Patterns, Patterns Everywhere: Five-Spice Mixtures

Many chefs and cookbook authors spend their careers touting the unique aspects of the cuisines they cook and write about.  I’m different from most.  I look around and see nothing but commonalities and connections between the major Asian cuisines and spice mixtures.  In The Silk Road Gourmet Cookbook, I write a lot about how ingredients and dishes swirl in patterns across Asia and tell us a lot about relationships between countries whether through trade, diplomatic relations, cultural or religious connections.

A Masala

One of these patterns in ingredients is found in the makeup of the major spice powders. Whether used as a pickling spice, an advieh, a masala, a curry powder, a spice paste or a five-spice powder, the same spices, with some variations in amount, preparation, use, or local addition of ingredients swirl across the continent from Armenia to Indonesia.

Take for example a relatively familiar Northern Indian garam masala: 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons cloves, 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 2 2-inch cinnamon sticks, ½ nutmeg corm, grated, 2 tablespoons cardamom seeds.  Moving west of India, the first three ingredients are also found in most Pakistani garam masalas, which tend to omit cinnamon and nutmeg, and substitute black cardamom for the green cardamom found in the Indian masala.  The same ingredients as those in the Indian masala can be found in an Afghani char masala – minus the nutmeg and also replacing the cardamom with black cardamom as in Pakistan; and in Iranian advieh  – this time with the addition of coriander seeds and Persian lime powder.  A commonly used modern Armenian pickling spice share four ingredients with the Iranian advieh but adds bay leave and the New World allspice to the mix.

India2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cloves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
½ average nutmeg corm, grated
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
Pakistan1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon ground cloves
4 tablespoons cumin seeds
Seeds from 6 black cardamom pods
Afghanistan1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 tablespoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon seeds from black cardamom pods
Iran½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon dried Persian lime powder
Armenia2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons whole allspice

East of India, many Nepalese masalas have the same ingredients as the Indian masala mentioned here – only they tend to add black cardamom to the mix.  One important difference between Indian and Nepali masalas is that Nepali masalas are often roasted, whereas this is an option in Indian cuisine.  Sri Lankan curry powder has the same ingredients as the Indian garam masala except that it adds coriander and fennel seeds and omits nutmeg.  Several additional spices and herbs (pandanus) are also added that are not related to the five or six spice base in most of the other mixes.  Like Northern Indian spice preps, the spices in the Sri Lankan curry powders are sometimes roasted and sometimes not.

India2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cloves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
½ average nutmeg corm, grated
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
Nepal2 teaspoons black peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole cloves
1 ½ tablespoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 ½ tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black cardamom seeds
Sri Lanka1 teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon whole cloves
⅛ cup cumin seeds
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
Tibet2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cloves
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 Tablespoons cinnamon stick
¼ cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 Tablespoons bay leaves
Khirgizstan1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground cardamom

Masala Ingredients

Tibet’s masala adds coriander seed and bay leaves to the Northern Indian base and Khirgistan’s five-spice mix omits black peppercorns from the Indian recipe all together.  Sichuan peppercorns replace black peppercorns along with the addition of star anise and fennel in varying degrees in Mongolia, China and Vietnam.  Like Sri Lanka, Indonesia’s curry paste uses many ingredients not related to other spice mixes around Asia (candlenuts, laos etc), but still it shares the core of spices (black peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg and coriander seeds) with several of the other powders mentioned.

Mongolia2 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole cloves
2 tablespoons broken cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons fennel seed
6 whole star anise corms
Southern China2 tablespoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
36 whole cloves
5, 2-inch sticks of cinnamon, crushed
2 tablespoons fennel seed
12 star anise corms
Vietnam2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
8 star anise corms
Indonesia1½ tablespoons black peppercorns
8 whole cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
2½ tablespoons coriander seeds

A teaspoon here, a tablespoon there and the proportions of the spice mixtures change – but the ingredients remain the same – to some degree across the entire continent.  Likewise, we may be different ethnicities or different religions, but to some extent, the foods we eat are part of the cultures we share – all of which have been shaped by the Silk Road (Words and pattern analysis by Laura Kelley).

