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Wednesday 15 May 2024

What's Life Without Spices?

Indian spices on stamp

In the wonderful world of culinary arts, a spice is a product derived from natural plant sources that adds more value to food. The value addition ranges from adding aroma to better taste to enhanced appetite to improved immunity and many more. 

With right combination of spices, a bland dish may turn into a mouth-watering meal filled with aroma. The fragrance of spices makes taste buds salivate. One can have spicy food without worrying about the extra dose of calories.

Spices from Malaysia (Source: Internet)

A variety of spices are sourced from different parts of various plants. From flower to seed, bud to berry, root to bark, the endless list includes tree-sourced products. For example, cloves, a popular spice, are nothing but dried buds of the flowers. Cinnamon is the bark of the tree. Ginger, turmeric, etc. are the roots of the plants. Since time immemorial, countries from Southeast Asia have been the biggest producers and suppliers of spices in the global market.

Spice First Day Cover from Malaysia (Source Internet)

A few popular spices, much sought after around the world, are (alphabetic):

  1. Black pepper
  2. Cardamon
  3. Chilli
  4. Clove
  5. Cumin seed
  6. Ginger
  7. Mace
  8. Nutmeg
  9. Star anise
  10. Turmeric and the list goes on

The Spice Islands

A group of islands comprising Halmahera (the largest), Seram, Buru, Ambon, Ternate, and Tidore, and the Aru and Kai of Malaku (or Moluccas), are known as Spice Islands. These Indonesian islands of the Malay Archipelago lie between the islands of Celebes to the west and New Guinea to the east. The Philippines, the Philippine Sea, and the Pacific Ocean are to the north; the Arafura Sea and the island of Timor are to the south. Due to its geographical location west of New Guinea, east of Sulawesi, and northeast of Timor, the Spice Islands archipelago is part of both Asia and Oceania. In the global trade of spices, they contributed the most to spices like mace, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper etc.

Star anise from Malaysia

Sometime in the fourth century, Arabian traders introduced spices sourced from the Spice Islands to the European elites. But they kept the source of the spices a trade secret. Adventurous Portuguese traders ultimately found the Spice Islands during the sixteenth century.

Chilli from Malaysia

The dawn of the bulk spice trade in the Spice Islands dates back to the 1520s, when Portuguese traders started sourcing spices from them for the European market. Smelling big profit and huge demand by the elites, British traders entered into spice voyages in 1598.

Cardamom and other spices from Malaysia

The spice trade in the inlands included all kinds of spices of life, viz., money and greed, colonialism, suppression, slavery, slaughter and endless bloodshed. Fights between local natives and intruders, and also among different European traders were common and violent. It was a battlefield spanning several centuries among the traders and soldiers of the Dutch, British, and Portuguese for taking control of the spice business. Traders from different parts of Asia and the Middle East were also attracted, either by the flavour of spices or by the enormous profit associated with the trade. In the spice war, about 6,000 people perished.

Spice First Day Cover from Singapore (Source: Internet)

Natives of the Spice Islands had a unique tradition of planting a clove tree as soon as a child was born into the family. So the production of cloves was plentiful in the islands. When the Dutch traders saw this, they destroyed all clove trees on all islands except those are at Amboina and a few nearby islands. The result was obvious: a shortage in supply, scarcity, and a skyrocketing price of cloves in the global spice market. At that time, cloves in weight were worth more than the equivalent weight of gold. The trend was reversed over a period of time when spice plantations and supply started from other parts of the world, viz. Zanzibar, Brazil, the West Indies, etc.

Let’s talk about a few specific spices, at random.

Black pepper:

Black pepper from India

Black pepper is the most common spice traded and consumed worldwide. It is native to the South Indian Malabar Coast in the States of Kerala, Goa, and Karnataka. In the mummy of Ramesses II of Egypt, it was found that the nasal cavities were blocked with black peppercorns. One wonders, in those eras, how it reached from India to Egypt and was used in the process of mummification. In ancient Rome, Greece, etc., it was valued as black gold.

