Saturday, March 17, 2007
Spices are an inescapable part of Malaysian life. Every local cuisine uses a spice of some kind, yet not every consumer is aware of the long and glorious history of the spice trade.
The Spice Journeys exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum aims to highlight the link between trade, spices and the expansion of Islam. The colourful story they are telling is accompanied by equally colourful pictures and artefacts.
Spices were clearly an essential part of early Islamic cuisine, and have remained so ever since. The Sufi master Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi used food as a metaphor in much of his philosophy and organised his dervish brotherhood around the kitchen. Among the spices that appeared in his recipes were cumin, black pepper, cinnamon and sumac.
Spices changed every life they touched, and with the greater availability after the 17th century, they touched a huge number of lives. The world’s rarest produce has today become among the most commonplace things.
There are a few exceptions, however: saffron is still worth considerably more than its weight in gold. The most exotic manifestation of spices is now reserved for perfumes. Nina Ricci’s classic L’Air du Temps somehow seems more magical when it is revealed that it incorporates bergamot, sandalwood and clove, as well as the musk that was such a delight to the Prophet Muhammad.
How these came to be in Ricci’s perfume is very much a result of the Islamic world’s contribution to trade.
The exhibition shows how this contribution worked. There are navigational instruments such as astrolabes – for helping mariners find their way, as well as getting their prayer times right – to medical books that emphasise the importance of certain spices.
Even public bathhouses, which later acquired a different sort of reputation, were once an important link in the spice trade.
The most profitable destination in this global network was South-East Asia. As the source of the most expensive of all spices, it eventually became a significant part of the Islamic world. Arab traders had been visiting the Malay Archipelago long before it became Muslim.
Journeys: Taste and Trade in the Islamic World is at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia until April 18