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Spices Have Made, and Unmade, Empires (nytimes.com)
145 points by pseudolus 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 115 comments





> In the West, we’re prone to taking what isn’t ours and acting as if we discovered it, conveniently forgetting its history and context.

Can any culture claim a flavor as “theirs” and get angry at other cultures for tasting it? Such throwaway comments have been commonplace in the NYT and I don’t understand their purpose. The whole world likes good flavor, let’s not gatekeep it, I’d rather we unite the world through food than make it yet another divisive force.


How easily you equalize "get angry" with creating colonies, destroy and rule other countries for hundreds of years. This is exactly an example of "conveniently forgetting its history and context".

a) The west was not unique in this (colonizing, destruction, slavery)

b) I'm fine with mentioning this clearly, and putting it into context.

But it seems there is a desire to create some kind of original sin and appoint that to all members of the west and it's accomplishments and start every conversation from that context.

I don't believe we should merit or de-merit races and cultures today based on their past, but rather look to the future and the new unified cultural world we might create.


When that context figures a good deal into why a land is poor and its former colonial master is rich, this attitude is mostly patronizing. Particularly when being poor means an unsafe environment, hunger and abject poverty.

When the West pays reparations is when we can act as if everyone is on equal footing.


> When the West pays reparations is when we can act as if everyone is on equal footing.

Except we won't be. Even if the west pays trillions to Africa we won't suddenly be equal economically. So How much? Like do you have a practical implementation or proposal. And who do you give the money to in dictatorships?

Or what about colony refugees or descendants who now reside in the west. Should we tax differently based on race to offset the initial sins?

How far back do you go? Reparations on a national scale is a completely impractical idea, and will not actually aid the people you imagine.

The money would be better spent on integrating the world, creating more trade, and indeed sending a lot of money to the old colonies. Just not under the marker of colonial restitution, which is actually patronizing.


I'm not trying to blame people who live now or decide how this should be fixed, I'm only pointing that it is much bigger and deeper issue to be described as lightly as in "got angry". I should have worded it better.

Also, could you give some examples of colonies which were not related to European countries?


Dude all civilizations have conquered other people and taken their land/resources. That's how they attained being a civilization. Human history was brutal up until and even including now. So we can try to do our best to move past that, you can see what happens when people never move past past wrongs: Israel vs Palestinians.

The Mongols were legit from the asian steppes and completely ransacked people over thousands of square miles.

The Japanese were mainland asians that almost wiped out the existing Ainu people of the island of Japan.

In Africa, the west africans from the denses jungles took over much of the drier land of the south, where the indigeneous bush people lived.


> look to the future and the new unified cultural world we might create

Fully agree.

So, who discovered America?


According to books, Columbus discovered America and eventually killed all the Native Americans who were living there for generations and got all the Europeans to come and settle in America

In the West, we’re prone to taking what isn’t ours and acting as if we discovered it, conveniently forgetting its history and context.

If there were already people there, wouldn’t that mean that it had already been discovered? Or is your post supposed to be read as satirical? Sry if I’m misunderstanding here.


Great examples.

Surprised it overlooks salt, especially as it mentions "Spices were among the first engines of globalization". The salt mines in the Salzburg ("Salt Fortress" or "Salt Castle"!!) were operating 7000 years ago and have been a considerable source of the areas riches, starting with the Celtic population trading to Greeks and Romans.

Salt played a role in both the American and the French revolutions:

https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2013/04/24/salt-works-established...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabelle#French_Revolution


I recently visited Wielikzca outside Krakow (look up photos, it's ridiculous). Poland's prosperity is largely owed to salt as well.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wieliczka_Salt_Mine



Salt was more of a symbol in that case, similar to Tea for American independence.

British did buid a 1100km salt wall to effectively implement the salt tax in India.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/colonial-india-british...


So much so that there appears to be persistent belief that the word "salary" is derived from "sel" (salt): http://kiwihellenist.blogspot.com/2017/01/salt-and-salary.ht... .

