A WORLD OF THE EXOTIC
The origins of different spices season our understanding of their broader medicinal use
Spices. The word conjures up thoughts of mystery and magic, of exotic locations and great adventure. Spices have been important for centuries as medicinal potions, in perfumes, in cooking, and even as poisons. The history of the spice trade is long and evocative, shrouded in drama and danger. It is a tale of great daring and exploration to unknown, distant places — and of great reward.
The spice trade dates back to the Middle Ages (AD700-1000), when it was controlled by Muslim merchants.
By the 16th century it had become the most important commercial enterprise of the old world, equivalent perhaps to the gold rush in 19th-century Australia or the thirst for oil today.
The voyages of the Venetian Marco Polo to China in the 13th century, of Vasco da Gama to India and Christopher Columbus in the 15th century, and of Ferdinand Magellan in the early 16th century were quests for routes to facilitate the spice trade.
Trade along the spice route was dominated by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th century and by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries. Spices are produced from the buds, seeds, berries and bark of a plant; the leafy parts become herbs. Crucial today as flavouring for a great range of cuisines from different parts of the world, spices should be kept in airtight jars, away from light and heat, to preserve their all-important aroma and flavour.
Many of the spices we use today are derived from species native to Sri Lanka, many of which are grown in the Sirilak Spice and Herbal Garden at Matale in central Sri Lanka, 38km north of the ancient capital of Kandy. No chemicals are used in the garden, we were assured.
All the plants are helpfully marked and a pamphlet gives you instructions for growing and use. Our guide, Kamil Jayalth, explains that the garden follows the ayurvedic system of holistic medicine.
A Sanskrit word meaning “science of life”, ayurveda is said to be the oldest system of holistic medicine in the world, dating back more than 7000 years. “Ayurveda is a traditional system of healing with plants and herbs to improve various functions including respiration, circulations and digestion,” Jayalth says.
Among several dozen different species in the garden, the indigenous cinnamon ( Cinnamomum zeylani
cum), part of the laurel family, grows to about 10m in height. The bark from this tree is dried to provide the spice. “Take bark off by taking the branch; massage the branch, then it rolls off like a cigar,” Jayalth explains.
Pure oil of cinnamon, which is extracted from the aromatic inner bark of the tree, is used to assist in the relief of tinnitus. “Put two drops on a cotton bud,” advises Jayalth. “Or put on pillow.” Gargle with a few drops in a small amount of water for a sore throat.
Chocolate is produced at Matale from two crops of cocoa annually. The potassium-rich pods, pulled by hand, are opened and the nuts sun-dried, roasted and crushed to make chocolate and cocoa butter.
Turmeric ( Curcuma domestica), which grows wild in large clumps of bright green canna-like leaves along the sides of the road as you wind from the plains of India to the high country of Darjeeling in the Himalayan region, is cultivated at Matale.
Many of the spices we use today are derived from species native to Sri Lanka
A member of the ginger family, turmeric is important in curries: the bright orange rhizomes are harvested once the foliage has died down.
Turmeric, I am told “is very good for anti-cancer and joints”.
Another member of the ginger family, cardamom ( Elettaria cardamomum), is native to regions in the East, including Sri Lanka, and is used in curries.
Important in a country where mosquitoes thrive, citronella oil is extracted from the foliage of a Sri Lankan species of grass, Cymbopogon spp., and is used worldwide as an insect repellent and disinfectant. Application of the oil directly on the skin can stop itching after an insect bite. The fragrance of the curry plant, Helichrysum itali
cum — a member of the Asteraceae, or daisy, family — hangs in the air throughout Sri Lanka.
The oil extracted from the yellow blossom is said to reduce joint inflammation and skin rashes. Despite its common name, it is a mixture of spices, rather than this plant, that is used in preparing curries.
The aloe, Alovera saponaria, is used to alleviate sun-
burn. “Also, our beauty cream uses it with white rose, jasmine, cucumber and avocado,” according to Jayalth.
We take vanilla for granted, although it was unknown to the world until about 500 years ago. A green fleshy pod, with no flavour or aroma, is harvested from the climbing orchid Vanilla planifolia and must be cured over a three-month period by heating, which activates an enzyme that provides the flavour.
The black pods are then left to dry in the sun for a further month. Vanilla is native to Mexico, although it is now cultivated in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India.
If you buy the richly scented vanilla as the pod rather than as the liquid extract, split it open to reveal the tiny seeds. Scrape the seeds and mix with a little sugar before using to flavour sweet treats. Then enjoy!
Cocoa pods growing in the Sirilak Spice and Herbal Garden at Matale in Sri Lanka; vanilla plants, far left; a garden walkway, bottom left