The rise of the British Empire owes much to the irresistible allure of spice.
Just think what it can do for your cooking.
Civilisations have been built on spices, battles fought, fortunes made and myths
spun. It’s said that when his wife died, Emperor Nero burned a year’s supply of
cinnamon in sorrow (perhaps forgetting that he murdered her). In the Middle
Ages, nutmeg was worth more than gold and in 1667 it was the currency of
choice when the Dutch traded Manhattan to the British.
For centuries in England, spices were imported at a high cost and, in the late
16th century, Queen Elizabeth I decided to get in on the lucrative trade. She
knighted Francis Drake when he circumnavigated the world and brought back a
cargo of spices from the Maluku Islands. In 1600, after pepper prices had soared,
the East India Company was granted the Royal Charter and, after battling the
dominance of the Dutch, it began importing pepper from Indonesia. The
company established a base in India in 1608, to bring back spices and tea. By the
1800s, the East India Company, and so the British Empire, controlled much of the
When the British Raj ended in 1947, colonials returned to the UK with palates
accustomed to lively flavours, and inspired exciting new dishes such as kedgeree
and coronation chicken. It remains a retro classic but we no longer think creamy
curry sauce is at the pinnacle of exotic flavours. Thanks to ever-increasing
interest in food and travel, we’re seeking out fennel seeds for our Italian pork
dishes, star anise to go in beef broth to make Vietnamese pho, juniper for
venison, saffron for Cornish buns, cardamom for Swedish buns, and, as always,
cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger for hot cross buns (and mulled wine).
Spices have never been so readily available, and yet for many home cooks, they
remain a mystery. So what is the best way to learn how to use spice?
According to chef Cyrus Todiwala, chef-patron of London’s acclaimed Café Spice Namaste, get on the internet. “There’s so much information out there,” he says. “It stops spices being daunting.”
Chef Todiwala is being modest. He is, in fact, known as one of the Incredible
Spice Men, along with his friend Tony Singh, and has written a book sharing
inspiring ways to introduce spice into British cooking. He says that a few basic
spices at home will give you hundreds of flavours.
Cyrus is keen to stress that spicing food isn’t all about how hot you can take it.
“Heat is not spice – heat is different from flavour. Don’t confuse spice with chilli.”
For example, it’s easy to add spice to puddings. Cinnamon is traditional with
apples in crumble, but why not add a stick to infuse in milk when you make
custard – perhaps throw in a couple of split cardamom pods, too. A grind of black
pepper over strawberries sounds bizarre, but it offers a nutty, earthy, bitey
sensation against the sweet fruit. A sprinkle of sumac gives a citrus spike to
avocado on toast, a swipe of harissa transforms lamb chops, and cumin seeds are
well at home in cauliflower cheese.
A full spice shelf is especially important when it comes to meat-free cooking.
“Triumphant vegetarian cooking comes from layering flavour and texture. When am writing a recipe, what I always turn to first are my jars of spices,” says
vegetarian chef Anna Jones, author of A Modern Way To Eat, explaining that
spices are the backbone of her cooking. “Spices add personality to a dish. In
winter, I crave warming spices like cinnamon or saffron, and in summer, it’s
more cleansing spices, such as fennel, cardamom and Turkish chilli.”
Whatever the season, don’t let your spices sit on the shelf, unloved and unused.
They helped to transform the world. Now let them do the same for your food.
Explore and be inspired at ocado.com/spice