This blog post does not dispute the broad consensus that salarium comes from sal and that salarium was used to designate salary or emolument. It only tries to dispute the idea that people were paid in salt.

I'm south indian, and I routinely cook with at least 8 - 10 spices. Most common are the whole garam masala (bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, mustard and turmeric)

The Spice Melange ...

While cocaine, opium, and others are considered "drugs" - they are in a sensible sense spices too.


Opium is exactly how Alexander "the Great" kept his army marching...likely it wasn't his original idea.

I don't know about refined cocaine, but coca leaf (either chewed or boiled as a tea) has been part consumed by the people of the Andes for thousands of years.


off-topic: If you like reading about the historical use of the coca leaf, opium, tea, tobacco, khat, coffee, etc, I really recommend the 1855 book "Plant Intoxicants". The book describes both historical and contemporary usage, but owing to its publication date it's all historical now.

Same thing with chewing tobacco, its a stimulant and used by people all over the world

You can buy this in most of this countries legally.

I love coca tea and coca wine.


Real coca leaves? I don't think so, whole plant is banned basically everywhere apart from few places in South america. Unless you mean something altered that has no real cocaine alkaloid, like drinks with marihuana 'extracts' / seeds that contain 0% THC.

Not that I agree with this, had my share of teas and chew in Bolivia (with what locals called 'activator', at least thats how miners did it in Potosi), apart from local lack of sense in gum/jaw there wasn't any real effect... no more than a regular coffee (which doesn't have any tangible effect on me, but I enjoy the taste & ritual).

But from plant you can make cocaine, so I get the logic. Funny thing is, some botanical gardens in Europe have the plant, not marked in any obvious way apart from latin name. I can confirm that it contained alkaloid, the numbing gum sensation was quite strong.


Instead of just food, they add flavour to life itself :) Nutmeg is even better, doing both at once (as noted in the article).

Jokes aside, reading that article with all the examples of the scarcity and cost of spices it brought to my mind the modern day trade of various drugs.


Not sure if I'm missing some kind of pop reference here, but taking this comment at face value... how are cocaine or opium considered "spices"?

Surely spices are for, well, spicing food?

I'm not sure if you've ever tasted cocaine or opium, but I'm told they are not at all pleasant - definitely not the kind of thing you'd add to food to improve flavour.



Hah, I loved reading the Dune books as a kid, but had forgotten the name "melange", only remembering it as "spice"!

Cocaine comes from coca leaves. If you have ever had a Coca Cola, you have tasted extract from the coca leaf, though with the cocaine (hallucinogen) removed.

Opium is found in poppy seeds which are used to top bread. Some US military members will refrain from eating bread with poppy seeds because it can cause them to fail random drug tests required by military service. This can potentially get you booted with a dishonorable discharge.


Hmm, so, I somewhat take your point about opium, although the flavour of poppy seeds is vastly different from the bitter taste of opium.

I've tried coca leaves in Peru (supposedly they help with altitude sickness; I didn't get altitude sickness, but who knows!) - they are used by locals because they are a stimulant, not because they taste nice (they're not particularly bad, a kind of generic "herbal" taste, but certainly nothing you'd purposely add for flavour).


Lots of people drink coffee for the caffeine and don't actually enjoy the flavor. Chocolate is quite bitter if you don't add a bunch of sugar to it.

Do they though?

Everyone I know who doesn't like coffee drinks tea (or more rarely yerba mata).

> Chocolate is quite bitter if you don't add a bunch of sugar to it

But it does at least have a very desirable flavour when some sugar is added (it really doesn't need "a bunch" :)

Opium is like the essence of bitterness - in flavour terms, it had no redeemable qualities whatsoever.


Cocaine isn't a hallucinogen, it's a stimulant.

Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant that can, under some conditions, be a halucinogen.

https://www.answers.com/Q/Is_cocaine_a_hallucinogen_stimulan...

It was originally part of the Coca Cola formula and was removed because it is the psychoactive ingredient. They still use coca extract in Coca Cola, but it no longer makes you high.

