By Hassan Aslam Shad
IT’S that wonderful aroma which, like a soothing whiff from heaven, enters the nostrils and takes control of minds. Whether at home or in the office, our heads turn and our mouths water when we smell the tiny granules which brew with our foods to give it lip-smacking taste.
From simple snacks to delicate cuisines, we use spices to season our foods. They provide us with that tinge on our taste buds which makes us want them even more. Spices don’t just reveal our voracious appetite, they also show the great taste that we Pakistanis have developed as a nation. If someone were to describe us, we could easily be labelled the ‘spicy nation’.
Spices add a special tang to almost every dish that is cooked in Pakistan. The most commonly used ones are ginger, garlic, chilies, cumin and coriander. These can be found lying in cabinets and drawers in almost every kitchen and in every household.
“Badshao, the king of all spices is chili,” said Muhammad Alam, a cook in the famous Punjab Tikka Shop, Lahore, when asked to name some of the popular spices among customers. “When someone asks for a special touch to their food, it implies that they want more lal mirch added to it.”
Many wonder how man could have developed a taste for spices. Was it to enhance the flavour of bland foods which he had been eating for centuries? Or was it, instead, a habit acquired through evolution? Professor Paul Sherman of Cornell University says that both these factors could have contributed towards developing a liking for spices.
Men, in hotter climates and in order to protect their food from going bad, covered it with spices. This survival-of-the-fittest doctrine gradually turned into a culturally-beneficial trait and was transferred to future generations. This, Sherman believes, explains why countries such as Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia are at the top of the ‘hot climate-hot food list’, while Sweden, Finland and Norway are at the bottom.
Our love affair with spices dates back to the primitive era. Archeologists believe that at around 50,000 B.C., man had discovered that certain aromatic plants make food taste better. In 2,700 B.C in China, a man named Shen Nung talked about a spice named Cassia. Similarly, when the Egyptians built the pyramid of Cheops in about 2,500 B.C, for the Pharaoh Khufu, they fed spices, obtained from Asia, to their labourers, to make them strong. Assyrians went so far as to boast in one of the myths of their gods drinking sesame seed wine before creating earth. Romans showed their love for spices by wearing garlands made out of bay and parsley in the 1453 B.C. Olympics, the ancient Greeks were also known to exchange gold and precious gems for small quantities of spices.
But it was the Arabs who turned spice trafficking into a profitable business. The Golden Road of Samarkand, an ancient trade route, was for many centuries controlled by the Arabs through which they supplied spices from India and China to parts of Europe. It was the indignation against this Arab monopoly, which led the Romans to attack them in 24 B.C. When Muslims took over Alexandria in 641 A.D, the spice trade between Rome and India got cut off, and the Arab stronghold over this business increased. This trade further switched hands when, with the development of the European culture in the middle ages, many traders from Portugal, Spain, England and Holland gained control over spice markets in Ceylon, the Orient, India and Indonesia.
Dutch, French and English merchants struggled with the Portuguese and with each other over the possession of the Spice Islands, until, at the beginning of the 17th Century, the English decided to set up a company in India to deal with spice trade. This was the great East-India Company, which lasted until 1858 and helped to lay the foundation of the British Empire.
One can say that spices are no longer the valuable commodities they once used to be, but their persistent demand in the present world market cannot be overlooked. It is the varying taste for spices which has created inter-dependencies between producer and consumer countries. India, whose current market share in spice exports is more than 13 per cent, imported spices worth $29 million in 1997. A similar trend can be noticed in the United States, which imports its spices from more than fifty countries, but also sends out capsicum, peppers and garlic. The European Union states imported spices such as ginger, pepper, chili and cinnamon worth $375 million in 1998, mostly from Brazil, Indonesia, India and Nigeria.
Spices that have the largest share in the world market today are pepper, capsicum, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and thyme. Indonesia is the largest supplier of spices to the world, followed by India, China, Malaysia, Brazil, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. USA, the European Union countries and Japan, which have a combined share of more than 60pc, are the major importers. The monopolies of the past have now been reduced to a few domestically-produced spices. India with celery, Egypt with basil and Turkey with bay leaves are some examples of such monopolistic control.
Wholesale and retail business in spices continues to be a profitable trade in Pakistan. Akbari Mandi is one such wholesale outlet in Lahore where huge sacks of spices are put out for display. Swarms of traders, buyers and labourers can be seen engaged in discussions, bargaining and even arguments. While the market continues to fulfil the spice supply for the entire city, the deteriorating health standards are a matter of concern for all.
It is the lax quality control measures observed by Third-World exporters which has led the importers of spices to do repeated quality checks before approving them for public consumption. Incidents such as the blacklisting of Indian pepper shipments in 1987 by the US Food and Drug Administration have done much harm to the credibility of Third-World suppliers. Certified Laboratories in the US is one such facility where testing is carried out to detect the presence of any dangerous chemicals, residue or filth in spices.
One hidden aspect of spices is that they have health benefits, a fact that is not common knowledge to many. We have always blamed excessive spices for intestinal disorders and ulcers but research has confirmed that their benefits stretch far beyond giving pleasure to our taste buds. Chili peppers carry capsicum, a heat producing, colourless compound that improves digestion and reduces blood pressure. Similarly, garlic, which gives wonderful taste to foods, also helps eradicate the deadly E.Coli bacterium from our stomachs.
Dr Lenore Arab, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, claims that those who consume garlic on a daily basis reduce their risk of developing stomach cancer by more than fifty per cent. Similarly, repeated studies on turmeric suggest that it is highly effective in restraining the development of tumours in the colon. What’s more, relatively unassuming spices such as cumin seeds, which are the heart and soul of our curry dishes, act as a shield against prostrate cancer. Coriander, another useful spice, helps the body in excreting toxic metals such as mercury, lead and aluminium. We always thought of spices as simple food enhancers but research continues to reveal their benefits.
Foods rich in spices carry hope for those willing to shed a few pounds as well. Researchers at Oxford Polytechnic in England have found that a diet rich in chili peppers helps boost metabolism, which in turn leads to weight loss. It is that wonder compound, capsicum, in chili which decreases cholesterol absorption in the body and helps in secreting hard soluble fats from the body. But spices are not always good for the body. If eaten in excess, they can cause stomach disorders and muscle cramps.
When interviewed, Dr Pervez Hafeez Chaudhry, a leading physician at Medicare, Lahore, had this to say: “The human body can tolerate anything, whether it be spices, up to a certain level. They normally do no worse than cause simple nausea or heartburn. But, if a person with an ulcer or some other stomach disorder uses them in excess, it can complicate matters.” Spices may also cause temporary allergies. Spices such as paprika and chili pepper interact with the lining of the digestive tract, causing the cell junctions to loosen, which make a person vulnerable to allergic reactions. Spices carrying such allergies are few and usually a glass of water can counter this problem.”