A Journey Through The Spice Cupboard

A masala dabba or spice tin, commonly found in Indian kitchens

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Spices were for much of history an expensive and highly desirable commodity. Naturally growing in hot climates and believed to have medicinal properties, they have long been used in the Middle East. They were prized by the Abbasid Caliphate (AD 750–1258) who threw lavish banquets in Baghdad to signal wealth and status. Spices were sold to Europeans by Arab traders, who invented stories of mythical flesh-eating birds with nests built from cinnamon bark. They claimed to lure the birds from their nests with raw meat, collecting any falling cinnamon from the ground. These birds did not exist but traders of course wished to preserve their monopoly of the highly lucrative spice trade.

Spices were introduced to Morocco by the Arabs in the late seventh century and were used alongside the spices and herbs that the Berbers cooked with. Every spice shop in Morocco has its own blend of ras el hanout, which means ‘shopkeeper’s choice’ and can contain up to twenty six ingredients.

Herbs and spices laid out to dry in Marrakesh.

In Europe, the Venetians held control of the spice trade, buying spices from the Middle East and becoming very wealthy by selling them to the rest of Europe, at considerable mark up. Other European countries were keen to establish their own spice trades: spices equalled wealth. Many famous explorers set off in search of spices. Christopher Columbus hoped to establish trade with India but accidentally ‘discovered’ America instead. The English John Cabot also unsuccessfully tried to reach India but it was the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama who got there first in 1498 and disrupted the Arab spice trade, resulting in some rather bloody battles.  

Drake filled his ship, the Golden Hind, with spices from the Indonesia Spice Islands, as they were called at the time, which were colonised by the Dutch. The British defeat of the Spanish Armada allowed The East India Company to establish their trade with India. Following the defeat of the Portuguese, the British began trading with the Mughal empire, who had ruled India in various capacities since the twelfth century. The word ‘spice’ was used somewhat loosely to describe Eastern luxuries – sugar and vanilla were considered to be spices rather than the sweet store cupboard staples they are now.

While the idea of the arrival of a ship full of Eastern luxuries sounds lovely, the spice trade and the dealings of the East India Company were very dark indeed. Heavily involved in the slave trade, enslaved peoples from Africa and Indonesia were brought to India and the Caribbean. The East Indian Company also sold opium to China, resulting in two wars.

The East India Company acquired control of Bengal in 1757. The British in India loved the food and embraced it, or rather versions of it. Curry was the word they used to describe unfamiliar dishes made with sauce or gravy. Curry of course is a British word which comes via Portuguese. The roots of the word come from karil in the Kannadan and Malayam languages and kari in Tamil, which referred to specific spice blends.

The Indian servants who cooked for the British adapted and invented dishes for them, incorporating at their request ingredients and elements from across the subcontinent which would never normally have been combined. Mulligatawny was invented when a cook was asked to make a soup for a starter. The Indians ate dal poured over rice, not soup  – and so, rasam, a hot south Indian dal was adapted to become mulligatawny, an Anglo-Indian staple. Both Hindus and Muslims alike were taken aback by just how much meat the British ate. Their cooks were usually Muslim, because they ate meat unlike the many of Hindus. Furthermore, they were served Mughali food as that was what had been served to the ruling class at court. Mughali cuisine fused aspects of Iranian cuisine with those of local Hindustani cooking and cooks often competed to see who could invent dishes to please the emperor. Emperor Akbar incorporated many elements of Hindu culture into his own life and into the court.

Collingham describes the refined tradition of Vaishnava vegetarian cuisine in India and the sattvik diet followed by the brahmins, which excluded meat, fish, eggs, garlic, onions, all other alliums and vinegar. This was the diet followed by AC Bhaktivedanta Swami and subsequently that of his followers, viewed as essential to the practice of Bhakti. It is what I grew up eating. (I am rather aware of the peculiarity of a girl who grew up in an ex-council house on the edge of a sprawling estate in Belfast following a brahmin diet.)

We were keenly aware that what seemed normal to us, utterly baffled people. We visited family and ate whatever they could make, viewing it as an exercise in tolerance if it was especially limited. We smiled and said nothing when they made puzzled comments about our food choices. We were not to be persuaded that our awkwardness was is any way lesser or limited and we didn’t place much value in the opinions of those who didn’t like gulab jamuns. My parents did not look back fondly at the food of their youth and viewed temple food as a very welcome change, embracing the spiced deep-fried dishes served, delighted by the flavours and variety. My mother, growing up in Wigan, seemed to have eaten mostly scouse, made of mince and potatoes. My dad’s memories of ham salads and stray chicken bones and skin in casseroles were no more positive, not to mention the incident of the cows’ hearts his father once brought home.