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/cocaine-coca-cola/


It was removed due to cost and caffiene being more stimulating, and addictive. Looming regulations also played a part.

The amount in cola, or in any generally unrefined state, aka, not powder, is highly unlukely to have any psychoactive effects.


Unrefined coca is less stimulating. Seeing as refined cocaine was being used in products marketed to infants and children and well understood (by professionals at least) to be fantastically habit forming, I think the pivot to caffeine was somewhere between 99-100% influenced by the impending narcotics regulations.

And professionals who are around medicines. And pilots. And people in other jobs subject to random testing (refinery/powerplant crews).

Why would they use such a sloppy test to justify a dishonorable discharge? Surely you must have some other priors...

"The Spice Melange" is a reference to the last episode of south park. Season 23, Episode 8 - "Turd Burglars"

It's a reference to Frank Herbert's Dune. Fantastic read, and you should get to it when you have time.

It's of course a reference to Dune but given the fact that the episode with this joke aired just days ago, there's quite a chance that OP was making a reference to South Park's "spice melange" (shit)

Could be either.

“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

brain spices.

The spice must flow.

I never could get into history in school, but I love the idea of looking at history through the lens of one particular item and find it more interesting. I know of (https://www.amazon.com/Debt-Updated-Expanded-First-Years/dp/...). Any others that people here would recommend?

You would love this book: At Home by Bill Bryson (https://www.amazon.com/At-Home-Short-History-Private/dp/0767...)

It explores history through the lens of everyday objects in the home (even fixtures like windows, and spaces like your foyer)

A little slow to start, but then it never stops entertaining


Add to the list the list everything else by Bill Bryson and you'll not put your kindle down for months.

Your comment and the Amazon preview just made a sale here. Thanks for pointing it out.

My favourite of this genre -

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0099268701/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_...


This is one of my favorites as well!

https://amazon.com/dp/0140092331

Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power


"A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World" by William Bernstein provides a sweeping overview of world trade - including spices [0].

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Splendid-Exchange-Trade-Shaped-World/...



This is in my opinion the best book about modern history. You can easily catch up with stuff you missed:

https://www.amazon.de/Rise-Fall-Great-Powers/dp/0679720197

This book was written in 1989 and was already skeptical about the stability of the soviet union and also thought what might happen to Ukraine if the the USSR disintegrates (attracted to EU/EC).


You would love "A History of the World in Six Glasses".

While not exactly one item, Sapiens looks at history from the perspective of human shared fictions and is a good read https://www.amazon.com/product-reviews/B00ICN066A

you should read some of Giles Milton's books: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29386.Nathaniel_s_Nutmeg and https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/411475.White_Gold are good ones to start with

Mark Kurlansky has a few, Salt being the most well known.

It's funny. Using today's language to judge that time, one might say: "I can't believe the greatest minds of our generation are focusing on making some fat man's food taste nicer".

Plenty of tech companies add no more value and are celebrted. Its all the persuit of wealth.

What if I told you the fat man was rich?

That reminds me of the fact that the Romans used lead as a sweetener in their water, which probably didn't help them out much, either...

Do you mean they did that actively (using lead as an added sweetener)or was it passively (by proxy though the vessels they used)?

They made sweet drinks by using lead vessels to store wine/vinegar with acetic acid in it. That created lead acetate; sweet and toxic.

I'm sure it started accidentally but was continued because it magically turned shitty sour wine into sweet wine.

A side note; we still actively use artificial sweeteners from petrochemical sources.


Dunno if lead acetate is/was sweet, or the lead just scavenged the acetic acid that was making the wine bad.

Wikipedia[1] says:

Lead(II) acetate (Pb(CH3COO)2), also known as lead acetate, lead diacetate, plumbous acetate, sugar of lead, lead sugar, salt of Saturn, or Goulard's powder, is a white crystalline chemical compound with a sweet taste.

So clearly (?) it would add a sweet taste, regardless of how much of the acid was chemically consumed.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead(II)_acetate


Lead acetate. The original, all natural, sugar free sweetener.

