The History of Spice



History of Cooking Spices



EARLY HUMANS  Abundant anecdotal information documents the historical use of herbs and spices for their health benefits (1).  Beginning 6 million years ago, early man co-evolved with the flowering plants in the world around him (2).  Early documentation suggests that hunters and gatherers wrapped meat in the leaves of bushes, accidentally discovering that this process enhanced the taste of the meat, as did certain nuts, seeds, berries, and bark. Over the years, spices and herbs were used for medicinal purposes. They were also used as a way to mask unpleasant tastes and odors of food, and later, to keep food fresh (3).  Ancient civilizations did not distinguish between those spices and herbs used for flavoring from those used for medicinal purposes. When leaves, seeds, roots, or gums had a pleasant taste or agreeable odor, they became in demand and gradually became a norm for that culture as a flavor enhancer.

APOSTOLIC TIMES   Since the beginning of biblical times (17th Century BC), spices have been valued for many purposes, including religious offerings, burial rituals and medicines, trade and seasoning. Numerous times, spices are mentioned in the Bible. The Song of Solomon mentions several spices, including cinnamon (2). Queen Sheba visited King Solomon at Jerusalem in 1000 BC and gave him 120 measures of gold, many precious stones, and spices (2 Chronicles 9;9). Exodus 16:31 describes manna bread in Israel as "white like coriander seed" The New Testament speaks of a religious tithing that amounts to "a tenth your spices - mint dill and cumin" (Matthew 23,23). In Mark 16, spices were used for anointing Jesus' body (Mark 16:1).

EGYPT  The Ebers Papryus (1000 BC) outlined ancient Egyptian medical practices and cited medical treatments such as coriander, garlic, mint. Particular importance was given to garlic and onion. The Great Pyramid of Cheops was built by workers who ate onion and garlic to improve their health and stamina. Garlic cloves were also found in King Tutankhamen's tomb. To ensure a healthy and tasty afterlife, some ancient Egyptians placed wooden figures made from garlic cloves in their tombs. They also liked to flavor their food with cinnamon and cardamom, which they obtained from Ethiopia (3).


An ancient legend states that Shen Nung wrote Pen Ts’ao Ching (The Classic Herbal), around 2700 BC. In the early publications, more than 100 medicinal plants were mentioned. This included spice cassia (also known as "kwei") and cinnamon. Li Shih Chen published Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu in 1596 BC. Another historical evidence suggests that cassia was an important spice for South China in the period when Kweilin (meaning "Cassia Forest") was established around 216 BC.

China was first introduced to nutmeg from Moluccas and cloves from Moluccas early on. According to anecdotal evidence, Chinese courtiers of the 3rd Century BC carried cloves in the mouths of their guests so that their breath was sweet when they addressed the Emperor. In the 5th century AD ginger plants were transported by long sea voyages from China to Southeast Asia in pots. This was to ensure fresh food and prevent scurvy.


Cuneiform records from ancient times noted spice and herb use within Mesopotamia's fertile Tigris-Euphrates valleys. There were many aromatic plants. Sumerian clay tablets containing medical literature, dating back to the 3rd century BC, mention many odoriferous plants including thyme. King Ashurbanipal, Assyria's 668-633 BC, created a scroll of cuneiform written that lists a wide range of aromatic plants. Sesame was also used by the ancient Assyrians as a vegetable oil.

King Merodach Baladan II (721-710 BC), Babylonia, grew 64 species of plants in the royal garden. He kept detailed records of how to grow many spices and herbs, including cardamom and coriander, garlic and thyme. Babylonia's religion was centered on an ancient medical god, the moon. He controlled medicinal plants. The sun was not permitted to expose the potent herbs, so they were only harvested under moonlight.

Persia's 6th century BC saw the rise of garlic, onions, and shallots as popular condiments. According to King Cyrus' records (559-529 BC), there was a wholesale purchase for 395,000 garlic bunches. Essential oils were also made by Persians from roses, coriander and coriander.

INDIAN DESCENT  Spices and herbs such as black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom have been used by Indians for thousands of years for both culinary and health purposes. Spices indigenous to India (such as cardamom and turmeric) were cultivated as early as the 8th century BC in the gardens of Babylon (2).

Sushruta, an ancient surgeon (around 4th century BC), used white mustard and other aromatic plants in bed sheets to ward off malignant spirits. He also applied a poultice from sesame to postoperative wounds which may have acted as an antiseptic.

Medical writings of Charaka (1st century) and Sushruta II (2nd century) referenced spices and herbs. Sushruta II also used spices and herbs such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, and pepper for healing purposes. Spices such as cardamom, ginger, black pepper, cumin, and mustard seed were included in ancient herbal medicines for different types of health benefits. In Ayurvedic medicine, spices such as cloves and cardamom were wrapped in betel-nut leaves and chewed after meals to increase the flow of saliva and aid digestion.

