Western civilization has undergone a series of dramatic changes since the discovery of spices and herbs. Today, most homes use spices to make food and drink taste great and they are cost effective. However, this was not the case in the ancient and medieval times when spices were costly and only affordable by wealthy individuals. Products such as medicine, perfume, flavoring, and incense were considered to be precious commodities.

Spices have been in use since ancient times. They were first used by Asians, Arabians, and people in the Mediterranean region. Owing to its high demand, many countries have fought very hard in the past to control its production and trade. This has caused several wars and the deaths of men who risked their lives.

Some people believe in the Assyrian myth that claims that spices were first used by the gods when they drank wine made of sesame before creating the earth. The hieroglyphics in the Great Pyramid of Giza describe the early uses of spices, garlic and onions were eaten for strength. The Bible also records the use of spices as an important commodity.

According to the records found among the ancient Sumerians, spices were first used as medicines about five thousand years ago. The Chinese also have records that claim that they had been using over 300 types of herbs and spices for making medicine. Over 3,000 years ago, spices were also used for embalming mummies. Greece and Rome are also known for their historic use of spices. Laurel leaves were used in Greece to make wreaths for congratulating their heroes. In Rome, spices were used to perform magic and sorcery.

Spice trade first began around 300 BC by the people in the Mediterranean region. Large quantities of spices were carried on donkeys and camels via the Incense Route to other places such as Egypt and Syria. The increasing demand for spices led to the discovery of other spice routes including sea routes. The first sea route to be developed for this purpose was the Malabar Coast of India, which led to the Persian Gulf, Babylon, Antioch, the Coast of Arabia and the Red Sea.

When the Roman Empire began to dominate, they took charge of the spice trade. Their major route was the sea route from India to Egypt. Unfortunately, it normally took two years to transport their goods through the Indian Sea. The length of time was shortened to less than one year when they began to take advantage of the Monsoon winds. The spices they frequently traded include pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Apart from trading these spices, the Romans also used them to make perfumes, medicines, cosmetics and their meals.

Between the 5th and 15th century, there was so much demand for spices by the Europeans that the prices increased exponentially. During this time, the world's highest producers of the most important spices were China, India and Indonesia. In the 13th century, Marco Polo transformed Venice, Italy into an important trade port. Marco Polo's achievement was gained after he explored Asia in the 13th century.

From the 15th to the 17th century, there were wars among Spain, Portugal, England and Holland. These countries fought for supremacy over the Spice Islands. For instance, in 1780, there was war between Dutch and English over the spice trade. The war caused the destruction of the Dutch East India Company and about nineteen years later; all the trading centers that belonged to the Dutch were lost. Holland took control of northern Europe but this did not last up to the beginning of the 19th century.

In 1819, Britain gained the rights to the island of Singapore. This achievement led to the immediate establishment of a major trading port for spice trade. Later in 1824, the region was divided into two under an agreement between Britain and Netherlands. The two regions were Malaya and present day Indonesia. In 1826, Singapore, Malacca and Penang formed the Straits Settlement. The Singapore River was an important route for spice trade during this period.

America joined the spice trade in 1672. America used ships to transport lots of tea, coffee, textiles and spices to the East. Within ninety years, more than 1,000 ships had been used to trade these items. However, America is now the largest importer of spices while India is the largest exporter in the world.

Spices in the Medieval Times

Spices became more popular among several people in the world during the middle ages. During this time, several Christian movements were held in places rich in spices so when visitors came around, they often took one or more types as they traveled back home. Some of the crusaders were kings, knights and lords who held leadership positions in their various places. Women were also part of the crusaders and they were taught that spices were important ingredient for cooking delicious meals.

Following this development, most people changed their trade to buying and selling spices. The most popular spices on the market at the time were pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, saffron, cardamom, coriander, cumin, garlic, turmeric, mace, mustard and caraway. Garlic was mainly imported to Europe form Rome while cloves were native to the Moluccas Spice Islands. Ginger was used in most homes during the 14th and 15th century as substitute for pepper when it became very expensive as a result of its high demand. It was popularly called the "Grains of Paradise". Saffron was used as a coloring agent for food in addition to the unique taste it provided.

