Ramses II is hailed as one of the greatest Pharaohs who ruled Egypt from 1279 to 1212 BC. Examination of his mummy led to a tiny, yet astounding, discovery about international trade in the ancient world. Found tucked inside the nostrils of the pharaoh were fragments of pepper, a plant indigenous to Malabar coast. And yet it had apparently travelled from flowering vines in Kerala to the hands of Egyptian embalmers as far back as over a millennium before Christ.

This is only one of the countless fascinating anecdotes strung together by Jack Turner in his book, ‘Spice: The History of Temptation’. He spoke to The Hindu of his research on how condiments had played such as profound role in shaping global trade relations. He was here at the capital to attend the International Conference on Indo-Australian relations held last week.

Before Gama

Kerala, known as the ‘Spice Garden of India,’ has found a special place in his book. “I’m surprised by the looks of disbelief I get when I narrate parts of Kerala’s history much before Vasco da Gama’s arrival,” he said (Mr. Turner had given lectures for students of Kerala University and participated in a panel discussion at the Kerala International Centre here.)

The Greeks and Romans were known to have traded in bulk spices, especially pepper since it held multiple qualities including as a preservative and aphrodisiac. To wear a perfume scented with the exotic spice, for instance, was a brand signifying the very wealthiest and powerful.

When Vasco da Gama touched the Kappad Beach one of the first people he met were Tunisian merchants who had begun trading with the Malabar coast within 50 years of Prophet Muhammad’s death (632 AD). “It was a bit of an anti-climax considering you embarked on this huge endeavour, travelled halfway round the world only to bump into your neighbours. Another striking feature of this inter-cultural exchange was that it was largely peaceful. It was only much later that the Indian Ocean was militarised,” he said.

Absinthe ban

He also spoke about the two books he is working on. One is on absinthe, an alcoholic drink that often bears exaggerated descriptions regarding its potency, leading to its ban in several parts of the world during the early 19 century. He is researching the psychology and cultural basis for its prohibition then. He is working on another book that will focus on culinary history, largely prompted by the present food crisis.