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Village Food & Drink

The story of spice

Posted on September 22 2010 at 3:15:12 0 comments

Traditional spices for sale

Village reader and spice connoisseur Lubna S Haq traces the development of the modern curry.

Would you believe that spice first came over to England as far back as the 14th century, in 1309. It was in the court of King Richard II that his palace cooks produced the first English recipe book The Forme of Curry

In the King’s cookbook there was a dish of chicken stew that contained spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander, cumin and saffron – most of these ingredients are used in a korma today.

The journey of spice from the subcontinent of India to Britain can be traced to the 15th century when the Persians were, and had been for a century, the keepers of the spice trade and controlled the price and the flow of spices. 

At the beginning of the 16th century a Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, sailed into the Indian port of Calicut on the coast of Malabar and the Portuguese took control of this very lucrative spice trade. Thereafter the Europeans started journeys across the seas in their search of spices and the Dutch, the French and eventually the British set up trading posts in India.

In 1599 a group of London Merchants formed the East India Company to gain a foothold in the spice trade.

A young Indian employee of the East India Company, Sake Dean Mahomet, worked from 1769 with an Irish Officer, Captain Godfrey Evan Baker. Mahomet travelled extensively with the Irish Officer, and when Baker returned to Ireland Mahomet came with him.

Later Mahomet moved to London. He noticed the demand for Indian food in London and so established The Hindoostan Coffee House. Just a few dishes of Indian food were served to begin with but it eventually became very popular.

A wealth of herbs and spices are primarily used to flavour dishes. Amongst the many spices that are used in Indian cookery, some are more commonly used in different combinations. A recognised group of spices is “garam masala”, an aromatic blend of spices that are dry roasted and then ground to powder form.

Ready-made garam masala can be bought in all Asian grocery stores and supermarkets, however when the spices are ground at home it remains fresher for longer if kept in an airtight container.  Garam masala is added at the beginning of cooking and/or sprinkled over the dish at the end to enhance the subtle flavour to release the wonderful aroma. It should be used in small quantities. The ‘garam masala’ spices are used whole when cooking pilau rice and biriyani.

Whilst the blend of garam masala varies from region to region in Asia, a basic recipe comprises: cumin seeds, black cardamoms, green cardamoms, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, black peppercorns and coriander seeds.

From the King’s table of 1309, curry today has become as popular as Britain’s national dish, fish and chips, with 9,000 curry restaurants in the UK and a turnover of over £3.2 billion a year.


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