A large and impressive network of sea routes that linked the East and West stretching from the west coast of Japan, through the Islands of Indonesia, around the Indian subcontinent to the Iranian Plateau, the Arabian Peninsula and eventually Europe, facilitated the largescale trade of spices over a distance of more than 15,000 kilometres. These ‘spice routes’ made up just one maritime part of the expansive trade networks of the Silk Roads.
From as early as 2000 BC, spices such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cassia from China were exported along the Silk Roads as far west as the Arabian Peninsula and the Iranian Plateau. As was often the case with the many other goods traded along the Silk Roads, the ports where spice traders stopped along their journeys, acted as melting pots for a broad exchange of ideas and information. With every ship that set sail with a cargo of valuables on board, knowledge was carried over the seas to be exchanged at the next port of call.
The word “spice” derives from the Latin species, or ‘special wares’, and refers to an item of special value, as opposed to ordinary articles of trade. Spices were highly valued because, as well as being used in cooking, many had ritual, religious or medical uses. They were of high value because of their relative geographical scarcity. Spices could only be grown in the tropical East, in the South of China, Indonesia as well as in Southern India and Sri Lanka. In particular, they grew in the Moluccas a chain of mountainous islands in the Pacific Ocean between Sulawesi and New Guinea,. Some spices, such as cloves and nutmeg, grew nowhere else in the world.
It is not known for sure exactly how people from regions where spices did not grow first became familiar with them, nor how they came to attribute many medical and spiritual values to them. As trading links from Indonesia spread out through South and Central Asia, they met with trade routes crossing Western Asia and regions to the north bringing different religious and spiritual beliefs into contact with one another, which in turn took on influences from other regions. Spices were burned as incense in religious ceremonies, believed to purify the air and carry prayers. Certain spices were also added to healing ointments and to potions drunk as antidotes to specific poisons. Additionally spices might be burnt daily to hide the many common household smells. They were used as cooking ingredients very early on - to create new flavours and to make food that was sometimes far from fresh, particularly in hot climates, taste better.
Furthermore, some other values attributed to spices were mythical and many stories and legends were woven around them. In the Fifth Century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus described how the spice cassia grew in a lake filled with “winged creatures like bats, which screeched alarmingly and were very pugnacious (combative)”. Some of these stories were probably invented by merchants who, wishing to protect their sources from competitors, tried to obscure the true origins of their spices.
The exchange of spices and herbs, as well as many other foods and food production techniques, via the Silk Roads has left a legacy of shared gastronomic heritages enjoyed all over the world today. These have incorporated not just ingredients but bodies of knowledge or philosophies concerning balanced healthy gastronomy such as the idea of ‘hot and cold’ foods in both China and the Iranian Plateau or the principles of ayurveda from the Indian Subcontinent.
Learn more about gastronomy and food production along the Silk Roads here.