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February 17, 2019

A spicy life

On behalf of the King of Portugal, Vasco da Gama killed a lot of people. The King was an ambitious man and wished to be crowned as the King of Jerusalem in addition to making money trading in spices. Vasco da Gama born of noble family was a highly successful sailor who in 1497 was given command of four vessels with instructions to find a way for Portugal to reach India by sea. The plan was that if the Portuguese could find a route that bypassed the dangerous Arab peninsula and Asian middlemen who dominated the spice trade, and then they could become a world power. So da Gama set off, taking advantage of the prevailing winds off the West African coast to reach the Cape of Good Hope and round the southern tip of Africa. By this time he reached the Indian Ocean his crew were sick with scurvy and he had to stop first in Mozambique then later in Mombasa and Malindi. Good fortune favoured him in Malindi, as that is where he met the famous Arab navigator Ahmed Ibn Majid who guided him to India. In so doing Vasco da Gama became the first European to sail directly from Europe to India around Africa. For his efforts when he returned home laden with spices, he was promoted to Admiral; and his journey paved way for the establishment of the Portuguese empire, which lasted hundreds of years. The history is an interesting one, however the fascinating question is what was so important about spices that nations were willing to make huge investments and kill people? 

The use of spices in food has a long history. Historians have always wondered what ancient people ate. In the absence of written recipe books, scientists try to find out by studying ancient pottery for remains of food. Where the maid was not diligent in scrubbing the pot after use, a common problem even today, remains of food would fossilize into what are called phytoliths, which are particles of carbonised plant tissue. By finding and dating these particles scientists have found evidence of the use of garlic mustard seed dating back about 8,000 years. Until this discovery the assumption had been that hunter-gatherers and early farmers focused on basic nutrition; chasing antelopes across the plains, having little time to cook a meal in the face of hostile wildlife everywhere. However the mustard seed has a strong flavour and little nutritional value, suggesting that it could have been used as a spice to add taste and flavour to food rather than as nutrient. Given this long history of man using spices it is interesting to observe the use of spices in Kenya, where apart from recent imported Indian cuisine and the use of spices at the coast, in the hinterland of Kenya many communities use only salt as added flavour to their foods. Think ugali and nyama choma as the classic examples. There is a strange lack of diversity in the palate. Unfortunately this over-reliance on salt as the sole flavour has consequences.

Salt as we know is sodium chloride. The body needs sodium especially because it helps maintain the right fluid balance, is essential for nerve conduction and influences the contraction and relaxation of muscles. One of the main functions of the kidney is to regulate the amount of sodium in the body. Sodium as an element is highly reactive and cannot exist on its own and in the body it will hang on to water for dear life. Excess sodium in the body therefore means excess water, which often also means a high blood pressure since the blood vessels have a defined capacity. Excess salt intake therefore often leads to a high blood pressure. This has been found to be especially true of African Americans and is believed to be true of Africans as well. A chronically high blood pressure leads eventually to heart and kidney failure and possibly stroke as well.

Few of us monitor the amount of salt that we take in our diet everyday. Almost every recipe that exists calls for some salt to be added. More and more of us eat processed food, which by definition mostly means salt or salt and sugar and various other chemicals has been added to preserve the food or enhance its flavour. A common additive to ‘boring’ foods like kale is to add stock cubes, essentially salt. When food comes to the table we add more salt either directly or in disguise as tomato ketchup. We then try to counter the saltiness by drinking water or in the case of those misguided by advertisements carbonated water containing lots of sugar.

History does not tell us whether the King of Portugal, Vasco da Gama and those who traded in spices were worried about high blood pressure, but the use of spices certainly can reduce the use of salt as a flavour. Using spices is therefore a way to lower your blood pressure not only by reducing salt intake, but eating well spiced foods also reduces stress and unlike what happened hundreds of years ago you do not have to kill to find spices.

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