Actively. IIRC, they would sweeten wine with lead.

Lead/lead-coated vessels were used in preparation and/or storage to deliberately affect the taste.

I'm always a little shocked when I remember how rare spices used to be for much of the world. Even salt was a valuable commodity for an extremely long time.

I've been going the other way recently. How could it have been so tough to flavor dishes? Honey & frankincense might have been hard to come by, but oregano, basil, cilantro/coriander, cumin, parsley, anise, fennel, rosemary, tarragon, dill, chives, mint, and thyme (just off the top of my head) were all available in southern Europe and can mostly be grown in your kitchen.

The spice trade brought cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, black pepper, and turmeric.


Herbs vs spices. Herbs are great but most of my favorite dishes involve a lot more spices than herbs.

You forgot to explain what you think the difference between herbs and spices is.

> Herbs generally refers to the leafy green or flowering parts of a plant (either fresh or dried), while spices are usually dried and produced from other parts of the plant, including seeds, bark, roots and fruits.

People confused can look up the definition of herbs and spices.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herb


From the article:

>Where herbs are often chosen to complement and flatter the ingredients they adorn, spices call attention to themselves, transforming and sometimes even usurping a dish, so it becomes a mere vehicle and excuse for spice itself.


So, according to the two responses here, the difference between herbs and spices is either:

1. Spices have a strong flavor, whereas herbs have a weak flavor;

or

2. Herbs are a leaf, flower, or non-woody stem, whereas spices are any other part of a plant.

All I can conclude here is that it's nonsensical to try to explain something in terms of a contrast between "herbs" and "spices".


Both are true. Herbs do have a much milder flavor than spices on the whole and they're from different plant parts! There are multiple ways to classify things.

Southern Europe, yes, but in Scandinavia, pretty much the only widely available & used native herb was dill.

And that’s how we got Aquavit: dill (or caraway) flavoured Scandinavian spirits.

Similarly (and unsurprisingly, given that many are made from spices), pigments. I recently read "The Secret Lives of Color" by Kasia St. Clair, and its pretty remarkable what has been required to produce various pigments throughout history, and the costs associated with doing so.

I'm guessing salt was only valuable for land-locked countries. Any country with a sea could just add some sea water to their cooking to get salt

Transporting any significant quantity of sea water would have been a serious challenge to the ancient world, even just from the shore in to the middle of a port city. The easiest way to transport water is downhill, which, alas, doesn't work so well if you're starting from sea level.

You can get water from the seashore just by evaporating it. It's simple, effective, and was done. But it's a lot more convenient to swing a pick and get a chunk of salt the size of your hand, rather than secure somewhere to evaporate off water, load it up, wait for it to evaporate, and collect it. It's the same reason we're stuck on fossil fuels... it's not that they're the only method we have for obtaining energy, it's just that nothing else can compete with putting in 1 unit of energy and getting back 80 or 90.


"For a society without trains or trucks, moving bulk materials of any kind over long distances is extraordinarily expensive. Moving grain overland, for instance, would cause its cost to double after 100 miles."

(https://acoup.blog/2019/07/12/collections-the-lonely-city-pa...)


Salt was used to cure and preserve meat, and not just for flavoring

Salt differs from other spices in a couple obvious ways:

1. It is a rock, not a biological product.

2. It is not used primarily for flavoring (though salt in specific has a strong flavor) -- it is a vital nutrient in its own right.

With the exception of the flavoring, it has those things in common with iron, and iron and salt are the two commodities which were always widely traded, even in areas which engaged in almost no nonlocal trade.


It was valuable everywhere because it was used for more than just flavoring and even if it was just for flavoring some things you would want to add salt to you don't want to also add water to. Salt water also comes with all the microbial content that would make long term storage and transport difficult.

Just because you're on the coast doesn't mean you have ideal salt producing capabilities.

And mines in Austria or the Himalayas can produce lots of salt, too.