It is a dried fruit (the peppercorn) of the trailing vine plant. There are several varieties of pepper, depending upon the time of harvesting:

  1. White pepper: The red skins of the berries are removed, and then they are dried. 
  2. Green pepper: The berries are harvested before they are ripe, and then marinated or dried for a short duration of time. 
  3. Red pepper:  The berries are not plucked till they are fully ripe, then harvested, and marinated subsequently 
  4. Black pepper:  The berries are harvested much before they are ripe, and then they are dried for extended periods

It has applications as a spice in cooking foods, as a preservative, and also as a traditional medicine. It is used for the treatment of constipation, insomnia, oral abscesses, sunburn, toothaches, etc. It contains piperine, which is considered a type of antioxidant that helps to lower the risk of chronic illnesses.

In 2021, Vietnam was the largest producer of black pepper (288,167 metric tonnes), followed by Brazil (118,057 metric tonnes) and Indonesia (81,219 metric tonnes). Burkina Faso (67,983 metric tonnes) had the 4th position, and India occupied the 5th  position (64,816 metric tonnes). In that year, nine countries: Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, India, Sri Lanka (42,485 metric tonnes), China (33,133 metric tonnes), Malaysia (31,636 metric tonnes), and Tajikistan (21,269 metric tonnes) together produced more than 10,000 metric tonnes of black pepper.


The queen of spices

Cardamom, the “Queen of Spices,"  is one of the rarest and most expensive spices in the world. It is made from the seed pods of various plants in the ginger family. It is a spice with an intense, slightly sweet flavor. Though today it is available worldwide, it originated in the Western Ghats of southern India.

Cardamom is used to add flavour to foods, confections, and alcoholic beverages. It has high consumption in Middle Eastern countries, India, Pakistan, European Union member countries, the United States, and Japan. According to preliminary research, cardamom has been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-hypertensive, cholesterol-lowering, and blood sugar-lowering properties.

The global production of cardamom is approximately 35,000 metric tonnes per year. Guatemala is the top producer, followed by India. Other cardamom-producing countries are Tanzania, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, etc.


King of spices

If there is Queen of Spices, can the “King of Spices” be left behind? Clove is popularly called the King of Spices. These are aromatic flower buds from an evergreen tree that are native to Indonesia. This tree also grows in South America and a few other countries. As a spice, it is used to add flavour to desserts and drinks. They are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. They are used in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines.

Cloves are considered to have some anti-inflammatory properties, are added to mouthwashes, creams, gels, and oils, and are used to reduce toothache, dental pain, and plaque build-up.


Cumin is made from the dried seed of a plant known as Cuminum cyminum, which belongs to the parsley family. It is one of the most popular spices across the globe, used for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. In culinary preparations, cumin is used as a whole seed as well as in ground form. It provides a typical aroma and taste of both sweetness and bitterness.

In India, cumin has been used in cooking since ancient times. It entered Mexican and South American cuisines, courtesy of Spanish and Portuguese traders. Interestingly, excavation works in Egypt, Syria, etc. have revealed that cumin was used in the pastes to preserve the mummies! It appeared in the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.


Source: Internet

The irony is that nutmeg does not belong to a nut family. Nutmeg trees are native to Banda Island in eastern Indonesia. It is also cultivated in Penang Island in Malaysia, Grenada, Zanzibar and Malabar region of India. Old literatures mentions that nutmeg has entered into Indian cultivation and culinary from Indonesia.

Nutmeg is derived from the seeds of the Myristica fragrans tree, mace is another spice made from the seed covering, the fruit cover is used to prepare jam and the oil obtained by distillation of ground nutmeg is essential oil which has high demand in pharmaceutical and perfume industry. Nutmeg butter is another product from the nut.

Indonesia is world's largest (nearly 50%) producer of nutmeg, Grenada in second largest and India occupies the third position. Other major nutmeg producer countries are Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Tanzania/Zanzibar, Cameroon and Thailand. The Netherlands contributes in the global nutmeg trade as importer and processor.

This spice is a double edged sword. If consumed in smaller quantities, it provides relief from indigestion, insomnia etc. But absorbing in larger quantities causes intoxication, hallucination, unconsciousness and ultimately loss of life. Not recommended for the children, and pregnant women.  

Believe me, at one point in time, opium was an integral part of the global spice trade. Some of the spice traders were addicted to opium, and they were in the spice business to meet their own requirements for opium.

Spices in philately:

However, this is not a story of spices but that of spicy philately. The delicious spices have literally spiced up the world of philately. Tanzania Post, on June 18, 1984, while celebrating the 20th anniversary of the revolution, issued a set of four postage stamps. One of the stamps featured clove farming in Zanzibar.

