Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

A pinch of pepper or cinnamon can add a unique flavor to a dish. In this, the Indians agree with the Europeans. With one correction: they will measure spices not in pinches, but in spoons

In the Khari-Baoli market, the throat is torn from the caustic air, heavily seasoned with spices. They settle on hair, clothes and burn eyes. Padma, my Delhi friend, took me to the biggest spice market in Asia in the morning before the heat got unbearable.

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

Mountains of powders of all shades of red rise in aluminum bowls and open bags, yellow and green, variegated seasoning blends with black pepper dots and white sesame seeds. The roots of ginger and turmeric are laid out in neat rows. Some spices are unrecognizable without a botanical atlas.

Padma grinds yellow turmeric powder in her fingers and sniffs:

– Spices should be checked: are there any lumps, impurities, is the smell good. When you buy by weight, it is easy to determine the quality. Tourists also prefer in the package, so that it is stored longer. And they can slip anything on them, and even the price will be inflated twenty times.

In the kitchen, Padma has two dozen large metal boxes. Zira, curry, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom are stored under tight lids.

– Wow! – I exclaim. – Yes, there are supplies for six months!

“I hope that’s enough for a week,” Padma laughs. “We have a generous country. We do not know how to pour a little. We live like this: a lot of music, a lot of love, a lot of words. We add spices to rice, cook cakes with them, stew vegetables, cook tea with milk with spices. A lot of spices at once – it turns out garam masala.

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

Most housewives prepare the traditional Indian spice mix themselves. Depending on the state or family tradition, almost any spice can be used as an ingredient, but garam masala usually includes black and white pepper, cloves, cumin, coriander, cardamom, ginger, chili and nutmeg.

Into the skillet with hot oil, Padma sprinkles small, like eggs, black mustard seeds. A delicate aroma wafts through the kitchen.

“I still don’t use asafoetida today,” says Padma, “until you warm it up, it stinks terribly.” But if you mix it with other spices in the right way, rice can be simply magical.

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Once tasteless rice was the only dish on the southwestern coast of India – Malabar. The first Aryans who came here 3500 years ago were half farmers, half nomads. But the land turned out to be so fertile that the Aryans began to use cattle more often in agriculture, and then completely switched to plant foods.

Spices and passions: how spices in India have become a symbol of the taste for life

The newcomers to India quickly realized that the seeds, leaves, and roots of some native plants add flavor to their food. They began to be specially grown and processed, and over time they began to trade spices with the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Arabs and Romans. The goods were transported by caravans and ships: a long and dangerous journey increased the price of spices many times over. “Loose gold” has become the same treasure as precious metals, stones and fine fabrics.

Venetian merchants had a monopoly on the spice trade in Europe, but even they did not know exactly where the goods were delivered to them from. They bought spices from the Arabs, who told stories about snake-infested lakes and cliffs where eagles build their nests entirely from spicy herbs. At the end of the 15th century, Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India and saw with his own eyes pepper, turmeric and saffron on the trays of Indian markets. And in 1600, the English East India Company was created by decree of Queen Elizabeth I, and British merchants began to promote India as a brand.

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

By the way, it was the British who came up with curry, a mixture of spices known everywhere as Indian. Although in India, curry is just the leaves of the Koenig murraya tree, which are also used in cooking. Taking garam masala, the British adapted the spicy mixture to European tastes and called it the Tamil word “curry”, which means “sauce” in translation. To a large extent, it was thanks to the British that India began to be considered the birthplace of spices all over the world. Although, in fact, many spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, did not originally grow in India and were brought there by foreign merchants for exchange.

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

By the way, Columbus, who was looking for India and discovered America, promised to deliver bags of turmeric and saffron to the royal court. But on unfamiliar shores, only red chili peppers grew. They, with all the riches of the New World, the navigator delivered to Europe. And from there, the Portuguese brought sprouts to their Goa colony. At first, the locals were wary of a foreign culture. But some enterprising merchant convinced the Indians that this pepper scares away evil spirits. So the foreign curiosity turned into a native sacred plant.

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< p>Raj Thakur lives in Assam and works in a chili plantation factory. He goes to the factory with his grandchildren to sort the pungent pods after drying. In the covered hangar, Raj sits on the ground, like dozens of other sorters, surrounded by red chili hills. With crooked fingers, he deftly grabs pod after pod and tears off the dry cuttings – the peeled pepper will be ground into powder at the factory. For a norm of 20 kilograms of pepper per day, Raj will receive 20 rupees.

“When I was little, my hands burned very much,” Raj nods at one of his seven-year-old grandchildren, “even the skin sometimes peeled off. But after a couple of years, you stop feeling. This means that the evil spirits have left you. I then hung chili peppers over the door of the house so that evil spirits would not come back. It's an easy job for us. For the elderly, women and children.

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

New baskets of dried peppers are brought into the hangar. Outside, pods are spread out on the ground under the sun. Workers feel the pepper with their bare feet and determine which one can already be carried for cleaning, and which one needs to be dried.

At the opposite end of India, in the state of Kerala, another pepper is harvested – black. The owner of a small plot, more like a piece of the jungle, Arnacht Seth inherited the farm from his father.

– Black pepper is a liana, it needs other trees to lean on, – Arnacht shows a long brush of small green berries among wide leaves. – We only grow, collect and dry pepper here. Then we take it to a large factory for grinding. The spice business in India is driven by small farms like ours.

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

Since the time of the Great geographical discoveries, the technologies for collecting and processing spices have not changed much. In India, there is a lot of cheap labor, and technology cannot function in such a jungle. Therefore, peppers are harvested by hand. Small green bunches are put in plastic boxes. Then the fruits are scattered on a platform open to the sun and dried, sometimes combed with a rake.