The Madras was created for the British and became the template for curry as they knew it. It was made with ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander, cayenne pepper, onions, garlic, turmeric and ghee with lamb or chicken. Vindaloo was a Portuguese-inspired dish – the Portuguese often marinated meat in vinegar and had brought chilis to India from South America, along with potatoes and tomatoes although these vegetables were not fully adopted until the British requested they were prepared for them.

The British ate curry and rice three times a day and it was often served alongside English dishes. People wrote home to their relatives in England to tell them about this wonderful food and to send them recipes. Disraeli was keen to promote the monarchy and the Empire and organised the Empire of India exhibition at Earls Court in 1895 where people could try so-called Indian food. (Queen Victoria herself loved Indian food.) The Victorians were keen to make it at home but this proved somewhat difficult due to a lack of ingredients. Tamarind was therefore replaced with lemon juice or sour gooseberries and mangoes with apple. Raisins, which were sometimes included in Mughlai pilaus were also added.

In the hands of the English, curry became an ever simpler dish. Rather than using a range of spices, they simply used a jar of curry powder. Spices are normally fried in oil to release the flavour (a chaunk or chaunce), the British did not bother with this, merely adding the spices to stock and meat, resulting in a somewhat raw flavour. English curry was thicken using a flour-based roux, the sort you would make for a white sauce.

There emerged differences between the ‘Indian’ food eaten in Britain and the ‘Indian’ food eaten by the British in India. New arrivals from Britain objected to the food as it was different to the ‘Indian’ food they had eaten at home. Peculiar fusions of both existed separately in India and England. There occurred an ‘Orientalisation’ of French dishes, most notably the truly dreadful sounding Soufflé de Volaille Indienne which involved a mousse containing curry sauce and a ring of Mulligatawny jelly served with rice and salad mixed with mayonnaise and curry (Cunningham, 2006).

The British could not cook, due to always having had servants, and unable to speak the language of their cooks, were unable demonstrate what they meant. Their cooks in turn had no point of reference as to what these British dishes should be like. I was amused by the story of an Indian cook who put vanilla in every dish he made, sweet or savoury, much to the dissatisfaction of his employer. Students who attended schools run by Scottish missionaries in India discovered that their school dinners which included dahl, yellow rice and coconut pancakes were not after all British.

The fresh chutneys and preserved pickles eaten by Indians with their meals were hugely popular with the British. Sailors keen to jazz up their grim rations of hard biscuits at sea, brought jars of Indian pickles and chutneys on board. Whereas these pickles were preserved in water or oil and left to ferment in the sun, the English used vinegar instead. Mustard and horseradish replaced chili and apples, marrows and tomatoes used instead of mango. Sultanas were included because they had come to be associated with spicy food. The results included picalilli and an attempt to recreate a spicy Indian sauce resulted in Lea&Perrins. Barrels of sauce had originally been rejected and forgotten, left to ferment. The barrels were opened when a tempting smell began to emit from them. I believe brown sauce was also an attempt to recreate tamarind-based chutneys.

As the power of the Empire declined, curry was demoted in status and the British began to assert their Britishness. They insisted on dressing for dinner in the sweltering heat and eating English food, often relying on expensive imported tinned foods which tasted terrible; the tinning process was not perfected until the second world war. In the name of diplomacy, the Indian nobility served two meals for their guests, one Indian and one Western, as the British now refused to eat Indian food, even at their hosts’ homes. They would only eat it on a Sunday at the country club or for lunch on a train. By contrast, Indian guests invited to dine with the British were disappointed by their ruler’s cuisine, deeming the food bland and tasteless.

Cooking with spices fell out of favour in Britain due to a resurgent interest in the classical cooking of the Greeks and Romans amongst seventeenth and eighteenth century cooks. The Romans had eaten spicy food but there was a particular interest in the use of salt and acid (well before Samin Nosrat got there). Examples of such foods includes olives, anchovies and capers. Dishes with both sweet and savoury flavours fell out of the culinary repetoire and sauces were made with butter rather than spices. The number of vegetables eaten was reduced in line with ideas of what promoted good digestion and food became blander.