GREEK AND ROME The ancient Greeks brought Eastern spices to the Mediterranean region, including pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and cassia. Many spices from neighboring countries were also eaten by them. For example, they ate poppy and caraway seeds for bread and fennel for vinegar sauces. Coriander was used as a condiment in food, wine and meat sauces. Mint was also used as a flavoring in meat dishes. Country people used garlic in a lot of their cooking. Ancient Greeks used marjoram and parsley as crowns at feasts to avoid drunkenness.

Ancient Greek medicine was influenced by herbs and spices. Hippocrates (377-377 BC) wrote extensively about herbs and spices, including cinnamon, thyme coriander mint, marjoram, and thyme. Hippocrates noted that herbs should be prepared for medical purposes and should be taken with great care. At least half of the 400 herbs Hippocrates used are still in use today. Theophrastus (372-287 BC), also known as the "Father Of Botany", wrote two books about the knowledge of more than 600 herbs and spices, roughly 500 years later.

De Materia Medica was written by the Greek Physician Dioscorides (AD40-90). It was used in botany and medicinal knowledge for more than 1500 years in the East and West. His remedies were based upon a large list of herbs and spices, and they were more systematic than those of his predecessors, who relied on magic and superstition to make their claims.

Romans were avid users of herbs and spices. In ancient Rome, spice-flavored wines were made and oil and balms containing spices were widely used after a bath. Because spices are believed to have healing properties, they were used in poultices as well as healing plasters.

The Roman Empire expanded to the northern side Alps. Vandals, Goths and Huns from those areas were exposed to pepper and other East Asian spices. These cultures were familiarized with onions, rosemary and thyme, and became increasingly attracted to Eastern spices.



Spices were used to trade early on. Trade routes with Arabia were established during the ancient Roman Empire. Trade routes were established with Arabia during the ancient Roman Empire. They provided spices such as cinnamon and cassia and kept their source secret. To maintain a monopoly in the spice trade, the Arabians told great stories about how they got the spices to increase their resource value. The origins of the spices remained secret for many centuries, from ancient Greek and Roman civilizations to the 1st Century AD when Pliny, a Roman scholar, made the connection between price inflation and the Arabian stories.

Mohammed (AD570-632), who set the principles of Islam in The Koran, also owned a shop that sold myrrh and frankincense. His followers, the Mohammedans, created a flourishing civilisation for four centuries after his death. They were among the most brilliant scientists of their time. They developed methods to extract flower scents from flowers and herbs, and also created distillation techniques for essential oils. Arab doctors used herbs and spices to make syrups and flavoring oils later in the 9th century.

MEDIEVEL EUROPE    In the early part of the middle ages (before the Crusades), Asian spices in Europe were costly and mainly used by the wealthy. A pound of saffron cost the same as a horse; a pound of ginger, as much as a sheep; 2 pounds of mace as much as a cow. A Germanic price table of AD 1393 lists a pound of nutmeg as worth 7 fat oxen.

Black pepper, as well as other spices and herbs, was commonly used as a monetary source. Eastern Europeans paid 10 pounds of pepper in order to gain access to trading with London merchants. Throughout Europe, individual peppercorns were accepted as currency to pay taxes, tolls and rents (partly because of a coin shortage). Many European towns kept their accounts in pepper. Wealthy brides received pepper as a dowry and some landlords would get paid in “peppercorn rent” (2).

With the coming of the Crusades (AD 1095-1492), international exchange of goods became common. Gradually, Asian spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom became less expensive and more widely available. Spices were used to camouflage bad flavors and odors, and for their health benefits. Spiced wines were also popular.

European apothecaries used Asian spices (such as ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron, and cardamom) as well as garden herbs in their remedies and elixirs. The remedies were largely based on Arabian medical teaching.

An important person in developing and growing local herbs was the King of France and Emperor of the West, Charlemagne (AD 742-814). He was the first leader to have farmers plant an abundance of culinary herbs such as anise, fennel, fenugreek, and sage, thyme, parsley, and coriander.

European cultivation of spices and herbs was largely controlled by the church during this period. Religious spice and herb feasts were common. Some ancient customs and superstitions (such as tying bundles of herbs to stable doors to keep the witches out) were also continued.

In AD 1180, King Henry II founded a "pepperer’s guild" of wholesale merchants, which was a predecessor to the modern day grocery store. The guild included spice trade management, which included cleaning and preparing the spices for sale. The original spicers and pepperers helped launch the apothecaries and later became medical practitioners. Some common medical practices included placing sponges soaked with cinnamon and clove extracts under patients noses, sterilizing rooms with sage smoke, and prescribing saffron, garlic soup, and juniper wine for health benefits.


