Silk Roads And The Globalization Of Spices

An expansive network of sea lanes connecting East and West that extended from the western coast of Japan through the Indonesian Islands, circumnavigating the Indian subcontinent, reaching the Iranian Plateau, the Arabian Peninsula, and eventually Europe, enabled a large-scale trading of spices over a distance of more than fifteen thousand kilometers. This particular 'spice route' made up only one maritime section of the vast trading networks of the Silk Roads.

As far back as two thousand years ago, products such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cassia from China were being exported along the Silk Roads to the west, including the Arabian Peninsula and the Iranian Plateau. The ports where these merchants stopped for trading acted as meeting points for ideas and information to be shared. Every vessel that left with a cargo of valuable items also had knowledge on board, which was passed on to the next port.

The word "spice" comes from the Latin word "species," meaning "special wares," and refers to something of extra value compared to common goods. Spices were particularly treasured since they had both culinary and ceremonial, spiritual, and medicinal uses. They were so valuable due to their limited availability in certain areas; spices were grown mainly in tropical East Asia, in places such as southern China, Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka. Particularly, they were found in the Moluccas, a chain of islands, sometimes also referred to as the Nutmeg Islands, between Sulawesi and New Guinea. Cloves and nutmeg were exclusive to this region, as they grew nowhere else.

 It is uncertain how people in areas that did not cultivate spices initially became aware of them or why they assigned numerous medical and spiritual significances to them. As trading links from Indonesia spread across South and Central Asia, they encountered trade routes that traversed Western Asia and northern regions, leading to different religious and spiritual concepts coming into contact with each other and acquiring influences from other locations. Spices were utilized in religious rituals, believed to purify the air and transmit prayers. Particular spices were also added to curative salves and ingested as antidotes for certain toxins. Moreover, spices were, in some cases, burned daily to cover up the numerous commonplace domestic odors. Very early on, they were used in cooking to create new flavors and improve the taste of food that was not fresh, particularly in hot climates.

Additionally, certain qualities were attributed to spices that were purely mythical, and many tales and fables were created about them. In the Fifth Century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus talked about how the spice cassia was found in a lake inhabited by "winged animals like bats, which made a loud racket and were really aggressive". It is possible that some of these accounts were made up by merchants who desired to protect their sources from rivals in an attempt to conceal the real origins of their spices. The potential to make a lot of money off of spices was immense. As they were dried and compact, they could be moved around with relative ease. The immense wealth that was generated through the spice trade granted great authority and sway, which resulted in multiple bloody battles over the course of many years in order to gain control of the trade and the pathways it traveled.

While spices may have been the items that bolstered the development of the silk roads, there were several other exchanges that took place among the countries in this circuit that have had a long-lasting impact. Irrigation, metalworking, and ceramics spread from the region of their origin to other parts of the world along the silk routes. Many vegetables and fruits made their way into other countries similarly as well. China was introduced to new crops such as grapes, cucumbers, and tea, while regions to the west were introduced to rice, pears, and roses. Several fruits that were indigenous to central Asia that the ruling Mughals missed were brought down to India along the silk routes, thus changing the dietary habits of the entire subcontinent. 

The Silk Roads have left a lasting effect on the way food is prepared and enjoyed around the world, as spices, herbs, and many other culinary items were traded through them. This has resulted in a shared gastronomic heritage, which includes not just the ingredients but also a range of dietary philosophies, including the Chinese concept of 'hot and cold' foods and the principles of Ayurveda from India.