Spices were largely relegated to Christmas baking and gingerbread. Mixed spice is very similar to garam masala and indeed curry powder, minus the turmeric and chili powder of curry powder. (Ever the pragmatist, my mother has admitted to using garam masala in place of mixed spice on occasion.)

The British came to view curry as a way of using up leftover veg and meat, a stew of sorts flavoured with curry powder, often eaten with potatoes and vegetables. They seemed to become odder and odder, with one publication advising people to add rhubarb, bananas and even jam in addition to sultanas or raisins. Other recipes included soy sauce, vinegar and fruit chutney. Dishes made with bananas and pineapples were eaten by the navy well into the 1970s. (While all of this makes me shudder in horror, I wonder if there is a link to savoury south Indian dishes made with pineapple or plantain. These dishes however feature chili, tamarind, curry leaves and mustard seeds, which the navy curries almost certainly did not.)

Palmer’s Veerswamy opened in 1926, aimed at retired gentlemen who had returned from India but it was thanks to the Sylheti run cafés and chip shops in the post-war years that spiced food re-entered the British diet, often in the form of chips with curry sauce. Rice cooked as a savoury was alien to many people. Many spices were hard to come by in England and Indian immigrants were unimpressed by English food; Gandhi notably so, advising people to try the English food served on board the ship in order to get used to it en-route to England. The first Indian food shop opened in London in 1928 to be followed some thirty years later by a Gujarati grocer’s in Birmingham. Numbers increased substantially in the 60s and 70s due to an increasing Asian population. Companies such as NATCO, Geetas and Tilda were founded in the 1970s. L.G. Pathak, who had sold Indian milk sweets in Kenya, moved to London and sold the samosas his wife made in their kitchen at home. He opened a shop on Drummond Street, selling chutneys and curry pastes. The ‘h’ was dropped from his name and Patak’s is now a multi-million pound business. I assume the products were and are predominantly purchased by people who are not Indian. I asked a friend who comes from a Gujarati family in the Midlands about curry paste. He tells me that these are traditionally made at home and bound with oil rather than bought, referring me to the index of Yamuna’s book which talks about wet-ground masalas. Under the entry for curry powder, she talks about homemade masala blends and expresses disapproval at commercial curry powder. The recipe she gives from Tamil Nadu includes cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, fenugreek, chili, curry leaves, black peppercorns, coriander and turmeric and split urad dal. (Dal is toasted, ground and used in spice blends in south India and Sri Lanka.)

I had never encountered curry powder or jars of curry paste. They were not to be found in my mother’s collection of old jam jars filled with spices and neither were they to be found in temple kitchens, where my mother was often to be found. Curry powder is perhaps closest to garam masala, which is of course a spice blend added to cooking in addition to other spices. Masala means mix and garam means heat. The word masala generally refers to a spice blend. Occasionally I run out of garam masala and make one of the regional blends in Yamuna’s book. She details blends from Rajasthan and Delhi, (both relatively simple), the Punjab, Maharastra, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

Despite the increasing availability of imported ingredients in the 1960s, Vesta curry kits were launched by Bachelors in this decade. ‘They may have been the height of exoticism in the 1960s, but this suspiciously shiny brown goo tasted more of Worcestershire sauce than anything from the Indian subcontinent. Then again, we didn’t know any better’ (Beckett, Blythman, Ehrlich, Fort, Gluck & Protz, 2002).

While specialist shops sold products that the Indian population could not buy elsewhere, I wonder to what extent they were used by other people. It is not unusual for shops to sell a range of ethnic goods. There are many shops in London where African goods are sold alongside Indian or Turkish products. In Ireland, both North and South, Chinese food shops have substantial ranges of Indian supplies. I don’t know when it became standard for the white British population to frequent ethnic food shops. I don’t know how many people do now, whether it’s purposeful or out of convenience. Supermarkets sell ranges that previously would only have been available in Asian food shops, such as huge sacks of Tilda basmati rice and chapatti flour, to the extent that one might not need to visit another shop at all. However, the same products can be found in different sections. A pouch of dhaniya is much cheaper in the world food aisle; the ‘regular’ spice section stocks smaller and more expensive jars of ground coriander.

