We daresay that adventure and not variety is the spice of life. In other words, adventure; that feeling of doing the unusual and the daring, is the special ingredient with the potential to enrich our overall quality of life. Adventure is to life what spice is to food. The willingness to experience life’s adventures does not always translate into openness towards trying new foods. There are people who would happily go bungee jumping but whose culinary experiences remain restricted to the safety of what they are used to. There is one potential solution to this unenthusiastic attitude towards food adventurism. Spices! Spices have the ability to open the mind (as well as the palate of course) to new culinary experiences.
In a sense, learning to use spices (fresh or dried) in cooking helps to challenge and expand our cultural boundaries while providing a richer culinary experience. A savory meal of pulao rice cooked with cinnamon sticks, cumin, cloves, and black cardamom will transport even the most hesitant to the vast tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya or the windy beaches of Negombo, Sri Lanka. The ability of spices to extend and expand cultural and culinary boundaries dates back to the origins of the spice trade itself. The global spice trade was once a backdrop for many historical encounters including the revelation of many ancient civilizations to Europeans by Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. At different points in history, the utility of spices for flavouring, food preservation, medicine and fashion increased their commodity value beyond that of gold.
From the overland Silk Road to the Ocean Spice Trade routes, the struggle for their control was often a key driver for changes in the balance in world trade and a factor in the establishment and decimation of empires. It was once said that “He who is lord of Malacca (an ancient Malaysian spice trade hub) has his hand on the throat of Venice.” With many of the world’s most famous spices long associated with nations and territories around Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the very mention of spices conjures the image of the exotic. For example Zanzibar, an island state off the coast of East Africa, was once the world’s leading producer of cloves. Other examples include nutmeg (Banda Islands, Indonesia), saffron (Iran) and black pepper (Malabar, South India). There are many islands in the world that bear the title ‘Spice Island’. Of particular interest is Sri Lanka. Until recently, Sri Lanka was little more than a transit stop for travellers to the luxurious islands of the Maldives. Formerly known as Ceylon and located in South Asia, this Indian Ocean island nation has for many generations lived in the shadow of India, her economically stronger, north westerly neighbor.
Now peaceful, after emerging from a thirty year civil war that ended in 2009, the government of Sri Lanka is looking to rebuild and modernize the economy. However, with technology, tourism and large infrastructure development projects being the main economic policy focus of the current government in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s spice industry, the tenth largest in the world, has somewhat taken a backseat. Notwithstanding, Sri Lanka remains a significant contributor to the global spice market. Her rich soil and agreeable climate allow spices such as cinnamon, pepper, cloves, cardamoms, nutmeg, mace and vanilla to thrive across the island. According to the Sri Lanka Export Development Board, as of 2016, approximately 56% of Sri Lankan agricultural exports consist of spices with cinnamon being the largest.
Regardless of the debatable contribution of spices to Sri Lanka’s export economy, the more significant discussion surrounds their impact to Sri Lankan cuisine and food adventurism. Apart from the surfing, wildlife and history, no visit to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to a local spice farm. As she rebuilds her economy, Sri Lanka is proving to be the place where food and adventure collide to provide a sensory experience. Sri Lankan food itself consists of staples such as curry powder, rice, rice flour, flatbreads and coconut milk and draws influences from Sri Lanka’s historical South Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, Arabic and British interactions. Compared to the more globally famous North Indian cuisine, Sri Lankan cuisine is lighter and combines complex yet complementary flavors thanks to the generous use of herbs and spices.
British author, traveller and Chef Jon Lewin in his extraordinary book titled: The Locals Cookbook, features vibrant recipes which he learned and developed during his extensive travels across SriLanka.
He says that at first, he found the sheer amount of spices in the dishes to be an assault on the senses but soon, his taste buds adapted. That process of adaptation birthed his love affair with Sri Lankan cuisine, a passion exemplified in his doit yourself, twelve spice roasted curry powder recipe. This recipe is an adventurous and hedonistic mix which includes ground coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, cardamom, mustard, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, chillies, dried curry leaves and lemongrass! When it comes to food, our tastes and preferences are shaped by what we know and what society conditions us to accept as ‘normal’. However, true adventurers constantly test their limits. Spices provide a platform for creative expression through food. In the process, our senses are applied and indulged, and instinct is called upon. Perhaps through spices and food adventurism, we can not only build bridges between cultures but also push our selfifimposed limits and in the process, add variety to our lives. Indeed what would life be without adventure, and what would food be without spice?