It happens to me again and again. I stop on the road in the middle of nowhere, actually somewhere in Asia, seriously hungry after a quick and rather forgettable breakfast, if any at all. The local restaurant vendor presents me with that sort of menu: items written in unreadable script or unrecognizable language. In my struggle I find solace and possibly even advice in photos of at least some of the items, artistically arranged on the plate and in very vivid colors. As I browse diligently through photos of dishes while consulting the prices in the right column, occasionally salivating, my mind is completely overrun with ideas of what (and when) I am gonna get after finger pointing repeatedly to a line on the menu:
“This is what I want!”
When you convince yourself that even a dead stump would understand by now what your wishes are, the waiter finally scribbles something down, nods, and slips into the kitchen.
I cannot wait to burry my fork, spoon, or chopsticks into a pile of food I ordered. When it finally lands in front of me, it reminds me only remotely of the photo on the “menu”. I point to the picture and to the food and ask, “What happened, it is not the same as the picture on the menu?”
“Oh, we took the photo from the Internet!” answers the waiter with a big smile, feeling quite proud and accomplished. Then I take the first bite and swallow… geee!! “What the hell did the chef put in it?”
Everything from my mouth to my lips, even my teeth, is burning! Honestly, this dish should have been delivered on a fire truck, with a gallon of cold beer. Can somebody help me?!?
Well, we happen to travel along the one of the major historical trade routes between the East and West where most of the spices, no doubt quite few in the recipe for my dish, were grown, harvested, some processed and all loaded on the ships under auspices and protection of old trade powers like Portuguese, Dutch, English, Chinese, just to name a few. They were then transported to its final destination, the spice hungry European markets, making or breaking the traders, who risked all. If the ship went down in a storm or pirates attacked, one could loose everything. If you were lucky your spice cargo was sold with hefty profit to the investors in Lisbon, Amsterdam or London.
And what spices did they trade in? As we tend to bunch together herbs&spices let’s look at the differences first.
A spice is a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavoring, coloring or preserving food. Spices are distinguished from herbs, which are the leaves, flowers, or stems of plants used for flavoring or as a garnish.
How many herbs and spices can you name? Looking in your cupboard will help, and while you are doing this, do yourself a favor and toss those that have been gathering dust. Dried herbs loose their flavor and potency quite quickly.
You probably have herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, cilantro, parsley, dill, sage. What about spices? Pepper, peppercorn,
chili, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, paprika, turmeric, vanilla, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, ginger, allspice, and cloves. Some of these, like black pepper, we use everyday, but others we only use for holiday baking. Recently I had a surprisingly wonderful clear pumpkin soup full of ginger and cinnamon sticks . I love creamy pumpkin soup but this was a totally different and exciting new soup experience.
Some of the spices are still quite expensive, for example saffron, because it is so difficult to produce. Historically the rare spices were so expensive because they were hard to get, but also because many were considered medicinal. If you were afraid of the plague, you would pay the weight of nutmeg in gold.
Most, if not all of this precious cargo, sailed through a narrow passage of 550 mi/890 km stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra, the corridor called Straits of Malacca. As the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans it was, and still is, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. It is named after the Malacca Sultanate ruling this area in that important time when Europeans looked to wrest the control of the crucial spice trade from the Arabs and secretive Venetians (remember Marco Polo and the Silk Road?), the profit cutting middlemen in this business. As Europe finally walked out of the Dark Ages and its navigators, shipbuilders and sailors were able to set their own independent transportation routes between East and West, Mediterranean ceased to be the one and only Mare Nostrum and Europe went global for the spices sake for the first time in its modern history.
While the members of the many sultanates’ courts ate Michelin star worthy, well spiced delicacies, Europe was struggling to find enough salt to preserve its food supplies for the long winter (pickled vegetables and salted and dried meat and fish). For millennia from the beginning of ancient civilizations salt was one of the most important trading commodities. With so many salty oceans all around you would think most salt would come from the sea, but it is the rock salt, mined from underground salt deposits, that had been the staple of human life.
I do remember as a teenager walking one of the historical trails of the salt trade connecting Austrian salt mines in northern slopes of the Alps with Bohemia, my birth country, which has no salt. If you ever find yourself in Austria do stop in Salzburg (=Salt City) and visit besides Mozart House and the Sound of Music Castle also the impressive salt mines nearby.
Being myself one of those privileged humans who can afford to live to eat – to the contrary of the majority of people who have to eat to live, paying only limited attention to what they are being served – I am very excited about coming to Malacca. Here I can see and experience first hand where the monumental change in human behavior, regarding our eating habits, the way we finance international trade, establishment of the international banking system and where obscene wealth for some and unspeakable misery for others were triggered on amazing scale.
Malacca as a town was established by a rather obscure Hindu prince Parameswara who was kicked out of Sumatra with a small band of his followers sometime in the twelve century. First he established himself in a place we today call Singapore. The prince might have had more problems with competition than he was willing to admit, as he was shortly and rather unceremoniously discarded by Siamese invaders and ended up in a place further north on the west coast of Malay Peninsula at an estuary of a small river where only a small group, of not more than twenty villagers lived. Not much competition for the Prince there! The story goes like this:
While resting under a “melaka” tree he watched a fleeing mouse deer that had turned back and kicked his hunting dog into the river. That sight impressed him so much, that he decided to start a settlement here. Curiously, he believed it was a good omen! With his decision making process regarding to where to settle so seriously flawed, no wonder this guy was kicked around from place to place. Nevertheless he is remembered as a founder of Malacca. (Melaka).
