Asia. Home to 4.4 billion people, more than half of all human beings on this planet. It is where some of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen flourished. It is where gunpowder, papermaking, printing and the compass were invented; where Hinduism was created and the Buddha was born. The fertility of its lands is both a blessing and a curse as spices grow abundantly, fueling international trade, and later on colonization.
Traders from China, Arabia and Persia sailed to South and Southeast Asia to buy much sought-after spices to be sold in other markets, bringing them wealth. From nutmeg to clove, cinnamon, cardamom, and pepper, the spices found their way into Europe and demand kept on growing.
The ebb and flow of powers in Asia was often marked by the rise and fall of religions. So on this blog I will write the stories from my recent Spice Odyssey* in a five-chapter chronological order based on important milestones in history.
Chapter 1: Spread of Hinduism and Buddhism
South Asia is the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism, two religions whose marks are still palpable not only in the Indian subcontinent, but also in modern-day Southeast Asia. From Buddhist-majority Myanmar and Thailand to Muslim-majority Indonesia – which until the 16th century AD was still a mostly Hindu-Buddhist realm – many kingdoms across the regions were at one point ‘Indianized’. However this concept has been challenged by some scholars as they believe it was rather local ingenuity enriched by intellectual exchange between the two regions that formulated Southeast Asia’s own Hindu-Buddhist identity. Today we can see this past intellectual exchange between India and Southeast Asian nations by visiting their archaeological sites.
Chapter 2: Spread of Islam
Islam arrived on the southwestern coast of India from Arabia in the 7th century AD. But it was not until the invasions of Turkic people from Central Asia in the 12th century, followed by the founding of the Delhi Sultanate in the early 13th century, that Islam became a dominant religion in India, as well as a major threat to the Hindus, leading to the creation of several powerful Hindu kingdoms in southern India. The Arab traders also introduced Islam to modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia, and gradually converted people in both areas into Muslims.
Chapter 3: Arrival of the Europeans
The closure of direct access to the spice trade following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) forced Europeans to seek an alternative route to Asia and start the Age of Discovery. Portuguese and Spanish explorers set sail across the world, ‘discovering’ America and the fabled Spice Islands among other places. Soon their English, French, and Dutch counterparts joined the race and established far more powerful trade monopolies around the globe.
Chapter 4: European Colonization of Asia
Along with more commerce, the arrival of the Europeans in Asia also brought Christianity to lands at the time dominated by the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. Today the Philippines and Timor-Leste are the only predominantly Catholic countries in Asia, but there is a considerable amount of Christians in Indonesia, Malaysia and some regions in India and Myanmar. Law, government, and education systems in many parts of Asia today are the remnants of centuries of European colonization.
Chapter 5: Asian Cuisine Today
Thanks to European traders and colonists, commodities such as chili and peanut from the Americas now form an essential part in Southeast Asian cooking. In Indonesia people love to eat almost everything with sambal, and peanut sauce is the base for sate (satay), gado-gado, ketoprak, pecel, and many other dishes which make up Indonesia’s traditional cuisines. But throughout my six-month trip across seven Asian countries, one of the most surprising things I discovered was the fact that Karimeen fry (fried freshwater fish with spices) in Kerala tasted almost identical to my mother’s fried fish. I wonder if it was the traders from Calicut who introduced the same spices and cooking methods to the people in my ancestral island of Java.