The history of spice is almost as old as human civilization. It is a history of lands discovered, empires built and brought down, wars won and lost, treaties signed and flouted, flavors sought and offered, and the rise and fall of different religious practices and beliefs. Spices were among the most valuable items of trade in ancient and medieval times.
As long ago as 3500 BC the ancient Egyptians were using various spices for flavoring food, in cosmetics, and for embalming their dead. The use of spices spread through the Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. Spices from China, Indonesia, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were originally transported overland by donkey or camel caravans. For almost 5000 years, Arab middlemen controlled the spice trade, until European explorers discovered a sea route to India and other spice producing countries in the East.
The people of those times used spices, as we do today, to enhance or vary the flavors of their foods. Spices were also flavor disguisers, masking the taste of the otherwise tasteless food that was nutritious, but if unspiced, had to be thrown away. Some spices were also used for preserving food like meat for a year or more without refrigeration.
In the sixteenth century, cloves were used to preserve food without refrigeration. Cloves contain a chemical called eugenol that inhibits the growth of bacteria. It is still used to preserve some modern foods.
Later, mustard and ground mustard were also found to have preservative qualities. When spices were not available people went hungry because they could not preserve their foods to carry them over to the winter. Such was the importance of spices those days.
Broadly, there are two main subdivisions of spices one being the major spices and the other is minor spices. For example the spices like pepper, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, chilies etc., comes under major category. The important minor spices grown in India are ajowan, aniseed, caraway, celery, coriander, cumin, dill seed, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, onion, saffron, vanilla etc.
The addition of spices in the Indian food gives that unique flavor and color to the preparations and you also get the medicinal values out of it. Taking the right kind of Indian food with spices will enhance your health, heals, soothes and refreshes you to a greater extent. The Indian medicine system, the Ayurveda uses these spices to heal certain conditions even now.
Thus, in nutshell, the fascinating history of spices is a story of adventure, exploration, conquest and fierce naval rivalry.