During the middle ages, spices were used mainly for cooking. They were believed to be ingredients used by the rich and they were used as special additives for guests during meals. They were also used in the production of wine and as gifts. Spices were thought to be helpful in digesting food.

For several years, spices played major roles in western civilization. Spices lead to the development of economies and the outbreak of wars among several countries. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the largest producers of spices from 2003 to 2004 were the Indians. They produced about 86% of the world's total demand of spices. China was next on the chart with 4% of the world's spices coming from there. Other top producers were Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey and Nepal. Today, spices are no longer as expensive as they were known be in the past. Many new varieties of spices have been developed to meet high demand. Spices are used by most people to cook at home and make commercial products such as wine and perfume.

2737 B.C. – According to legend, tea was first discovered by Chinese emperor Shen Nung when he was sitting under a tea tree with a bowl of boiled water. The tea leaves fell in his bowl and changed the color of the water. The emperor took a sip of it and was amazed by its flavor. There are other stories about the origin of tea where it’s believed the emperor tried and tested many herbs on his own body and concluded that tea leaves had restorative properties. The Chinese were first to have used tea as a beverage.

59 B.C. – The first book with instructions on the use of tea and methods of preparation was written by Wang Bao.

220 A.D. – A surgeon by the name of Hua Tuo wrote a book on how tea helped to improve mental function. The name of the book was Shin Lun.

350 A.D. – A Chinese dictionary cites tea for the first time.

400 to 700 A.D. – During 400 to 600 A.D., the demand for tea and its cultivation increased across China. Tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks during the Sui Dynasty in 589 to 618 A.D. Along with the principles of Buddhism, tea was spread by monks and priests from China to Japan. For the first time, tea seeds were bought to Japan by a priest named Saicho. In the sixth century, tea became a part of spiritual and religious ceremonies in Japan. Tea was popular with the royal class and Japanese rulers encouraged the cultivation of tea plants in Japan. Later, green tea became a part of the lifestyle of cultural society in Japan, and it was also popular with Buddhist priests. The production of tea increased but it was enjoyed mostly by the upper class of Japan. In 479 A.D., it was recorded that Turkish traders started to deal with tea on the border of Mongolia.

780 A.D. – The first tea tax was imposed in China. Around this period, the poet Lu Yu wrote about the use of tea in Taoist beliefs. The book provided detailed information about tea cultivation and the method of preparing tea.

800 A.D. - 900 A.D. – During 800 A.D., Zen Buddhists carried tea along with them and it became an essential part of their practice. It’s believed that the priests used tea to improve their powers of concentration.

879 A.D. – Tea was spread to other parts of the world by Arabian travelers. 

960 A.D. to 1280 A.D. – During the Sung Dynasty, tea was served in special tea cups and porcelain pottery. Elegant teahouses used pottery and porcelain to serve tea as a beverage, integrating the custom into the social fabric of the Chinese.

1101 -1125 A.D. – The Chinese Emperor Hui Tsung further promoted tea through tea tasting tournaments and tea whisking. During this period, sophisticated tea houses were being built across China.

1206 A.D. – Mongols took over China and established the Yuan Dynasty. The significance of tea amidst aristocratic class reduced and tea was served as a commonplace beverage rather than the drink of the rich. Since the Mongolian emperors were not interested in drinking tea, the culture of tea drinking amongst the rich people diminished. During this time, tea was prepared with onions, spices, ginger, and oranges, and it was cultivated as a medicinal beverage in China.

1422 to 1502 A.D. – The Japanese tea ceremony was first conducted by Zen priests and the ceremony was called Cha-no-yu, meaning “hot water tea.” The ceremony was held to celebrate the aspects of everyday life and tea became a vital part of religious groups. In Japan, similar ceremonies related to tea, its painting, and drama were promoted by Shogun Yoshimasa. Japan’s tea ceremonies were inspired by the Chinese tea ceremonies. The ceremony became a dominating part of the feudal system of Japan. There were tea competitions where prizes such as jewels and armor could be won. Tea was further promoted in Japan by Sen No Rikyu who opened a number of teahouses and promoted tea ceremonies as an aesthetical ritual. During the ceremony, people were allowed to go through a garden way to the portico and enter the host’s place. Then, they would go through a special room to the tearoom which had a flower arrangement, and the tea master would provide a powdered tea, which would give the drinkers an intense feeling.

