Why is spice still important today?


Wide range of spices

Originally, the term “spices” was understood to mean the natural parts of a plant species which, because of their special aroma, are used as a flavor-enhancing addition to food.

Spices can be obtained from roots, onions, bark, leaves, herbs, flowers, fruits or seeds. But a uniform definition of spices can hardly be formulated.

For example, the boundaries between spices and culinary herbs are fluid. Spices can also be mineral (salt) or even protein (insects). The knowledge of spices and the use of the flavor dispensers is a purely human cultural achievement. Animals do not know how to refine their taste through spices.

The sense of taste

Like all mammals, humans smell with their nose and taste with their mouth. The processing of the taste signals takes place via the tongue. On the back of the tongue we have taste cells, the so-called papillae.

The papillae, in turn, have several thousand taste buds that analyze the food for its aroma and transmit the taste signals to the brain.

Basically, humans perceive four flavors through the tongue: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Nature has ensured that the taste buds that signal bitterness are around 10,000 times more sensitive than those responsible for the "sweet" taste.

That makes sense: In this way we can quickly perceive and spit toxic or inedible substances, they mostly contain bitter substances.

Refinement of the kitchen

Taste is a matter of experience. Taste preferences are already shaped in childhood. The refinement of the taste of food, the seasoning, must be learned like cooking. Why do we season our sausages with curry powder, why do we eat them with mustard or ketchup?

Why do we like salt and pepper, thyme and rosemary in meat dishes, why do we color our risotto with saffron and why do we add cinnamon to baked apples?

Spices pamper the palate, stimulate the senses, refine our dishes and thereby our lives. The "correct" use and application of spices is also subject to social conventions. But the question of the combination and dosage of the spices remains a matter of individual discretion - tastes are different.

In times of material abundance, our palate is spoiled. Spices have long played a crucial role in our eating habits and we are familiar with a variety of foreign cuisines and spices. The Greek has a different taste than the Italian, the Chinese cuisine has different flavors than the Indian.

We differentiate between fast food, slow food and gourmet cuisine - not least because of the different, characteristic refinements of the prepared dishes.

Spices are literally on everyone's lips these days. Today everyone has been able to buy the most exotic spices for little money in the supermarket around the corner, and in the Asian shop there are roots and spices whose names we hardly know, but whose aromas are familiar to us.

That was not the case before. For centuries, spices were very valuable additions. Even before the Second World War, the average German citizen consumed at most salt and pepper and well-known local spices.

Only the increasing prosperity of the economic boom and a comprehensive transport system made it possible for exotic spices to penetrate the domestic kitchens.

Moving cultural history

It was a long way before curry powder found its way into German kitchens. From a cultural-historical point of view, exotic herbs, which could not be cultivated in European regions due to the climatic and soil conditions, are considered to be spices.

The history of culinary delicacies for Europe therefore often erroneously begins in the Middle Ages, since from then on spices were imported into the European cultural area on very risky trade routes from the Far East or West India via sea routes or the Central Asian trade routes.

In fact, the history of seasoning in Europe begins in the Stone Age. In the Neolithic, the New Stone Age, agriculture and cattle breeding emerged. Finds show that regional spices such as wild caraway have already been seasoned here.

The Celts also made use of the resulting spice traditions. The first foreign spices came into the Germanic area during the largest cultural invasion of Northern Europe. In addition to their architecture, the Romans brought a variety of spices and recipes with them from the conquered provinces.

In ancient China and Egypt, the aromatic and medicinal effects of spices had also been known for a long time. In Egypt, spices were even used in embalming and mummification.

For many centuries the trade in valuable goods was firmly in Arab hands and was carried out via ancient spice routes and caravan routes.

It was only in the early modern period that the Europeans penetrated the spice market with all their might. They waged cruel, bitter wars for exotic trade goods, which until then had been reserved for a few.

But spices also have an eventful history apart from the armed conflicts: They were the reason for many voyages of discovery. Christopher Columbus, too, was actually looking for the legendary Spice Islands - and instead discovered America.

Only Vasco da Gama found the coveted sea route to India in 1498 and returned from his expedition laden with spices. The sea route guaranteed the Portuguese unrestricted access to the lucrative spice trade for around 100 years. Only then did the Spaniards, Dutch and English push into the business.

Coveted luxury goods

Exotic spices such as pepper, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla originate mostly from the tropical regions of Asia and America. In the heyday of the Portuguese spice trade, the collection route therefore led from Lisbon, around the Cape of Good Hope to East Africa and across the Arabian Sea to the Malabar coast in western India.

From there it went on around India and Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka), over the Bay of Bengal to the legendary Indonesian spice islands, the Moluccas.

Spices from Asia were an exotic luxury good for which horrific prices were paid in medieval Germany. They were status symbols, signs of prosperity. Those who could afford it consumed spices in large quantities.

In this way you proved that you belonged to the better circles, because wealth was also documented at that time through the consumption of spices. By today's standards, the use of spices used to be downright excessive. Not least because inedible, sometimes spoiled dishes can be whitewashed with spicy aromas.

But spices were also used for preservation, one reason for the invention of curry spice mixes in India. In the wealthier areas of Europe, spices have been an important import commodity since the spice excesses of the Middle Ages - a trend that continues to this day.

In Germany's poorer kitchens, on the other hand, the spices that are still known from monastery gardens were indigenous for a long time. For example, German dishes in the Middle Ages contained coriander, perhaps still laurel, but typically caraway or marjoram.

Today most of the spices are available to all citizens of the industrialized nations. However, as in the Middle Ages, exclusivity is determined by price and quantity. Saffron has long been considered the most expensive spice in the world due to the effort required to produce it. One kilogram of real saffron threads without additives costs several thousand euros.