History of spices

The history of spice is almost as old as human civilisation. It is a history of lands discovered, empires built and brought down, wars won and lost, treaties signed and flouted, flavours sought and offered, and the rise and fall of different religious practices and beliefs. Spices were among the most valuable items of trade in ancient and medieval times.

As long ago as 3500 BC the ancient Egyptians were using various spices for flavouring food, in cosmetics, and for embalming their dead. The use of spices spread through the Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. Spices from China, Indonesia, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were originally transported overland by donkey or camel caravans. For almost 5000 years, Arab middlemen controlled the spice trade, until European explorers discovered a sea route to India and other spice producing countries in the East.

What are spices

Spices are the aromatic parts of tropical plants traditionally used to flavour food, or the dried seeds or fruit of temperate plants used in the same way. Some of the substances we call spices come from the bark or roots of certain plants.

How to use spices

Complex flavours can be created by using mixtures of spices that complement each other. Some spices are used for their taste while others are used for their aroma. The stage at which spices are added to a dish can make a big difference. Typically they will impart flavour if added at the beginning of the cooking process, but if they are added at the end it is their aromas that will be most noticeable.