top of page
  • hbanziger

F - 32 : On the Origin of Spices

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

The pleasure of sniffing spices in the market is never getting old. The sensual whiff of flavors is always surprising, the vibrant color of spices a pleasure to the eye. Am cooking with spices for all my life and know what a difference they make. A gazpacho without garlic would be a different soup; pears in white wine without cinnamon a different desert. We use spices so frequently that we only become aware of them when they are missing.

Open Spices offered in a Turkish Spice Market - Check the Variety of Flavours offered

It is a well-known story that spices were used since antiquity to mask the rotten flavor of decaying food. Less well known is their antibacterial properties – at least I did not know it until recently. Their strong flavours are part of the plants’ defense mechanism against fungi, bacteria and herbivores. For animals, the strong flavours are pungent.

The tiny Spheres on the Surface of this Basil Leave contain strong smelling and tasting toxins which are released when the Leave is bitten or cut

Spice plants developed strong poisonous chemicals, which make animals eating them vomit and dizzy. The toxins also interfere with the bacterial and fungal metabolism. Since bacteria and fungi thrive best in warm and humid climates, read tropics and sub-tropics, most spice plants come from these parts of the world. South-east Asia, India and the Mediterranean are spice paradise. 80% of our spices originate from there.

Spices from South-East Asia are mostly root or bark based, Indian space are plant seeds or fruit based, Mediterranean Spices are mostly plant leaves

How human beings discovered the antibacterial properties of spices is unknown. Research assumes that hunter gatherers already knew about spices since they needed preservatives to cure the meat. Salt in large quantities was not available to Neolithic people. They must have used herbs. Archeologists found residues of spices in Neolithic tombs and early pottery just when humanity transited to agriculture. If you like to know more details you find links to a YouTube video and a good article on Natural History at the bottom of this blog.

Map of Archeological Findings of Spice Residues in ancient Tombs or Settlements

Spices are actually something uniquely human. There is no other species that puts spices into food. Chimpanzees may be sufficiently intelligent to use a stick to get food but only humans cook and blend food with spices. It is actually an interesting evolutionary question as to why human beings became immune to the spices' toxic chemicals and even started liking them. Moderate cooking does not alter chemicals as any good cook knows. So, human stomaches must have adjusted. It may well be that humans with the ability to digesting food with “toxic” spices had an evolutionary advantage. They had greater control over the intake of bad bacteria and fungi than others and thus lived healthier and more prosperous.

Meat gets mouldy quickly if not protected by spices or salt or put in a Freezer

Be it as it may, spices were one of the earliest traded goods. The Sumer in Mesopotamia imported spices and metal from India since the 4th millennium BC. Wonder how big their ships were. The other two important trading goods were wine and wood which was rafted down river from Anatolia on giant floats. The Sumer needed wood to build their palaces, tin to make bronze for weapons and tools and alcohol for the priests to get to a “higher” state of consciousness during religious ceremonies. But they also needed spices to preserve cooked food. At that time, people were mostly eating stews made from cereals and meat. Cooking a stew is a perfect way of transferring the benefits of spices to food. Maybe both inventions - cooking stews and using spices - happened at the same time? In any case, our brains & noses learned to love what keeps food safe. We became spice addicts.

This Map shows the Spice Trade in Roman Time. It was already 4'000 Years old!!!

On our trip this summer we will see fresh spices in every market. Turkish and Greek people love to use them in their cuisine – which are by and large the same despite the different names. One of the most colorful spice markets is in Istanbul.

The Spice Market in Istanbul had all the Spices you could get from Asia, Africa and Europe

Built to serve the Ottoman Capital, it is today mostly visited by tourists. But there are still shops which sell fresh spices and display them openly. These rows upon rows of brightly colored spices are candy for the eyes and our iPhones. There are many more spices offered than used in today’s Turkish cuisine. Spices such as aniseed, turmeric and cardamon are now only used for rather exotic dishes.

The Old Spice Market in Istanbul - A few Shops still offer all the traditional Spices

In their daily cuisine, Turkish people mostly use five spices:

  • Oregano – used to season red and white meats and for soups and salads. It is THE spice in the Aegean. Oregano is easy to grow in your spice garden at home. Just try. The flavor of fresh oregano is s strong. It does not need much attention

  • Red Pepper Flakes – originally from Bolivia – are now an important contribution to Turkish meals. Often served in little bowls on the table, they are sprinkled over soups, pasta and meat. Or anything you like if you are a fan of a hot flavors.

  • Mint – not only used for tea but actually in many Turkish foods. You find mint in the famous ezogelin soup or the well known cacik, the yoghurt and cucumber-based accompaniment to meat. By the way, Turkish people make fabulous mint tea on the base of green tea. Very refreshing. The mint leaves are added to the tea glass just before the green tea is poured.

  • Cumia – mostly used for meat balls and some dolma and sarma dishes

  • Sumac – probably the most unfamiliar spice for us. It is a red powder – often mixed with onions – which is put on meat or used in salad sauces

Can’t wait to visit the spice markets this summer and stock up on the stuff. Am frequently told that the spices in our super markets are equal in quality. Am sure this is true.

Dried Hot Peppers sold in the Spice Market in Akko in Israel. Photo is from 2018

But buying spices in a glass jar from a hygienic shelf under cold neon light is far less exciting than haggling with a Turkish space trader over his goods. Let’s go for the open market fun.

On the Origins of Spices, Natural History Magazine:

YouTube Video - The Geography of Spices and Herbs:

142 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page