Learning about Spices
What is a spice?
Why were spices important?
Sources of spices
Perfumes and Incenses 
Use of spices as aphrodisiacs
Use of spices as medicines
Culinary herbs
A spice timeline

Table of Spices
Allspice (Pimento)
Black Pepper
Chile Pepper
Coriander (Cilantro)
Frankincense and Myrrh
Nutmeg and Mace

Contacts and Acknowledgments


European countries over the last two thousand five hundred years have found the allure of spices to be irresistible. The wide prevalence of garlic, onions and chives, radishes, mustard and horseradish, and the availability in Mediterranean countries of herbs such as mint, thyme, basil and saffron, made these well distributed flavors seem less appealing to the sophisticated taste buds of the more wealthy. The Romans, and then the Portugese, Dutch, and finally the British, were attracted to India by a persisting appetite for pungent peppercorns (the source of yellow and black pepper). Major importing countries came to appreciate the other curry spices of India, such as cardamon, turmeric, ginger, and cloves, while the British greatly overextended their welcome by staying on for tea. To this day, the British involvement in India is symbolized on every dining table by the presence of salt and pepper; the British came for pepper, but left when Gandhi aroused his country by symbolically flouting the tax on salt. Perhaps a cup of tea at the end of the meal emphasizes a more lasting value of the British interaction with India.

China and its neighboring countries supplied cassia, cinnamon, licorice, rhubarb and sugar. Coffee originally came from Yemen; chocolate as well as tomatos from Central America and the Yucatan; chile peppers in addition to potatos from Bolivia and Peru. The allure of trade for the valuable spices that could be transported successfully over vast distances was spurred by an increasing appetite in Europe for new spicy culinary experiences. The desire to monopolize major spices and the need to control the profitable sea routes were the driving forces that led to many of the dramatic events of history during the past 2000 years.

In ancient times, Arabia, Syria and Egypt provided well-organized marketing sites along the major recognized spice routes from which Asiatic spices were sent on their final land or sea journeys to the great spice ports of Europe, such as La Spezia, Venice and Genoa in Italy, Seville in Spain, Lisbon in Portugal, and the major port cities of England, Belgium and Holland.

The most important of the exotic spices in Medieval Europe was Asian pepper; this could be transported, stored and traded as peppercorns without any loss in its taste. The great growth of the pepper trade in Europe that occurred between the 12th and the 16th centuries was controlled by Venetian importers, and their enormous income led to the richness of Venice and its prominent role in the patronage of the arts of the Renaissance.

Extraordinary efforts were often made to mislead merchants as to the source of origin of spices, but it was gradually realized that the most uniquely desired flavors came from the indigenous plants of the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, where cloves and nutmeg grew. The Portugese, Dutch and British each tried to establish spice monopolies in these coveted islands. Eventually, French and other adventurers were able to transplant many precious spice plants to other sites. Currently, nutmegs are grown in Grenada in the Caribbean, and in Madagascar. More cloves are produced in Zanzibar than in Indonesia, where they now need to be imported to meet the demands of manufacturers of the popular kretek clove cigarettes.

It is noteworthy that some spices have moved in the opposite direction, and have been transplanted into Africa and Asia from the New World. Thus, the fiery hot chiles that are so characteristic in the cooking of India, China and other countries of the Far East were imported and established there following the 16th century exploration of the New World of the Americas where these peppers are native. Similarly, mustard and coriander were imported into Asia from Europe, where they were so commonplace; they then became important culinary flavors in Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and other ethnic cooking of the Orient. Chocolate was transplanted from Mexico to Africa, but it was developed as a confectionary by the Europeans, including the Swiss who popularized milk chocolate.

One spice, licorice, which is very popular in China, is largely unknown in the U.S., where so-called licorice candy is usually made of molasses and corn oil with anise or fennel flavoring and artificial coloration. On the other hand, so-called cinnamon is often an inferior related spice, cassia; both are marketed as sticks of bark that are currently harvested from trees in Sri Lanka and many other countries. Variants of common spices are numerous: thus, the “peppers” include peppercorn, black and yellow pepper, chiles, cayenne pepper, long pepper, paprika, bell pepper, grains of Paradise (African melegueta), cubeb, allspice (pimento), and Szechuan pepper (anise pepper).

Spice Exhibit URL: http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm

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