Clove from Zanzibar (Source: Internet)

Zanzibar is also known as Spice Island. It has not only played a crucial role in the route of the spice trade from sixteenth century but also produces a variety of spices, even today. 

To and fro Dar Es Salaam - Zanzibar in VIP class by catamaran services

The entry of Zanzibar into the spice production and market was credited to Portuguese and Indian traders several centuries ago. 

Catamaran is ready to sail for Zanzibar from Dar Es Salaam

The Zanzibari spice basket mainly comprises clove, pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. 

Catamaran is docking at Zanzibar port (Karibu in Kswahili means Welcome)

The tourist industry of Zanzibar thrives on spice tourism, which covers spice plantations and spice markets (Darajani market) in Stone Town. 

Immigration counter at Zanzibar

A spice farm in Goa

It will not be out of point to mention that Goa, in India, has several spice farms and they do conduct spice tourism in truly Indian style.

Spices from St. Vincent (Source: Internet)

St. Vincent, under the Herbs and Spices series, issued on April 22, 1985, a set of four spice stamps, one each on pepper, sweet marjoram, nutmeg, and ginger.

Spice basket of India

Indian kings, nawabs, and emperors had been great connoisseurs of spicy foods. The cooking procedures, with spices, undertaken by the chefs or housewives are no less than the work done by the alchemists. Garam masala has been an integral part of Indian cuisine for generations. Garam masala is a traditional blend of spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, black pepper, bay leaf, cumin, mace, fennel, coriander, and nutmeg. It occupies a special place in every Indian kitchen. One can find spices even in a modest Indian kitchen. Their mixing proportion ratio delivers a special appeal to the food, the secret of which has been passed on from one generation to another. The combination of spices varies from dish to dish as well as according to the expertise and experience of the cook, whether at home or at a five-star restaurant.

Indian spice's First Day Cover

On April 29th, 2009, India Post issued a set of five diamond shaped stamps displaying typical spices. Four stamps, each worth INR 5, were issued, showing individually cardamom (ilaichi), black pepper (kali mirch), cinnamon (dalchini), and clove (laung). 

Assorted Indian Spices

The fifth stamp of face value INR 20,  featured three spices collectively, viz., turmeric (haldi), chilli (mirch), and corriander (dhaniya).

Spices from Malaysia (Source: Internet)

Malaysia Post, on March 28, 2011, issued stamps, miniature sheets, First Day Covers, and stamp booklets featuring fennel seeds, turmeric, chilli, coriander, and white pepper. 

Miniature Sheet and First Day Cover on spices from Malaysia (Source: Internet)

Spices from Singapore (Source: Internet)

Under the Spices of Singapore series, on July 15, 2011, Singapore Post issued a set of five stamps depicting cinnamon, coriander, star anise, tamarind, and turmeric.

Remotely related to spices (Source: Internet)

There are postage stamps issued on Spice Girls, but that’s a different story.




The noble objective of this blog, is to promote the hobby of philately through images of stamps, a few pictures and related narration. The scans of a few stamps, featured in this blogpost are mine while others (sourced from internet) are properties of their respective owners. No intention to infringe any type of copyright. 

The information provided in the article is for general informational purposes only. All information is provided in good faith. This is only for sharing of knowledge of philately with philatelist fraternity of the world. No commercial or political angle, whatsoever, is involved. This is not a historical document. Under no circumstances, I shall have any liability for reliance on any information provided in the story.


The story was published in the June 2024 issue of popular philatelic e-magazine 'Ananthapuri Stamp Bulletin'. Incidentally, it was the 100th issue of the publication. Scans of the relevant part of the story is given below:

Cover page

The index page

Page 1 of 4

Page 2 of 4

Page 3 of 4

Page 4 of 4


  1. Thanks Prof. Biswas for adding spice to one's life through your well researched blog inputs. Kudos to you!

    1. Your kind remarks have added more spice in the story. Regards

  2. Really liked it especially the style where you add a personalised touch like the boarding pass. You have woven a beautiful tapestry in words to publish years of research. Keep it up Dada. Anita Acharyya

    1. Thank you for reading. Appreciate your kind feedback. Regards.


What's Life Without Spices?

Indian spices on stamp In the wonderful world of culinary arts, a spice is a product derived from natural plant sources that adds more value...