As you explore the city of Kochi, consider this: The “Queen of the Arabian Sea,” as the port city is known, has been exporting spices for 5,000 years. For the majority of this time, the highly valued cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, pepper and turmeric were shipped out via large caravans of camels and horses. Saddled with their fragrant cargo, they followed the well-traveled Silk Road that linked China and the Middle East, history’s first global trade route. But as the trade-friendly Byzantine Empire fell to the highly territorial Ottomans in the 15th century, the Silk Road was cut off. Traders had to find another way to transport spice and other goods.
This was the dawning of the Age of Discovery. Navigators and explorers set sail from Europe’s shores in search of a sea route that would connect them to their treasured spices. In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was the first to arrive on India’s Malabar Coast, having navigated his way around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of southern Africa. Had his pioneering journey only resulted in fostering a mutually beneficial trade relationship, history would have unfolded very differently. Instead, the Portuguese – and later the Dutch and British – saw an opportunity to expand their empires. And so European dominance took root in India.
The Indian spice trade changed the world in other ways, too. Before da Gama’s voyage, Christopher Columbus set off in search of a western route to the Indies in 1492. He, of course, came upon the Americas instead. Some believe that when he met island natives in the Bahamas, he called them “Indians,” believing that he had landed in India. It’s a name that has stuck to Native Americans to this day. In 1500, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, too, stumbled on unknown shores when he tried to reproduce da Gama’s journey. He was blown off course and instead landed on the beaches of today’s Brazil, which still today exudes a rich Portuguese influence.
All of this – the accidental discovery of new worlds, monumental achievements in navigation, the growth of empires – unfolded in the name of spice. Ideas of Buddhism and Hinduism left India’s borders as tenets of Christianity arrived. Merchants needed to learn the language of their colleagues to survive. Ideas of economy, art, cuisine and customs were exchanged on a newly global scale. The international yearning for Asia’s spices transformed the world in ways pre-colonial spice farmers could not have imagined.
Black pepper was the most prized spice traded along the Malabar Coast. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, saffron, vanilla and other fragrant spices were among the countless other culinary and medicinal enhancers that left India’s shores. (Many people include curry in this list, but curry is actually a flavor achieved by the combination of several spices.)
In your Discovery Tours small group, you’ll savor the fragrances of Kochi’s spice trade and uncover more of its fascinating history when you visit a spice plantation. Stroll through fields redolent with sweet and tangy aromas and learn about the variety of ways spices are used in medicine and in cuisine. Later, you’ll visit a private home and be welcomed into your host’s kitchen for a cooking class. You’ll be transfixed as your cook transforms some of India’s most prized spices into an incredible dish that you’ll later enjoy for lunch.