1550 A.D. Onwards – Europeans learned about tea through the Venetian author who claimed that “the lives of Asians were longer due to tea drinking practices.” Europeans came to know about tea from Portuguese priests who went to Japan to spread Roman Catholicism and when they tasted tea, they wrote about its medicinal properties and flavor. As the European trade with China increased, more traders were interested in taking back tea to Europe but the people of Europe were not aware of the method of preparing tea. The first few shipments of tea to Europe were very expensive and drinking tea was considered to be a symbol of wealth. In 1557 A.D. – Portuguese travelers had a trading point in Macau where the word “cha” was used to describe tea. At that time, tea was salted, buttered, and eaten by some. It was not used as a beverage until 1560 when Portuguese missionaries started trading with China and tea was regularly imported to Europe through Portugal.

1597 A.D. – Tea was first mentioned in English literature by a Dutch navigator known as Jan Hugo Van Linschooten who called tea “cha”. The Dutch East India Company promoted the cultivation of tea in Indiath century. Initially, the beverage was highly expensive which could only be afforded by the upper classes. Dutch companies brought green tea from Japan and tea became popular in the country. in the 16

1635 A.D. – Physicians in Germany tried to analyze the properties of tea and wrote about the dangers of drinking tea. Debate over the benefits and harmful effect of tea was raised in various parts of Europe.

1637 A.D. – Tea became the beverage of aristocrats when the wives of wealthy Dutch merchants served tea at parties. The tea party became a social phenomenon for the women in Europe where women from different social classes would come together. Unfortunately, the husbands began to see that tea parties had a negative impact on family structure. Soon, reformer groups in Europe began to call for a ban on tea. At the same time, Dutch doctors promoted the beneficial effects of tea while the doctors in France and Germany emphasized the dangers of tea. Although tea was said to have certain negative health impacts, tea drinking had grown in Europe. It was considered safe to drink boiled water instead of “plain water” and tea became an important part of European life. The promotion of tea in Europe reduced the consumption of alcohol so it was championed.

1650 A.D. – Various types of tea were introduced to New York and London.

1657 A.D. – Tea was first sold as a heath beverage. Britain was one of the last countries to get tea as a gift.

1664 A.D. – For the first time, the Royals of Britain consumed the tea which was presented by the British East India Company. With the introduction of afternoon tea, the British could develop a healthier lifestyle because their cuisine was typically meat-heavy and tea could help to detoxify their bodies. Tea was considered to be the best beverage with baked dishes and it was also loved for its variety of unique aroma and flavor.

1669 A.D. – The East India Company convinced the British government to ban tea imported from the Netherlands, enhancing its monopoly in the tea trade. In the 17th century, Russia extended the imports of tea and hundreds of traders traveled on camels to fulfill the rising demand for tea in Russia. The custom of tea drinking flourished in Russia during this time and they invented novel tea-drinking methods like topping tea with lemon or drinking tea with sugar held between teeth.

1700 A.D. – After the introduction of tea in London in 1652, the British imported more than 240,000 pounds of tea.

1800 A.D. – Tea became a part of the British way of life and during the Opium War, the British established its dominance in the tea trade.

1835 A.D. – The East India Company promoted tea plantation in India in Assam. The tea cultivated in India was sent to England during this time and it became very popular due to its unique properties.

1840 to 1850 A.D. – Imports of tea from India and China increased and a tea plantation started in Sri Lanka.

1866 A.D. – More than 90 percent of Britain’s tea came from China.

1876 A.D. – Thomas Johnstone Lipton started the first tea shop in Glasgow, Scotland. In the 19th century, tea became a part of every social movement in America and Europe and tea shops became social places where people met to discuss social and political issues.

1900 A.D. to Present – With changes in society and culture, tea can be found in many different shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. It can be black or green but it is still a part of every society. Some of the health benefits of green tea have further raised its popularity and many millions of people across the world drink tea every day.