Spices

Spices are the taste, the aroma -the ‘all’ in a sense- of many dishes. As life is impossible without food, so is food unthinkable without spices...

Unbeknownst to each other, people in different parts of the world have been creating different styles of cuisine for centuries. The primary factor in the differences among these cuisines has been the climate of the region in which their creators lived. Other factors were shaped by the various periods. But the true determinant was what nature and geography had to offer in those regions. While people in some parts of the globe eat only meat and fish, in others they confine themselves to vegetables and legumes. And while people in some regions consume nothing but seafood, some perhaps never even got a chance to deplete their fish stocks.In the preparation of this diversity of dishes, the spices were also used entirely independently of each other. Different methods of spicing perhaps, but all to the same end: more flavor!

THE MEANING OF LIFE
Spices today are used only to enhance the natural flavor of the food. But thousands of years ago it was a little different. It make strike us as strange today, but all of life was based on spices back then. Pepper (peppercorns in particular), cinnamon, nutmeg (muscat) and ginger were the backbone of trade of many an empire, often resulting in wars that lasted centuries, influencing the spread of the monotheistic religions, determining the wealth and position of the nobility and, most importantly of all, sparking the European Renaissance. Over the centuries mankind also made extensive use of herbs and spices for purposes of health and beauty.

GASTRONOMICALLY SPEAKING
Just as life without food is impossible, so is food without spices unthinkable. Spices are part and parcel of our lives. Nevertheless it is extremely difficult to define spices from the gastronomical standpoint. They are usually obtained from plants that grow in tropical or subtropical climates, specifically from the dried leaves, roots, seeds or skins of those plants or their fruits. The fresh leaves of such aromatic plants on the other hand are known as herbs. Consequently, books and studies on spices usually shy away from strict definitions.

THE SPICE ROAD
The peoples who inhabited an area stretching from the Adriatic as far as China were responsible for a significant chunk of world history. And just as the silk and spice trade that developed along this route constituted the backbone of the economic system, so did it influence world politics and cultures.

Spices such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and vanilla bean were brought to Europe from points in the East following a long journey over lands ruled by a number of different states. The routes used had to be changed from time to time. Products brought to the shores of western India and transported by ship to the Persian Gulf were distributed from there to the Mediterranean.

Even though the spices that reached Europe at the end of this long and arduous journey, during which they changed hands several times, came at quite a cost, trade in them was nevertheless intensive. For the consumption of spicy aromatic food was fashionable among the aristocracy, and spices were also believed to have significant therapeutic value.

With the decline of the Roman Empire and the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans, the Silk Road’s influential role in history came to an end. When the cost of overland trade reached intolerable proportions for the Europeans, they sought and discovered sea routes to India and other islands. This was followed by the discovery of the New World. Many new foodstuffs reached the New World from the Old and vice-versa, and it was man on the spice trail who brought about the Renaissance.

INDISPENSABLE INGREDIENT OF IMPERIAL CUISINES
Spices were used extensively in the cuisines of the Roman Empire especially, and extremely complicated and heavy spicing is encountered in the Roman recipes that have come down to us today. Spices also enjoyed uncommon favor in medieval western cuisines. But such unusual and strong tastes were not actually pleasing to traditional European palates, and Europeans eventually abandoned the extensive use of spices.

The Turkish people, however, from the day they appeared on the stage of history have always lived in the world’s spice region, and the use of spices was therefore traditional in Turkish cuisine, even though spices were never allowed to overpower the actual taste of the main ingredient.

The chefs of the Ottoman palace kitchens especially created magnificent yet delicate flavors by making expert use of aromatic spices, and a culinary synthesis was forged  from the spices of the Mediterranean and the Far East. The active ingredients here were ‘sakız’ (gum mastic) and cinnamon. Although these two spices are not used today outside a couple of milk pudding recipes, in Ottoman cuisine they were an inseparable duo used to flavor meat, fish, chicken and pilaff dishes. Discreet spicing is an art requiring special skill. The priciest dish in the world can be ruined by over-spicing. Some spices are indispensable; others a matter of preference. But spices always constitute the taste, color, smell and flavor, in short the magic, of any dish.