Spices may be among the most underappreciated ingredients in our kitchens. Imagine what foods would taste like without them.
There would be no cinnamon in apple pie, no peppercorns for savory dishes, no cloves in pumpkin pie, no ginger in gingerbread, no nutmeg in custard or eggnog. And what would salt be without pepper?
Curry and chili would be unnamed dishes, and perhaps never discovered.
That is why Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) is as important to the food world as he is to mapping of the globe. Columbus Day is observed Monday.
When Columbus sailed from Spain in search of the East Indies, nutmeg was among the spices he hoped to find, according to the Food Lover's Companion. Seeking a shorter route to the Orient, he found the New World in 1492. Though the Caribbean islands held none of the valuable spices he sought, he did discover hot red peppers and fragrant allspice, according to the American Spice Trade Association.
In 1492, the demand for Eastern spices was soaring in Europe. Arabs dominated the spice trade, bringing cargoes overland from the Orient to the Mediterranean. Venetians, at the head of the Adriatic Sea, bought the tropical spices in Alexandria, Egypt, and supplied Europe.
After Venetian Marco Polo (1254-1324) returned from 24 years of traveling in the Orient, he told of nutmegs and cloves growing in Indonesia, pepper in the Malabar Coast of India, and ginger and cinnamon in Peking, the capital of Emperor Kublai Khan. This inspired the explorations or "spice rush" of the 15th century.
Thus, much of the world was explored and charted for the first time by Westerners.
Portuguese Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) charted the first route to India and came back to Portugal with cargoes of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger from India's Malabar Coast.
Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese sailing for Spain, found a westward passage to the Orient by rounding the southern tip of South America in 1519. He died in the Philippines, but one of his ships pushed to the Moluccas (Spice Islands) and returned to Spain with enough cloves, nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon to finance the expedition.
Today, the United States is said to be the major spice buyer in the world. Among the more popular spices are allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, saffron, and tumeric.
Spices are also sold in blends such as curry powder, which can be a blend of 20 spices, herbs, and seeds. Masala is another Indian spice blend that can range from two or three spices (cardamom, coriander, and mace) to 10 or more ingredients. Five-spice powder is used extensively in Chinese cooking. It is a pungent mixture of cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorns. Chili powder is a mixture of dried chiles, garlic, oregano, cumin, coriander, and cloves.
Thanks to all of these explorers and many more, we have flavorful and varied dishes. Via world travel and population shifts, foods from many cultures have found their way to the American table. In the last 20 years, it has become far more diverse and authentic, thanks to the power of spice.