Black and brown and fed all over: Swetha Sivakumar takes the spice route - Hindustan Times

Black and brown and fed all over: Swetha Sivakumar takes the spice route

BySwetha Sivakumar
Aug 03, 2023 02:36 PM IST

You’d be surprised how closely trade secrets were guarded, 2,000 years ago. Take a tour of ancient legends and lore, and the science of what makes spices tick.

Today, the rust-removing lubricant WD-40 has no patent, because the company doesn’t want to reveal its formula. KFC’s secret blend of herbs and spices is made by two different suppliers, so that neither has the full recipe. In a similar vein, Arab traders spun elaborate lies to keep Europeans from finding out where they sourced their spices.

An illustration of the port of Calicut, the heart of the spice trade, in 1572, as seen in Civitates orbis Terrarum, a 17th-century atlas of world cities. (Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
An illustration of the port of Calicut, the heart of the spice trade, in 1572, as seen in Civitates orbis Terrarum, a 17th-century atlas of world cities. (Wikimedia Commons)

They claimed to collect cinnamon from the nests of giant birds who gathered these bits of bark from unknown trees. The traders left huge chunks of meat for the birds to carry to their nests, they said; the nests would crack and crash from their weight, raining cinnamon onto the ground.

The lore around pepper was equally imaginative. Snakes guarded huge pepper forests in the East, the traders said. In order to drive them away, farmers had to set fire to the pepper trees, which is why the kernels ended up black and shrivelled.

Of course, it wasn’t the myths that kept Europeans away. It was sheer distance. The Arab traders were perfectly situated to build a monopoly and, amid soaring demand, prices soared too. Pepper was nicknamed the black gold. By the 1st century CE, the philosopher and military commander Pliny the Elder was complaining that the price of cinnamon had risen to 5 kg of silver for 350 gm. He was concerned, he said, that spices were draining away Roman wealth.

Meanwhile, farmers in India couldn’t understand what Europe wanted with so much pepper. Indians used it in food, of course; but they also used turmeric, ginger, cumin and a range of other spices. “There was much scratching of heads until it was finally agreed that English houses were so cold that the walls were plastered with crushed pepper in order to produce heat,” Giles Milton writes in his book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History (1999), about the British-Dutch battle over that spice.

Today, there’s nutmeg in our lattes and cinnamon on doughnuts. But the secrets hidden in these plants are still being unravelled.

We’re learning, for instance, why Ceylon cinnamon is considered true cinnamon. There are two categories of this spice in nature: Ceylon cinnamon (C. verum) and Cassia. The former has a richer, well-rounded flavour. The latter grows in China (C. Cassia), Vietnam (C. loureirii) and Indonesia (C. burmanni), and isn’t very highly prized. Here’s why.

All cinnamon contains an oil named cinnamaldehyde. Cassia is 95% cinnamaldehyde, giving it a sharp but unidimensional flavour. Ceylon cinnamon is only about 55% cinnamaldehyde. The rest of it is mild, floral notes made up of compounds such as linalool and eugenol, which are activated when it is ground up or cooked as part of a dish.

All cinnamon also contains coumarin, a flavouring compound that can cause liver damage if consumed in very large doses. Yet again, Ceylon cinnamon edges out Cassia, with only 0.004% coumarin against the latter’s minimum of 0.5%.

As for the king of spices, pepper, readers of last week’s column will remember how Christopher Columbus said he sensed a link between it and the chillies he encountered in Hispaniola. Well, the chemical compound that gives pepper its spice, piperine, is 100 times less powerful than the capsaicin in chillies.

Even that pungency added quite a punch to the bland foods that Europeans had been eating. But pepper isn’t remarkable just for its pungency; it also brings bags of flavour to the table. The berry contains a range of aroma compounds such as terpenes, pinene and limonene that are activated when it is ground, lending trademark woody notes and piquant elements to a dish.

This would make pepper the spice that changed the world, driving generations of piracy, war and invasion. If they hadn’t been chasing its high, it is possible that Europe’s interest in India, and Asia, would have evolved very differently. It’s possible a man named Vasco da Gama would not have risked lives trying to round the Cape of Good Hope, over 500 years ago, opening the door to that strangest of experiments, a form of governance driven by traders that would come to be called colonialism.

(To reach Swetha Sivakumar with questions or feedback, email

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