Turmerics Trails

Turmerics Trails

Turmeric has left its saffron-colored trail across the globe. It curves and meanders through Africa in the form of dyes, Europe as food coloring, and almost every spice rack at the corner stores as a condiment. The story of how it has managed to percolate to isolated towns and cities across continents is the story of trade. A story that began close to 4000 years ago.[1]

While the origin of Turmeric is estimated to be South Asian, its precise source of origin remains a mystery. The different indigenous varietals across Indonesia and India still cause heated debates as to which came first. Some reports claim Turmeric to have made its way from Cochinchina (modern-day Vietnam) to North-East India owing to Buddhist Monks and ancient tribes that traversed the rough terrain.[2] The rhizome was a handy cure to maladies one encountered on rough transcontinental journeys, and also acted as a preservative for food when resources were scarce. The spice was immortalized by the words of Marco Polo in 1280 CE, who described Turmeric as a vegetable “akin to saffron but is not actually saffron”, during his travels via the Silk Route.[3]

Spice Routes as old as 2000 BCE led spices from Asia to their new homes in the Middle East.[4] The Arabs were the primary proponents of the spice traveling westwards. They began trading treasured spices in dried form at handsome prices, among other fineries. They weaved mythical and magical stories that made customers wary of searching for the source of inception and let these tales drive up the prices.[5] While the spice trade for Turmeric was aided by land routes, the sea was the catalyst that broke down the trade barriers. Turmeric had made its way to East Africa by the 8th Century CE via traditional sailing vessels known as dhows, which were used by traders. It was further traded inland by bedouin and Jewish traders through caravan routes.[6]

In Europe, the Republic of Venice controlled most of the spice trade, yet the Arabs pivoted power with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE.[7] The Arabs levied heavy taxes that led to traders seeking new routes to bring spices from the East to the West. This led to European superpowers seeking the origin of these spices, carrying expeditions to find the provenance of these mythical and obscure commodities. One of these expeditions included the voyage that consummated with Vasco Da Gama’s arrival on the shores of Calicut, Kerala in 1498 CE - one that shaped much of India’s commerce for the next few centuries.[8]

Back in Europe, Turmeric and other spices were looked at as luxurious ingredients that signaled wealth and opulence.[9] The spices, with their exotic scents and medicinal properties, were highly valued. This trend remains to date, with a larger population seeking to lay their hands on spices that add layers of complexity and flavor to their food.

Today, spices flow with ease among countries. Cultivators vary from small family-run farms to larger firms, that strive to meet incrementally higher demand. The spice is so interwoven with culinary behaviors, that it stirred an unusual trade problem in Sri Lanka recently. The country had lately banned the import of spices to promote local industries. However, the country’s production doesn’t yet meet self-sufficiency levels, and the demand for Turmeric reached astronomical heights in lieu of the COVID pandemic. Hence, illegal sea routes from the Indian coast earlier used for spurious substances are now utilized for a burgeoning black market for Turmeric.[10]

A glimpse of our present gives a broader insight into the tempestuous past of Turmeric. Its history is one that is speckled with conflict within the European empires, religious warfare, exploitation, colonialism and illegal trade. Yet, the spices in some way have managed to unite cuisines and food from all continents by a common thread. Ahead, we shall see how the world of spices remains one who’s future seems as tumultuous as its past.


[1] "spice trade | Description, History, & Facts | Britannica." https://www.britannica.com/topic/spice-trade. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.
[2] "Turmeric: The genus Curcuma - P. N. Ravindran - Routledge." https://www.routledge.com/Turmeric-The-genus-Curcuma/Ravindran-Babu-Sivaraman/p/book/9780849370342. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.
[3] "The Agronomy and Economy of Turmeric and Ginger ...." https://www.sciencedirect.com/book/9780123948014/the-agronomy-and-economy-of-turmeric-and-ginger. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.
[4] "What are the Spice Routes? | Silk Roads Programme - Unesco." https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/content/what-are-spice-routes. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.
[5] "Spice Trade: How spices changed the ancient world - BBC.com." https://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/made-on-earth/the-flavours-that-shaped-the-world/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.
[6] "Tumeric | Silk Routes - The International Writing Program." https://iwp.uiowa.edu/silkroutes/tumeric. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.
[7] "The Medieval Spice Trade: Digital Collections for the Classroom." 31 Aug. 2017, https://dcc.newberry.org/collections/the-medieval-spice-trade. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.
[8] "What really happened when Vasco Da Gama set foot in India." 5 Dec. 2015, https://scroll.in/article/773707/what-really-happened-when-vasco-da-gama-set-foot-in-india. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.
[9] "A Brief History of the Spice Trade - Magazine- Piccantino ...." 10 Aug. 2015, https://www.piccantino.com/info/magazine/a-brief-history-of-the-spice-trade. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.
[10] "The illegal spice route to Sri Lanka- The New Indian Express." https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/editorials/2020/nov/13/the-illegal-spice-route-to-sri-lanka-2223179.html. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.


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