A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why are there so many spices in the Spice Islands?

August 2, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

This is a serious question. We are not trying to be smart alecks. Why is there such a concentration of spices in the Spice Islands?

This is a serious answer: There isn't--that is to say, the Spice Islands aren't home to a memorably large number of spices. The significance of the islands lies not so much in the variety of spices available there as in their historical position as a source of spices that were new to European tables during the Age of Exploration. 

The history of the Spice Islands is long, exotic, exciting, and rich with colorful characters and stories, nearly all of which I'm going to ignore to keep this article to a reasonable length. To learn more about the history of the region, I recommend Spice: The History of a Temptation, which is listed in the references.

Which are the Spice Islands? The term is commonly understood to indicate the Moluccas, an Indonesian archipelago also known as the Maluku Islands. However, it also has been applied to a group of three Tanzanian islands off the east coast of Africa--Mafia Island, Pemba, and Zanzibar. At times, people have included Sri Lanka among the Spice Islands, and sometimes the term is used collectively to describe all of the spice-producing islands south of India. Trading ships sent to the Spice Islands would likely also have stopped at ports on the Indian mainland, since a wide variety of spices (such as peppercorns from the Malabar coast) have been available from India since antiquity.

Only three spices of importance are native to the Moluccas: cloves, nutmeg, and mace. Since mace is just the lacy covering of the nutmeg seed, one could say the Moluccas are home to only two spices. However, most chefs and spice lovers would be horrified at the thought that nutmeg and mace were interchangeable, so let's consider them to be separate. Nutmeg is native to the Banda Islands of the eastern Moluccas, and cloves were originally found in the Moluccan islands of Bacan, Halmahera, Ternate, and Tidore. Cinnamon is a native of Sri Lanka and known since antiquity, so if we broaden our definition of the Spice Islands to include Sri Lanka, then we have four common spices from the Spice Islands. There's an Indonesian cinnamon, cinnamomum burmannii, as well as a variety found in Burma, but it is unclear to me if cinnamon from those regions was a major part of trade in antiquity.

These once rare and expensive spices can now be found in nearly everyone's spice rack and are used in a wide variety of restaurant dishes and processed foods. As of 2000 (the most recent year I found data for), United States imports of these spices were:

Spice Metric Tons Primary Source
Cassia and cinnamon (ground) 2,033 Indonesia
Cassia and cinnamon (raw) 14,764 Indonesia
Cloves 1,095 Madagascar
Mace 200 Indonesia
Nutmeg 1,917 Indonesia

Indonesia, home to the original Spice Islands, clearly is still a major source of spices, but we find some interesting statistics and trends. For example, Indonesia, once the sole clove exporter, is now a net importer of cloves. In 1999, Indonesian demand was approximately 100,000 tons of cloves, with a production shortfall of about 30,000 tons. There are two reasons for this, the first being widespread use of kretek cigarettes, which are made from a mixture of tobacco and cloves. The second is reduced production of cloves by Indonesian farmers, reputedly the result of dirty dealing between the government and a clove monopoly.

World nutmeg demand is roughly 9-10,000 metric tons per year. Until recently about 70 percent of all nutmeg was supplied by Indonesia and about 25 percent by the Caribbean island of Grenada. (The spice has been grown in Grenada since about 1850, where it is sometimes called the retirement tree, due to the profitable and popular custom of small-scale production.) However, nutmeg production has been declining in Indonesia, due to civil unrest in nutmeg-producing areas, failure to develop new crops of trees, and increased competition from efficient Grenada producers. As a result, Indonesia currently produces around 5-6,000 metric tons of nutmeg per year (exact figures are difficult to come by). World production of mace is estimated at 1,500-2,000 metric tons per year. Since mace comes from the same tree as nutmeg, the distribution of mace production mirrors that of nutmeg. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Sri Lanka exported 11,068 metric tons of cinnamon in 2003, comprising most of the world production of true cinnamon. Much of what is sold as cinnamon is not really true Sri Lankan or southern Indian cinnamon, but rather Chinese cassia cinnamon, which is native to that country. Lately fierce Vietnamese cassia cinnamon has been gaining popularity, although some chefs believe it has too strong a flavor. The cinnamon-like malabathrum (also known as Indian bay leaves), a plant native to northern India, is often found in Indian spice mixes in place of true cinnamon. However, some Indian chefs say they prefer the taste of malabathrum cinnamon over that of Sri Lankan cinnamon in certain dishes, so it's not necessarily a case of like-for-like substitution. Although Sri Lankan cinnamon is widely considered the only true cinnamon, some sources say the first cinnamon known to Europe was actually cassia cinnamon, most likely arriving via overland trade from China.

Why are these spices found in the Spice Islands? Nobody knows, although climate and terrain are probably contributing factors. The Moluccas are mostly volcanic and covered with lush vegetation in a tropical rainforest climate, which is well suited to nutmeg and cloves among other crops. The spice trees evidently evolved in isolation on the islands, as they were unknown elsewhere prior to the commencement of trade. Sri Lanka has a similar climate, often subject to monsoons, although the landscape is a bit less hilly than the Moluccas. The cinnamon of Sri Lanka and southern India is said to be very difficult to grow commercially elsewhere, with the only other major production region being part of the Seychelles.

To summarize, few spices are native to the Spice Islands, although those that are are distinctive. The reputation of the Spice Islands no doubt arises from their importance in the larger spice trade of south Asia, which, as a trip out to the curry buffet at lunch will confirm, is rich with a variety of lovely spices.

References

Janssen, Peter, "Indonesia's 500-Year-Old Nutmeg Trade On The Wane," Digital Journal, December 9, 2002 

Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages, www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/

Herbalgram, Journal of the American Botanical Council, number 47, page 63.

"Nutmeg and derivatives," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, working paper MISC/94/7, September, 1994 

Penzey's Spices, early summer 2005 catalog, Penzey's Spice Company

Marcelle, Guido B., "Production, handling and processing of nutmeg and mace and their culinary uses," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1995

Turner, Jack, Spice: The History of a Temptation, 2004

U.S. Dept. of Commerce, "Tropical Products: World Markets and Trade," circular FTROP 1-01, March 2001 

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