Is nobody going to mention how beautifully it was written? Surprising erudition and style.

As anyone who ever played Civilization very well knows :-)

We all play civilization.

I never played

You’re doing it now.

Looks like a good argument that production drives history.

Rephrased:

Humanities desire to alter the things we eat has changed the face of the planet and affected billions of lives.


Spies also :)

When you eat a dorito you are tasting more spices than the average medieval peasant consumed in a lifetime.

I have a theory that dorito powder is the most sophisticated product designed by humankind, as measured by the hours invested in its development by who knows how many scientists and engineers. An OS kernel might have more, but I'm not sure.

(totally speaking out of my ass with no evidence here) I feel like there's probably some bureaucratic enterprise software company out there that's put more man hours into a horribly architected CRUD app than most OS kernels.

Although that was somewhat your point. Doritos are much better than CRUD apps too.


Does it gain extra points for being written in SAP and running on an Oracle database? With a Business Objects data interface?

Only if it comes with a complete set of UML diagrams, including the XKCD-style ones.

Homemade doritos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrkL9e2w7gQ

(or rather: gourmet doritos)


doritos are basically a physical support structure for umami delivery. It's basically taste science optimization: (https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013...)

It's not as if they weren't flavoring their food, just that we don't count those flavorings as "spices". Most of the plant flavorings native to Europe tend to be considered to be herbs.

Although, it's not exactly consistent as cloves should probably be referred to as herbs instead of spices, since it's the flower being harvested.


More added salt, sugar, and fat too, and less fiber than nearly any plant food of theirs, probably.

> But Americans do [use turmeric] having suddenly and belatedly awakened to turmeric’s health benefits, some 3,000 years after they were first set down in the Atharva Veda, one of Hinduism’s foundational sacred texts.

And there goes my interest in reading the rest of the article. Why continue to read what is supposedly a history piece if it opens with pseudoscience? How am I supposed to trust that it's not pseudohistory as well?

cf. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/190/43/E1270


Please don't take HN threads on generic flamewar tangents. They're boring, and we want interesting.

To get interesting, focus on what tickles curiosity rather than what triggers rage.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


That makes no sense. I understand not wanting to take the article at face value, but the link provided doesn't exactly provide any details of their study either.

> How am I supposed to trust that it's not pseudohistory as well?

Because this part of the article is actually verifiable history. The Atharva Veda exists and available to grok. The science part is up for debate. You can still read an article for its other merits


I think that statement is meant to set the historical context rather than promote pseudoscience...

Later in the article:

>even as the health benefits of curcumin remain unproven beyond a few preliminary clinical trials that suggest its potential as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant


I really don't get what you are complaining about here; you appear to take issue with a reference to an ancient Indian text - a verifiable fact that the text exists.

Beyond that, there is a wealth of good evidence about curcumin, the main curcuminoid in turmeric - it has been shown that curcumin has antiinflammatory effects and can reduce blood glucose levels.


How is that pseudo-history? The history part is undisputed.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-turmeric-became-a-...


I think the article is a great example of what happens when American attitudes get applied to Eastern traditions. Turmeric with black pepper in milk has long been a traditional "comfort drink" in India. Does it work? I think it does, but not in the sense that there is a specific chemical that is causing a specific response that can cure something like aortic inflammation. The concept of a "health benefit" in Indian families is "drink this and rest it will make you feel good and get healthy soon." The American approach, described in the article, is to find that Kerala turmeric has 6% curcumin compared to Tamil Nadu's 3%, and wow Nicaragua is at 7.9% so let's get a bunch of that and have it every day and it will control our aortic inflammation! and that's just too much to ask of turmeric.

Just because a homeopathy is a charlatan field doesn’t mean all of it is pseudoscience. Ayurveda has some scientifically validated remedies. If you remember, yoga used to be considered a sham until we started discovering a lot of what was claimed turned out to be true.

[flagged]


Thank you for getting the obligatory Dune reference in this thread out of the way.

I really wonder how come Europeans are so violent?



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