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A spice is a dried seed, fruit, root, bark or vegetative substance used in nutritionally insignificant quantities as a food additive for the purpose of flavoring, and indirectly for the purpose of killing and preventing growth of pathogenic bacteria[1].

Many of the same substances have other uses in which they are referred to by different terms, e.g. in food preservation, medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics, perfumery or as vegetables. For example, turmeric is also used as a preservative; licorice as a medicine; garlic as a vegetable and nutmeg as a recreational drug.

Spices are distinguished from herbs, which are leafy, green plant parts used for flavoring purposes.[citation needed] Herbs, such as basil or oregano, may be used fresh, and are commonly chopped into smaller pieces; spices, however, are dried and usually ground into a powder.


Classification and types


File:Morocco, Spices.JPG
Shop with spices in Morocco

Salt is a very common seasoning, often mistakenly considered as a spice, but it is in fact a mineral product.

The basic classification of spices is as follows:


Spices have been prominent in human history virtually since their inception. Spices were among the most valuable items of trade in the ancient and medieval world. The culinary use of spices originated in the Indian Sub continent and South-East Asia. In the story of Genesis, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers to spice merchants. In the biblical poem Song of Solomon, the male speaker compares his beloved to many forms of spices. Generally, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian and Mesopotamian sources do not refer to known spices.

The spice trade developed throughout the Middle East in around 2000 BC with cinnamon, Indonesian cinnamon and pepper.

A recent archaeolgical discovery suggests that the clove, indigineous to the Indonesian island of Ternate in the Maluku Islands, could have been introduced to the Middle East very early on. Digs found a clove burnt onto the floor of a burned down kitchen in the Mesopotamian site of Terqa, in what is now modern-day Syria, dated to 1700 BC [2]. The ancient Indian epic of Ramayana mentions cloves. In any case, it is known that the Romans had cloves in the 1st century AD because Pliny the Elder spoke of them in his writings.

In South Asia, nutmeg, which originates from the Banda Islands in the Moluccas, has a Sanskrit name. Sanskrit is the language of the sacred Hindu texts, this shows how old the usage of this spice is in this region. Historians estimate that nutmeg was introduced to Europe in the 6th century BC [3].

Indonesian merchants went around China, India, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa. Arab merchants controlled the routes through the Middle East and India until Roman times with the discovery of new sea routes. This made the city of Alexandria in Egypt the main trading centre for spices because of its port.

Middle Ages

Harvesting pepper. Illustration from a French edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.

Spices were among the most luxurious products available in the Middle Ages, the most common being black pepper, cinnamon (and the cheaper alternative cassia), cumin, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. They were all imported from plantations in Asia and Africa, which made them extremely expensive. From the 8th until the 15th century, the Republic of Venice had the monopoly on spice trade with the Middle East, and along it with the neighboring Italian city-states. The trade made the region phenomenally rich. It has been estimated that around 1,000 tons of pepper and 1,000 tons of the other common spices were imported into Western Europe each year during the Late Middle Ages. The value of these goods was the equivalent of a yearly supply of grain for 1.5 million people.[4] While pepper was the most common spice, the most exclusive was saffron, used as much for its vivid yellow-red color as for its flavor. Spices that have now fallen into some obscurity include grains of paradise, a relative of cardamom which almost entirely replaced pepper in late medieval north French cooking, long pepper, mace, spikenard, galangal and cubeb. A popular modern-day misconception is that medieval cooks used liberal amounts of spices, particularly black pepper, merely to disguise the taste of spoiled meat. However, a medieval feast was as much a culinary event as it was a display of the host's vast resources and generosity, and as most nobles had a wide selection of fresh or preserved meats, fish or seafood to choose from, the use of ruinously expensive spices on cheap, rotting meat would have made little sense.[5]

Early modern period

The control of trade routes and the spice-producing regions were the main reasons that Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama sailed to India in 1499. Spain and Portugal were not happy to pay the high price that Venice demanded for spices. At around the same time, Christopher Columbus returned from the New World, he described to investors the many new, and then unknown, spices available there.

It was Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515) who allowed the Portuguese to take control of the sea routes to India. In 1506, he took the island of Socotra in the mouth of the Red Sea and, in 1507, Ormuz in the Persian Gulf. Since becoming the viceroy of the Indies, he took Goa in India in 1510, and Malacca on the Malay peninsula in 1511. The Portuguese could now trade directly with Siam, China and the Moluccas. The Silk Road complemented the Portuguese sea routes, and brought the treasures of the Orient to Europe via Lisbon, many of which are coveted spices.

Common spice mixes

A kitchen shelf of spice.




Production in tonnes. Figures 2003-2004
Researched by FAOSTAT (FAO)

India 1 600 000 86 % 1 600 000 86 %
China 66 000 4 % 66 000 4 %
Bangladesh 48 000 3 % 48 000 3 %
Pakistan 45 300 2 % 45 300 2 %
Turkey 33 000 2 % 33 000 2 %
Nepal 15 500 1 % 15 500 1 %
Other countries 60 900 3 % 60 910 3 %
Total 1 868 700 100 % 1 868 710 100 %

Further reading

  • Turner, Jack (2004). Spice: The History of a Temptation. Knopf. ISBN 0-375-40721-9. 
  • Food Bacteria-Spice Survey Shows Why Some Cultures Like It Hot Quote: “...Garlic, onion, allspice and oregano, for example, were found to be the best all-around bacteria killers (they kill everything)...Top 30 Spices with Antimicrobial Properties...”
  • August 18, 1998, Common Kitchen Spices Kill E. Coli O157:H7 Quote: “...The study is the first in the United States that looks at the effect of common spices on E. coli O157:H7. Previous studies have concluded spices kill other foodborne pathogens. “In the first part of our study, we tested 23 spices against E. coli O157:H7 in the laboratory,” Fung said. “We found that several spices are good at killing this strain of E. coli.”...”
  • The Lure and Lore of Spices Quote: “If the appearance of spices were to reflect their real importance in the history of the world, the bottles of spices would be filled with bright glittery substances, diamonds, rubies, emeralds or gold would be appropriate. When you opened the bottle, a poof of vibrantly colored, mystically fragrant, magical smoke would slowly billow softly throughout the room.”


  1. [1]
  2. Buccellati et Buccellati (1983)
  3. Burkill (1966)
  4. Adamson, p. 65
  5. Scully, pp. 84-86.


See also

External links

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