spices around the world

The world we know and live in is a very different place to just a few short centuries ago. Today, we can walk into our local supermarket and pick up just about any kind of herb, spice or seasoning mix in a convenient little bottle and use it to flavour our food.

But the history of spices is fascinating, and it also shows us how we ended up with so many unique regional and national cooking methods and dishes. Let’s go explore.

Spicy climates

Regional climates can differ vastly, depending on distance from the equator, size of the landmass, closeness to water, and hundreds of other factors. These climate differences, as well as many other influences, mean that different plants evolved in various places around the globe. Among those plants, of course, are the herbs and spices we use to season and flavour our food.

 

For these reasons, certain areas of the world have significantly more naturally-occurring spices than others. For example, very few spices originate from Europe, although the region is known for a massive variety of herbs, while Asia is the birthplace of many of the most widely-used spices that we know today. But even within these regions, there are a multitude of smaller regions with their own microclimates that encourage the growth of different spices.

Regional specialities

Thanks to the evolution of various spices in specific regions, this means that the local cooking methods developed to suit what was available. Let’s look at the one spice everyone uses - black pepper.

 

Black pepper originates specifically from South Asia. This prolific little berry, therefore, has a prominent place in South Asian cuisine, along with its other regional spices, cardamom and cinnamon (among many, many others!). South Asian cuisine uses these spices in many dishes, from savoury to sweet, and give the region’s cooking a distinct flavour profile.

 

Close by, in Southeast Asia, a whole different range of spices developed, such as ginger and cloves, giving locals an entirely different type of flavour to work with in developing their regional favourite dishes. And the same goes for just about everywhere on this diverse planet.

The Spice Route

Fortunately for our taste buds, somewhere along the line, people from different regions started travelling and trading - and discovering that their neighbours near and far had some delicious flavours in their food that they hadn’t encountered. Because humans love variety, these traders started trading their locally grown spices, taking them further and further afield.

 

As people in Europe got wind of these exciting new spices, whole expeditions were sent out to establish routes to the east, heading deeper into Asia, while Asian merchants were busily establishing the Spice Route to bring their wares to the west. Along the way, as trade routes were established between all the continents, even more spices and herbs, as well as varied cooking methods, were introduced to different places, and even more complex flavour profiles were developed as people combined these spices in new and interesting ways.

 

The history of the Spice Route is a long - and frequently aggressive and even violent - one, but as the world has become closer and easier to navigate, ordinary folk like us have gained the benefit of easy access to a vast array of spices and herbs. This means that you and I can enjoy a meal of Mexican origin on Monday, Thai food on Tuesday, Hungarian on Wednesday or any of a multitude of specialise regional dishes any day of the week.

 

Try something new this week, and discover the world of spices - your tastebuds will thank you.