Along the coastline of tropical southwestern India, where the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea converge, set among picturesque lagoons and backwaters and separated from the rest of the Indian subcontinent by the rugged Sahyadri mountain range (also called the Western Ghats), lies a land of spectacular beauty and proud heritage: Kerala, the land of coconut palms and spices.
The story of our spices is an ever-changing history of lands discovered or destroyed, favors sought or offered, treaties signed or broken, wars won or lost, and kingdoms built or brought down. Ever since ancient times, the monsoon-soaked rain forests of Kerala, home to several spices, including the world's most widely used spice, black pepper (piper nigrum), were a prime destination for many explorers. The abundant black pepper attracted Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Portuguese, Dutch, and British from the west and Southeast Asians and Chinese from the east.
The spice trade not only brought prosperity to our region, but it also left an indelible imprint on Kerala's culture and cuisine. From the pre-Christian era onward, trade between the kingdoms of south India and ancient Israel and Arabia resulted in the formation of the earliest Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities of Kerala. When foreign traders arrived at the port of Muziris, near the capital of the Chera kings (ancient rulers of Kerala), the reigning kings treated them with respect, extending facilities for their settlement and the establishment of their faiths in the land. The ancient travelers Sulaiman, al-Biruni, Marco Polo, and Ibn Battuta have all written about the religious tolerance of the kings and people of Kerala.
Foreign traders brought with them numerous new plants and trees, which thrived in our tropical weather. Several fruits, nuts, spices, and vegetables we associate today with Kerala cuisine were unknown in ancient times. All these were slowly but surely integrated into our cuisine.
This chapter presents a brief account of the development of the ancient spice trade that began before the birth of Christ, lasted many centuries, and greatly influenced our society. I will discuss the social and cultural diversity of Kerala; its gradual colonization by foreign traders, including the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British; the unification of Kerala after India gained independence from the British; and the influences of foreign trade on our agriculture and cuisine.