Marco Polo frequently mentioned spices in his travel memoirs (circa AD 1298). Marco Polo described the flavors of sesame oil from Afghanistan and the cassia and ginger plants in Kain-du (the capital of Peking), where people enjoyed a delicious wine made with rice and spices. He said that Karazan's wealthy ate meat seasoned with spices and pickled in salt, while those living in poverty had to eat hash with garlic. He said that 10,000 pounds of pepper were transported daily to Hangchow every day. Polo also spoke of large plantings of pepper and nutmeg in Hangchow, as well as the abundance of ginger and cinnamon on the Malabar Coast in India. Anecdotal evidence suggests Polo's accounts contributed to an increase in international spice trade during 13th and 14th centuries.

Mesoamerican civilizations had a rich history of spice and herb use. Many spices that are now common in the world were introduced to the outside world only after the discovery of America by the Europeans. Christopher Columbus embarked on his second voyage (AD 1403) with Diego Chanca, a Spanish physician who introduced allspice and capsaicin to Spanish cuisine. Mexican vanilla is another native spice. Vanilla was a traditional Aztec ingredient in chocolate drinks. Vanilla is still a popular ingredient in many chocolate drinks and candies. The Badianus Manuscript (AD 1552) is the oldest herb text from America and includes Mesoamerican prescriptions for various afflictions.

King Manual I of Portugal had a significant influence on the introduction of spices to his country. Numerous sea voyages were instrumental in establishing a trade route to India. Portugal was able to import large amounts of Indian spices from India by the port of Lisbon in 1501. To expand his spice markets in Europe, the King sent trade missions, particularly to Germany. The lucrative, but risky pepper trade was monopolized by the Portuguese crown as the spice riches poured into Lisbon. The King of Portugal sold cargoes of East Indian vessels to large European syndicates at high prices. The price of pepper was used as a barometer in European business, just like in medieval times.

NORTH AMERICAN HISTORY    Early settlers brought European spices to the American colonies as a part of their food staples. Colonists began to incorporate indigenous spices and herbs. Captain John Smith, a Virginia colonial founder, wrote about the medicinal uses of spices by Native Americans, including onions and sassafras. Sassafras was used by the American colonists to flavor root beer. It is also used in Creole cuisine (7).

Tea drinking was banned in Colonial America after the Boston Tea Party (AD1773). Instead, spices and herbs were used as a substitute. Sassafras bark and chamomile flowers, spearmint leaf, lemon balm leaves. Raspberry leaves, loosestrife. Dittany, blackberry leaves. Sage, and many other items were all used frequently as beverages (8).

The United States joined the international spice trade in the latter half of the 18th century. American commerce was not hampered by British taxes or trade restrictions from colonial times. They traded American salmon and codfish, tobacco and snuff, as well as soap, butter, cream, candles, butter and cheese for spices like pepper, cassia and cloves.

Salem, Massachusetts had a flourishing Sumatra pepper trading and made huge profits from sales and taxation (AD 1797-1846). The vast majority of these peppers were either reexported to European ports (Stockholm Gothenburg Hamburg Copenhagen Antwerp and Antwerp), or transferred to Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore for processing by American exporters and merchants. Just over 1,000,000 pounds (500 tonnes) of pepper was the largest single cargo for any of the Salem pepper ships. It was brought by the Eliza, an 512-ton sailing ship, from Sumatra to Salem, in 1806. Overproduction of spices led to a decline in its economic importance after 1846. The final demise was due to the Civil War (1861-1865).

For American Civil War Union soldiers, war rations included pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. One of the most unique uses of spices was discovered during wartime. According to a letter in the United States Library of Congress, ground red and black peppers can be tied to a kite and placed in a releasable pouch to get into the eyes and noses of Confederate Army soldiers. It is not known if this experiment was ever tried (8).


Commerce in spices has become more decentralized than it was in earlier times, when monopolies controlled the trade. Spices and herbs are used all over the globe to enhance flavor and create new tastes. You can find spices everywhere, even in outer space. In 1982, astronaut food was made with spices for the United States' space shuttle program (9).

The new information age, which began in the mid-20th century, has brought about a new era of international cuisine sharing. Home cooks are becoming more curious and are able to prepare delicious meals using a wider range of spices. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), spice consumption in the US has increased exponentially over the past half-century. Spices such as ginger, chili pepper, and other spices are being used more often than ever (10).

A renewed interest is being shown in the health benefits of herbs and spices. According to data from 2015, 5-10% Americans use botanical supplements like spices for their health benefits (11). According to the 2020-2025 US Dietary Guidelines, Herbs and spices can enhance flavor and taste, while reducing added sugars, saturatedfat, and sodium. They can also be used to enrich the enjoyment of nutrient rich foods, dishes, or meals that are specific to cultures (12).

Modern science is supporting the many anecdotal health benefits of spices. This is one of the most exciting developments in spice research. Research has shown that spices and herbs can have positive effects on heart health, cognition, weight management, as well as improving diet quality and making healthier foods more appealing to consumers. Scientific evidence continues to grow in support of the wisdom of our ancestors through the ages.