“For Europeans, spices,” says Arnacht, “are just a seasoning for food. For us it is joy, color, health. Without sharp, bitter and sweet, the world becomes gray. This means that we, spice producers, give people happiness.

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Sharp, bitter and sweet “happiness” has penetrated not only into the kitchens of housewives. Spices in India are treated, they are used in various rituals.

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

“We have a sagan ceremony in the state of Punjab, when the groom sets the wedding date,” says Amrit Rai Kaur, the wife of the owner of a bridal salon in Amritsar. – a point on the forehead. And on the eve of the wedding, women cover the bride with turmeric and mustard oil from head to toe. This is a vatna ceremony, it means that the girl enters a new life cleansed of dirt, disease and evil.

Spices and passions: like spices in India have become a symbol of the taste for life

According to the Vedas, the sacred writings of Hinduism, all spices are divided into classes according to the three properties of the material world: goodness, passion and ignorance. The spices of ignorance kill germs, but give rise to anger and a predisposition to bad habits. These spices are very spicy, such as bhut jolokia chili peppers. In North-East India, where it grows, pomace from the red pods is smeared on fences to scare away elephants. And in 2010, they learned how to stuff grenades with powder from this pepper to disperse demonstrations.

Spices of passion – those that contribute to the awakening of love. These include fenugreek, cloves, saffron. These spices must be used wisely, because, as the ancient texts say, they spoil the character.

Almost all the spices of goodness are included in Ayurveda. Here and ginger, which alleviates pain, reduces fever and treats colds, and cardamom, which increases tone.

“Ayurveda is not only the science of healing, but also the knowledge of beauty,” says Amrit. “If a girl cannot get married for a long time, we advise her to use a turmeric mask. This is a divine spice: it makes the skin glow.

Turmeric is also great at coloring fabrics. Homespun cloth is boiled with whole roots or soaked with powder. The hue is obtained from bright yellow to red. Once upon a time, this method was considered an option for the poor. Today, clothing dyed in this way is a stylish eco-friendly souvenir.

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

Turmeric is also used as a dye at the Holi spring festival, whose participants water each other with colored water or sprinkled with colored powder. Yellow powder is made from turmeric, red powder is made from madder root. Some manufacturers claim that saffron is added to their paints, but this is not true.

Indian craftsmen have learned to painstakingly collect saffron stigmas, as well as to forge this rare product well. Until now, buying this spice in India, tourists run the risk of finding in its composition not only turmeric and marigolds, but also corn hairs and paper shavings. Spice sellers, of course, value their reputation, but, as a rule, only to local buyers who understand the joys of food.

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The spice road takes me back to Khari Baoli. The lanes here are so narrow that you have to squeeze through the crowd of people, literally working with your elbows. In the stream now and then come across men with bags, the so-called spicy servants. These people, who come to Delhi to work from the provinces, carry sacks of spices from warehouse to warehouse.

During the day, such a porter walks a total of about 25 kilometers and receives about 50 rupees. Lucky are those who manage to buy a two-wheeled cart. It can load up to 12 bags. Such entrepreneurs earn ten times more and are able to hire assistants. But all of them must first obtain permission to work from the heads of the market.

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

The Garg brothers, who today lead Khali Baoli, sit in the middle of this hodgepodge of alleys, in an enclosure surrounded by curtains of long transparent plastic strips, like those found in car washes. In addition to chairs and a table with a telephone in the “office” there is nothing. At the entrance hangs an image of the elephant-headed Ganesha – the god of wisdom and prosperity, as well as the goddess Lakshmi – the patroness of good luck. The brothers take rent and play the role of magistrates in the market: they resolve disputes, they are present at transactions.

“The market turnover is at least a million rupees a day,” the eldest of the brothers, Darmesh, tells me. “There are not only spices here: we have Himalayan salt, and tea from Darjeeling, and dried fruits from Assam. Spices are brought here from all over India. We buy from local exporters. They take the goods to large production centers, where a foreign buyer is already coming. Spices are still the most important treasure of our shores. But for us they are a much greater treasure than for foreigners. Paying for spices, the Indian pays not just for the taste of future dishes, he pays for his life to become brighter and sharper. And by sending spices to other parts of the world, we share our national idea. We sell Indian love of life to foreigners. Someday they will taste it and stop taking it cautiously, a little bit, and start spice their own life with a full spoon.

India, New Delhi

Spices and passions: how spices in India became a symbol of the taste for life

India Square 3,287,263 km2 (7th in the world)
Population1.425 billion people (1st)
Population density ~420 people/km2
New Delhi area 42.7 km2
Population~250 000 people
Population density ~ 5900 people/km2

SIGHTSEEING Red Fort (Mughal citadel), Akshardham (largest Hindu temple in the world).
TRADITIONAL DISHES thali (boiled rice, served with a choice of sauces and side dishes), dal (lentil puree soup), tandoori chicken.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS lassi (a drink based on whipped yogurt, fruits and spices), masala chai (black tea with milk and spices).
SOUVENIRSsilk saris, elephant figurines, spices.

Distancefrom Moscow to New Delhi ~ 4350 km (from 6 hours in flight)
Timeis 2 hours 30 minutes ahead of Moscow
VisaRussians need it, you can apply online
CurrencyIndian Rupee (100 INR ~ 1.22 USD)

Photo: Solent News/Legion-media, East News (x2), HEMIS/Legion-media (x7), AP/East News

Material published in Vokrug Sveta magazine No. 4, April 2017, partially updated in June 2023

Ekaterina Sekhina

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