This week author and food writer Eleanor Ford shares 10 things you need to know about the ancient spice trails, including how spices were used as currency, medicine and in worship, and the formation of the routes that led to them being adopted into cuisines all over the world.


Listen out for next week's episode to hear Neil Rankin share 10 things you need to know about meat alternatives.

Eleanor Ford's shares the fascinating stories behind our favourite spices

Nutmeg and conflict

Nutmeg is a spice with a powerful, bloody history. It became so sought after that, in 1667, a tiny island called Rhun in Indonesia, where nutmeg originally grew, was traded for Manhattan, when New Amsterdam became New York. It was an exchange between the British and the Dutch who were circling their empires of power, and nutmeg was deemed so important that it was worth trading New York for. The spice trade had been peaceful for a long time, but when the Europeans got involved, the thirst for this commodity became huge and there was a lot of conflict. Many people suffered when the Dutch took control – their crops were decimated, their livelihoods taken away. There was a huge amount of bloodshed in the name of spice. For all the wonderful legacy of spice around the world, there are these sad, colonialist links that I think are important to acknowledge.

Peppercorns and America

The search for peppercorns actually led to the discovery of America. Spice was becoming so valuable, everyone wanted it. People were looking to try to find new ways to break the monopoly that spice traders held and claim that power. Peppercorns at that time were largely coming from India, plied by Arab traders. The Europeans were considering other ways to reach India – perhaps they could sail west rather than east. This led to Christopher Columbus setting off to look for peppercorns. When he arrived in America he found allspice and chilli but not peppercorns.

Kebabs and spice

At almost every spice port from Istanbul to Singapore, you’ll find a version of a kebab. Kebabs are one of these foods that has travelled almost globally, but the idea of meat on a stick probably started in Turkey or Central Asia. It was a great campaign meal for soldiers to be able to cook at camps in large scales and it really travelled with the Arab sailors who held a pretty good monopoly on the spice trade for millennia. This idea of a kebab travelled and coursed along the spice route, merging and changing with each country that it landed in, and taking on the flavours of that country or the ways that people like to cook there. By the time it got to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, it became satay – still a form of kebab that had come in with the traders but now having entirely new flavour profiles, with lemongrass and lime leaves. You can see this all across the regions.

Eleanor’s top 3 cooking hacks

KEEP IT FRESH Spices, although potent and full of essential oils, will deteriorate with age. So make sure your spices are as fresh as possible. Keep them away from sunlight and heat, and buy in small amounts so you can refresh them often.

EXTRACTING FLAVOUR Grind spices yourself rather than buying them ground – you get so many different longer-lasting layers of flavour. Also think about how you use them in cooking. Their essential oils tend to be more soluble in oil or in alcohol, not water. So if you can add spice to oil in your cooking, it will help it permeate through your food better.


WHEN TO ADD Add stronger, punchy spices early so you can lay a foundation in your food. Things like cumin seeds will benefit from a good sizzling in oil to bring out the flavours. Add more delicate spices towards the end so that their nuances aren’t lost.


Janine Ratcliffe Portrait
Janine RatcliffeFood director

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