on Grenada in the Caribbean. In the early 17th century, the Dutch slaughtered Banda’s indigenous inhabitants to gain control of the spice; out of 15,000 natives, barely 1,000 remained. In London, nutmeg was marked up at more than 60,000 times its Banda price. It was the Frenchman Poivre, again, who smuggled seedlings to the West, where the spice eventually gained a second home in Grenada, nearly 12,000 miles away. Today, it suffuses jams, cakes, ice cream, the batter for fried fish and a syrup for basting chicken. It even holds pride of place on the country’s flag.

Note, however, that nutmeg is considered an intoxicant and is classified by some Muslim jurists as haram, as it’s laced with myristicin, which has hallucinogenic properties, and safrole, a chemical sometimes used in synthesising the psychedelic MDMA. Malcolm X wrote in his 1964 autobiography of getting high off nutmeg while in prison in Massachusetts in the 1940s — “a penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers” — and the spice was reportedly banned from New Jersey state prison kitchens at one point. So the connections multiply: from 17th-century Dutch colonialists to the Black Panthers of 1960s America, and farmers in balmy Grenada — even to the frantic crush and heave of Manhattan, a bit of swampland once called New Amsterdam, which those same Dutchmen saw fit to pawn off on the British in 1667 in exchange for Run, one of the nutmeg-producing Banda Islands, and so tiny, it’s barely visible on a world map. The Dutch didn’t care — Run had nutmeg, after all. They thought they’d got the better deal.