Now, move the wheels of history by some eight, nine hundred years, and you can see a couple of modern day travelers arriving at the very same spot where our Hindu Prince was killing his time, watching his dogs hunt, while leaning against the tree. Instead of the melaka tree on the river bank, we found a cozy spot called Sid’s Bar serving good pints of cold beer. Sitting at the open window with a view of the small river estuary and the remnants of a fort, perusing the hefty menu, we could feel the culinary and historic importance of this place.
It was easy to see how it became a favorite for Chinese, Hindu and Moslem traders. A place to stop, relax, exchange their goods and then, move on. Moslem traders brought along with their goods also their Islamic religion and they moonshined by proselytizing their religious beliefs far and wide. The painting above shows the arrival of Sheikh Shamsuddin to Brunei where he successfully converted the King of Brunei to Islam. The Malacca settlement’s influence and Islam religion as well grew fast and by 1450’s Malacca was recognized as a capital of Malacca Sultanate, with a sultan’s Palace built on one side of the river, the vendor stalls on the other and trader ships moored at the river estuary.
Meanwhile the light of Malacca’s fame reached the overseas Portuguese trading post of Goa on the Indian west coast. Hoping to reap the benefits of controlling the trade, the Portuguese on their second attempt in 1511 managed to conquer Malacca, slaughtering many Muslims in the process. Quickly they “coopted” some remaining Muslim pilots and sent three ships to find the mysterious Bandas Spice Islands from where the most precious nutmeg was coming to the west. This small group of 10 islands in a remote location was only place on Earth were nutmeg grew, should be easy to control, and establish a monopoly. They packed all three ships with nutmeg, mace, and sweet smelling cloves
They failed to secure the Bandas as their possession and establish a trading post.
Within a century Dutch not only established their monopoly in trade with nutmeg, by all means necessary, decimating the population of Bandas. Their dominance in lucrative nutmeg trade lasted until the WWII. There was an attempt by the British who convinced the locals on one of the smallest Banda Islands called Run, to accept the protection of British Sovereign in exchange for their nutmegs. It did not last too long as Dutch overran the British fort and did not treat the loosing British kindly. In the subsequent negotiations the Dutch traded the swampy Island of Manhattan (with New Amsterdam) – where today you pay about $1,000 for square foot of land – for British commitment to abandon the Run island barely 2 miles long and half a mile wide. Art of the deal?!
Back in Malacca we are surprised to find the church of Saint Francis Xavier. Like Muslim traders the Portuguese, too, brought their (Catholic) religious beliefs and with the help of Spanish Jesuit Missionary Saint Francis Xavier, tried to convert the local population. Francis built a church and a hospital, and he even stayed there with his sick patients. But to no avail. Combined with rather high taxes imposed on goods passing through and their very harsh treatment of other religions, specially violence against Moslems, the place was not very popular with traders. They voted with their feet, moving their business to other more favorable places like Aceh in Sumatra and Brunei in Borneo, while traders from the south picked Batavia in Java or Johor(Singapore) on the tip of Malay Peninsula.
It was the beginning of the end of Malacca Sultanate’ glorious days and by mid seventeenth century new comers, the Dutch conquered Malacca. But they did not do so with intentions of developing it into a regional business center, preferring instead to solidify Batavia (Jakarta) as Dutch administrative and business capital in the Southeast Asia.
In Malacca they left behind a red brick Stadthuys = City Hall, now a very interesting history museum, and a Dutch Graveyard just below the St. Paul’s Hill on the other side of historical center.
More than one hundred years later Malacca was ceded to the British in exchange for their holdings in Sumatra. This was pretty much the last nail in the coffin of Malacca’s importance. British incorporated Malacca into the fabric of Straits Settlements crown colonies in which Malacca played a rather subdued role to other two on both ends of Malacca Straits – Penang in the north and Singapore in the south.
It is interesting to see how those three British colonies fared in the recent history of de-colonization and Malaysian independence after WWII. The very complicated fabric of human tribes living on Malay Peninsula had not made for very smooth sailing. The new country’s Malay Muslim majority had a very difficult time finding balance and accommodating the Chinese majority of Singapore. Rather than compromising, they kicked Singapore out of Malaysia only a year after Malaysia was created in 1963. In spite of strong resistance that Singaporeans put up for staying in the union, the Malayan members of Parliament in Kuala Lumpur unanimously voted Singapore out. Nevertheless, you would have a hard time finding anybody in Singapore crying over it today. Good for them!
We did not plan this time to visit Singapore, a very modern and successful city state everybody reading this blog probably visited already. Instead, we followed the history of spice trade in the Malay Peninsula further north along the coast to another former British possession. First in the East India Company’s hands and later as a British Crown Colony – Penang Island and its City of Georgetown is, compared to Malacca, vibrant and projecting energy and growths of its multicultural fabric. Five Chinatowns, Little India, Armenian Quarter, Jewish Cemetery, lovely historical port and banking center. And where are the spices here? In our short stay the peak of our visit was for sure our dinner in its top notch fusion cuisine Ferringhi Garden Restaurant on the Penang’s north shore. It left us with no doubts that spices are still live and well, be it either in the East or in the West modern cuisine.
Through history the Malacca Strait itself may have experienced a decline in its share of spice trade but its importance is still visible here and even more in Singapore. Because the depth of the channel is conducive to big shipping it would probably remain one of the most important shipping lane on Earth, as its traffic is expected to rise by fifty (50!) percent in the next decade.
And the fate of Malacca fortress, the remains of which can be still seen through open windows of the Sid’s Bar? It is nothing more than a dot behind the already distinguished flame of its old glory.