The Silk Road: Eastern Spices in Western Cuisine

Pimsleur Approach • Food & WineComments (7)


The 7,000 mile route known as the Silk Road was a series of trans-Asian highways used for centuries by merchant traders. Running over land and sea, it stretched from eastern China to Northern India to present-day Iran, Iraq and Syria before reaching Europe and the Mediterranean.

The Silk Road was named for the silk products traders bought in China beginning in ancient times, before the fall of the Roman Empire. This thoroughfare became the channel for much more than just traded goods. It also introduced the art, music, dress, politics—and cuisine—of Eastern and Central Asia to the cultures of the West.

In fact by the 8th century CE, the most sought after Silk Road commodity was not silk, but Asian spices. These remained in high demand in Western Europe and the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages. The spices most commonly used then are still popular in the West today: black pepper, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and ginger.



Spices began their journey into Western culture as medicinal aids. The medieval term “apothecary” first referred to spice merchants, who were also called “spicers” and “pepperers”. Pharmacy account books from the period show that pepper, cinnamon and ginger were sold often as ingredients for cures.

As medieval medicine was based on the theory of “humorism”, herbs and spices were considered necessary to balance the “humors” of cold, hot, wet and dry in daily meals. This was thought to strengthen a person’s health and ward off disease in a time of recurring plagues, while greatly enhancing the taste of a meal.

The economic ramifications of the spice trade were many; the Venetian empire reaped great enrichment from its control of the spice trade in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Several hundred tons of pepper and of other spices were imported into Western Europe every year during the 11th through 15th centuries. Western cuisine was by now enjoying the sweet and sour combinations long known to the East, as well as the rich colors of spices. The brilliant yellow of Indian saffron made it the most fashionable spice in Europe. In the 1600s, a spice called “grains of paradise” (similar to cardamom) came to nearly replace pepper in northern French cooking. Other spices, popular then, are rarely used now, such as long pepper, spikenard, mace, cubeb and galangal.


Grains of Paradise

A handbook of practical wisdom by a Florentine merchant from the early 1300s was found to list nearly 300 spices. A cookbook written by a chef who served the king of Naples holds nearly 200 recipes, most of which require sugar, cinnamon, ginger or saffron. For the wedding of the wealthy Duke of Bavaria in 1475, chefs ordered hundreds of pounds of pepper, ginger, saffron, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Increased social status came to those who served their guests rare or very expensive spices, such as cinnamon.

To the medieval European, the East held a mysterious allure. On maps, India was placed near the Garden of Eden, as would befit a paradise of warm weather, jewels, exotic foods, and serpents. In the early middle ages, Europeans believed Indian pepper grew on trees guarded by snakes. The only way to harvest pepper without being poisoned by the snakes was to burn the trees, which drove out the snakes. Though white pepper did exist, it was generally sold burnt and blackened, to satisfy this European belief.

Similar to Eastern foods, medieval European dishes often required a great deal of chopping and simmering, and were sometimes served with several sauces or in a molded gelatin. Though we now tend to associate the use of a great variety of spices with Middle Eastern or Indian food, in medieval times, many recipes required the same spices be used in Europe. Many have long since fallen out of use in Western cuisines. Cinnamon and nutmeg are no longer used in the West for fish or meat dishes, for example.

Over the centuries, Arab, Persian, and sub-continental Indian ingredients, as well as elements of Chinese cooking, also became commonplace in Central Asian cuisines.


Ingredients for pilaf - an Uzbec cuisine

Situated at the midpoint of the northern Silk Route, Uzbekistan was one example of a multicultural meeting point. An influx of peoples from many countries during Tamerlane’s rule in the 1300s meant that Persians, Syrians, Armenians and Turks joined a culture already inhabited by Egyptians, Greeks and Chinese. As a result, something of all of these cultures can be found even in modern-day Uzbek cuisine. Persia (now Iran) held the greatest influence, as seen in Uzbek use of sour cherries and of grape leaves or dried fruits and nuts used in stews, or lamb stew with chestnuts and pomegranates.

Turkic influence can be seen in dishes such as savory stuffed onions or onion and pomegranate salad. An Arab influence is found in yogurt noodles dishes, and a modern Korean influence in sesame-soy vegetable dishes. The savory stuffed onions dish, an example of Turkic sweet and spicy, is eaten throughout Central Asia. The recipe calls for ingredients once considered Eastern, such as ground cumin, dried fenugreek leaves, dried marigold petals, dried savory, red chili peppers and cooked rice.

The Chinese meal-soup, also enjoyed in the West, is still part of every Central Asian cuisine. Many different kinds of noodles, once Eastern, are used with rice and other grains in stews and soups. Dumplings are also very common in Central Asia, as is tea, whether salted, spiced or buttered. The sautéing of different foods recalls the Eastern Asian stir fry.

Native Turkic traditions brought the West stuffed peppers, onions and tomatoes. Arab influences are found in the love of blending olives with dishes, pilafs flavored with roasted pine nuts, and yogurt-noodles being used to soften the spices of roasted meat and vegetables. Central Asia has also given the West produce such as garlic, carrots, onions, tarragon and dill, now found in cuisines around the world, as the intermingling of world cuisines continues to the present day.


7 Responses to “ The Silk Road: Eastern Spices in Western Cuisine ”

  1. Jacob says:

    I noticed that turmeric is being used in many western foods now like soups. I even found it being used to color a yellow candy.
    Combining eastern spices with western foods is probably the next big food quest among chefs.

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