In Belfast we often made trips to the Vietnamese shop at the top of the Lisburn Road to stock up on Indian spices. I don’t remember there being an Indian grocer in Belfast until 2010, when one popped up at the bottom of Botanic Avenue. Moving to London, I was intrigued by the endless boxes of masalas sold in the Asian food shops. I often visited the Sri Lankan shop at the bottom of the hill where I worked. I was on smiling terms with the staff but I never told them how at home I felt in there, buying gram flour and yellow split mung dal. Many of the boxes of spice blends were fairly standard, such as sambar masala, chaat masala or rasam powder. By contrast, Khan’s Bargains in Peckham sold spice blends for Pakistani dishes along with Middle Eastern products like sumac and dried limes.

It feels rather short-sighted not to look beyond the Indian subcontinent when talking about spices. When I lived in the outer reaches of north London. I visited the Edgware Road where Lebanese, Iraqi, Persian and Afghan food could be found. Moroccan restaurants served spiced tagines along with Lebanese mezze. Yotam Ottolenghi has hugely popularised Middle Eastern cuisine with his restaurants and books. A trained French pastry chef from Israel with an Italian father and a German mother, he makes an eclectic range of mainly Middle Eastern dishes. Supermarkets now sell expensive za’atar, sumac, pomegranate molasses and barberries, which can be bought much cheaper in Middle Eastern grocers. (Asda however sells big, cheap jars of preserved lemons.) People blend their own baharat from his books and dukkah is often to be found in London restaurants. I’m left scratching my head at the bizarre dichotomy of the same ingredient being classed an overpriced middle-class luxury item yet also being afforded a lower, cheaper status in the world food aisle. Perhaps it’s what my husband calls an idiot tax…

I’ve lived in south London since 2012, where there are large Nigerian and Ghanaian communities. I feel embarrassed that I don’t know more about their food but I believe both use lots of spices and herbs, including plenty of chili. (I feel I could write an entire post about the chili and it’s journey around the world.) I realise I don’t know very much about African food (this is in itself a rather pointless statement given that it is such vast continent with so many countries and languages). I have read about rich, spicy stews from different sub-Saharan countries which have multiple, complex layers of flavour using a wide range of ingredients.

London is also home to a sizeable Caribbean population and their food is known for its jerk seasoning. There are many variations on it but it includes scotch bonnet, a very hot chili native to the Caribbean and allspice, a types of chili, named so by the English who thought it tasted of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. In addition to the spices which grow in the Caribbean, others were introduced by the Indians who were taken there by the British as indentured servants. This Indian influence has had a marked impact on Caribbean food.

My husband took me to Barbados, sneaking a sparkly ring through customs before popping the question on the beach. My favourite place to eat there was the rather simple Roti Den opposite our hotel. They did a pumpkin and potato curry wrapped up in a giant roti which reminded me of a paratha and came with a side of red hot lentil soup. The lady who ran the place got her guitar out and sang us a song from The Sound of Music.

Back in the UK, spices are an affordable everyday item, used widely. Their availability is indicative of a very multicultural society but is also a reminder of the brutality of the British empire. Current events have forced us to look at the ugly realities of legacy of the British empire, something which should have grappled with been long ago. We also have a long way to go as a society, accepting ours as a multicultural one, rather than conveniently cherry-picking aspects. Rowan Atkinson lampooned this attitude years ago in a sketch, playing a Tory MP who says, ‘Now that we have the recipe, can’t they all go home?’. My colleague, a black woman from a Jamaican family responds to these attitudes very simply: ‘No. I am here because you were there.’ A very neat summary of Empire indeed.


Beckett, F., Blythman, J., Ehrlich, R., Fort, M., Gluck M. & Protz, R. (2002) Noshtalgia Guardian article available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2002/jun/29/foodanddrink.shopping1

Collingham, E. M (2006) Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. New York: Oxford University Press

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2013) The East India Company Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/topic/East-India-Company

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2013) Spices and herbs. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/spice-food

Graber, C. and Twilley, N. (2019) The Curry Chronicles – Gastropod podcast- Available at: https://gastropod.com/the-curry-chronicles/

Henriques, M. How spices changed the ancient world. No date given. BBC article available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/made-on-earth/the-flavours-that-shaped-the-world/

Mallos, T. (2008) The Food of Morocco: A Journey for Food Lovers. London: Murdoch Books

Paniyani, P. (2008) Spicing Up Britain: A Multicultural History of British Food. London: Reaktion Books.

The History of the Spice Trade. Author and Date Unknown. Article avilable at: https://silkroadspices.ca/pages/history-of-the-spice-trade