1001 Tales from the Spice Trade: Cinnamon

We take so much for granted these days. Almost every household cupboard has ground cinnamon or cinnamon sticks in them. Mass produced cinnamon is cheap and readily available at almost every market and even higher quality cinnamon sticks from the far reaches of the globe are accessible and relatively affordable via the internet. In times past, however, spices were rare and expensive and significant portions of household income were spent on them for their medicinal and nutritive qualities and well as for the maintenance of one’s social standing through conspicuous spice use.

Ceylonese Cinnamon Sticks

For Greeks, Egyptians, and others in the ancient world, spices came from far-away places. The men who gathered them risked their lives to do so, and their bravery was compensated for by high demand and high price for their sometimes intermittent supply of spice. As early as the 5th Century BCE, Herodotus wrote in his Histories that the “Arabians” obtained cassia by traveling to the shores of a great lake and gathering cassia on the shores. However, the shores were patrolled by a huge bat-like, winged creatures which screeched horribly and attacked the spice gatherers. To protect themselves from the creatures, the spice gatherers covered their bodies and their faces with the hides of oxen and other skins leaving only holes for the eyes. Dangerous and hot work – to harvest a rare bark.

Another legend related by Herodotus is that cinnamon came from the land of Bacchus. Great birds were said to collect branches of cinnamon and make their nests with it. The nests were constructions dappled with mud and affixed to sheer cliff faces. Still more wonderful was the mode in which they collected the cinnamon. The “Arabians” cut meat and joints from their beasts of burden such as oxen and asses and place near the nests to lure the birds from their nests. Herodotus tells us that the cinnamon gatherers withdrew to a distance and allowed the birds to swoop down and seize pieces of meat and fly with them up to their nests. The nests, not being able to support the weight broke off and fell to the ground, whereupon the Arabians returned and collected the cinnamon for sale abroad.

Cinnamon – Botanical Print

Legends like these abounded for centuries. In the 4th Century BCE, Theophrastus tells us in his Enquiry into Plants ( IX v. 1-6) that cinnamon and cassia came from bushes with many branches that grew in deep glens and that in these there are numerous snakes which have a deadly bite which guarded the bushes. The men who harvested the bark and branches protected their hands and feet from the snakes and when they were through they left one portion of the harvest behind for the sun in gratitude for being spared from the snakes. The portion left for the sun was said to ignite spontaneously and perfume the air with a sweet incense as the gatherers departed the glens.

Still other legends tell of flying snakes guarding cinnamon trees and gatherers having to burn noxious incense to chase the snakes away and gather the bark in safety.

The wonderful thing about all these legends is that they are not just accidental tales from the active imaginations of traders and travelers. They are deliberate attempts to drive the price of commodities as high as possible by making the collection of cinnamon and cassia sound very dangerous and difficult to do.

An interesting aside is that what we call cinnamon (which is either true cinnamon or cassia or a blend of the two spices) is not what traders and merchants in the ancient world would have considered cinnamon. Long ago, cinnamon was thought to be the whole branch – wood and inner and outer bark – with the delicate newer growth considered of higher quality than the wood and bark close to the roots of the tree. The bark devoid of inner wood was called by another name (often cassia). Eventually, the whole branch fell out of commercial trade and the bark only became known as cinnamon.

Today, a number of different species of Cinnamomum tree are cultivated and sold as cinnamon. There is Cinnamomum verum – the “true cinnamon” from Sri Lanka that cultivates only the inner bark and was traded along the early silk road; C. burmanni which is Indondesian cinnamon; C. loureiroi or Saigon cinnamon and lastly, C. aromaticum or Chinese cinnamon which uses all layers of bark and has a more harsh flavor than Ceylonese cinnamon. Medicinal cinnamon is the “true cinnamon” from Sri Lanka, not cassia from China and Southeast Asia which can have hepatotoxic effects when taken in medicinal doses.

So next time you use cinnamon or cassia to flavor a sweet treat or to make a savory Asian curry or stew, think on the dark and dangerous (and fictional) tales of the ancients who gathered these spices along the silk road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Plate of Cinnamomum varum Kohler, and Photo of Cinnamon sticks from Wikimedia)