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How Cinnamon from India spiced up Christmas in Europe

Christmas decorations inside the botanical garden in Rome

The three Magi as they are called are an important part of all Christmas Nativity traditions, and often described as the three wise men of the “east” or the three kings of the east. Some Biblical scholars contend they may have been representatives of the Persian/Parthian priestly class, who worshipped fire, studied stars and astrology (and hence read the symbolism of the star of Bethlehem).Magi in fact is plural for magus, now commonly a term used for magicians in fantasy fiction!

Is there an India connection to the Magi, as also to other Christmas traditions of which an association with warming spices is the most evocative?

Typically, the three magi are represented as men in different stages of life—Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar are supposed to be young, middle-aged and old, and aged 20, 40, and 60 years. Their origins are subject to much conjecture too, and at least one account suggests Caspar or Gaspar (the oldest of the three) to be a king from India. Various traditions suggest he brings with him the gift of myrrh, a resin oil that embalmed the dead in the ancient world (myrrh, coming from the word “bitter”) but was also used in perfumery.

We will return to this in just a bit.

Caspar or Gaspar, at least one fascinating account I read, can be conjectured as referring to Gondophares or Gudapharna, the founder of the Indo-Parthian empire with its seat in Gandhara (that the name of the king also references), and which extended from ancient Persia and Afghanistan to what is now modern-day Punjab. The Parthians and the Indo Parthians came up after the powerful Mauryan empire in India which had also stretched to modern day Afghanistan disintegrated. Gandhara, or modern-day Kandahar, as we all know was an ancient Indian outpost, an important Buddhist centre, and an epic kingdom

m that finds a mention in the Mahabharata too; aka Gandhari, the daughter of the king of Gandhar.

The Parthians in Persia were succeeded by the Sassanids, the last Persian kingdom before the Islamic conquest of the region; the cult of the fire priests or magi continued through that time(from the 2nd century to the 7th century AD), till the Islamic conquest drove out the fire worshipping community — some fled to Gujarat, where they were welcomed by the local King, and settled here intermingling with the local community, incorporating Gujarati and ancient Persian traditions seamlessly into delicious food. We are of course talking about the small but enterprising community of Parsis in India.

But while Caspar or Gaspar’s connection with the Parsis may be fascinating, the symbolism of myrrh, a resin with medicinal qualities, that he carried from east to the west as a precious and therapeutic ingredient is full of symbolism too.

The oleo resin, used for healing, as a mouth wash and to prevent stomach ailments, has been used as an oil to anoint kings ever since, and though modern-day Myrrh is also used in some of the priciest perfumes in the world as also in some gins, the ancient myrrh may have been a generic term to refer to any resin or natural extracts from different varieties of trees.

We can only conjecture whether hing, another resin (of which the best was from Kandahar, the Kandhari hing is still much vaunted), may have been part of myrrh oil from the east that the west used.

Regardless, the journey of the Magi also shows us another important feature of the ancient world– how the world’s most precious commodities, spices, as well as knowledge of their therapeutic uses, travelled from the east, from India, to the west or Europe, via Arab lands and the Mediterranean.

Today, think of Christmas celebrations, and the comforting sweet smells of cinnamon waft up automatically. Cinnamon is the most important Christmas spice– whether it is in hot chocolate, mulled wine, or the cakes, breads and puddings of winter festivities of different parts of Europe. And various Christmas spice mixes—comprising of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, may as well be a referencing of the Indian garam masala tradition, a tradition of spicing that originated in India and has at its base Ayurveda and its tenets of seasonal spicing to keep ailments at bay.

Warming or hot spices were commonly used in India to keep everything from colds to blood disorders at bay and incorporated into royal cuisines of the Mughals, the nawabs and the nizams. But equally, the idea of treating food and even water with spices for therapy seems to have dispersed from India to the West through ancient (as also more modern) times.

In medieval Europe, we all know pepper and cinnamon were used as preservatives for, to remove foul smells from food and wine in the absence of modern refrigeration and purification systems, as well as to treat maladies; an idea from ancient Greek medicine that seems to have travelled west from ancient India.

Cinnamon, alternatively known as karpion or tvak in ancient India was a precious spice native to south India and Ceylon, from where Arab traders took it, via Alexandria, to Rome.

They kept their source hidden however, and there are many colourful accounts of what the spice actually was and how and where it was procured from. In ancient Mediterranean, cinnamon as also tejpat, the leaf of the same tree, were expensive, distilled with oil and used in perfumery and food and drink.

In fact the idea of the highly perfumed Roman wines (with cinnamon) may have come from the idea of perfumed water in ancient India, where tvak, which is mentioned by both Sushrutha and Vaghbhat, was used to flavour drinking water.

In fact, what the ancient western world didn’t know also was that another precious spice known as malabathrum to the Romans, (it is mentioned in the first century Greek Periplus of the Erythraean Sea), and used to make various oils for cooking, as also to flavour wine, was the leaves of the same tree from which cinnamon, the bark, came from.

In ancient Greece, malabathrum was used to flavour wine along with absinth wormwood, and to distil oil to make a caraway sauce for oysters described by the Roman father of gastronomy Apicus, who says every good kitchen must have malabathrum. In fact, according to Pliny the Elder, one Roman pound (about 327 g) of cinnamon cost 1500 dinari or wages for 50 months of labour in the ancient European world!

By the time we come to a more medieval world with trade between the East and the west being controlled by the Arabs and the Venetians, we find cinnamon still in high demand.

Marco Polo, the medieval Venetian traveller, describes it as growing in the “pandya” country– modern day Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. The search for spices such as this and pepper, that were draining Europe’s wealth to India brought the Europeans east and we all know about 19th century Colonialism as a result.

In India, the English started the practice of drinking “burnt wine” to cure stomach ailments—adding cinnamon to warmed up wine, a predecessor of another common Christmas tradition, mulled wine.

While in ancient and medieval India, cinnamon had been commonly used to impart aroma to food—KT Achaya mentions curd in south India flavoured with cinnamon, ginger and pepper and Mughal recipes have a sprinkling of cinnamon or cardamom along with pepper to finish dishes, how cinnamon became the quintessential Christmas spice is a story in itself.

The Empire Marketing Board in the 1920—promoting ingredients from all over the British empire, in order to boost the economy of Britain—published a recipe of the emperor’s Christmas pudding with different ingredients from different parts of the commonwealth—sultanas from Australia, candied peel from South Africa, cloves from Zanzibar, rum from Jamaica… you get the drift.

That recipe contains cinnamon from India or Ceylon (from where the best quality comes), as also “Pudding spice” from India, that one can only assume was a version of the garam masala Indian cooks had been using since centuries to provide aroma as also therapeutic value according to Ayurveda to food.

This tradition of spicing was likely picked up by Anglo Indian cookery, a result of Indian cooks cooking for homes supervised by the memsahibs.

This Christmas, as you eat a plum pudding or cake, think back to the journey of spices as also the journey of the magi!

(Anoothi Vishal is the author of Mrs LC’s Table. She is also a columnist and food writer, specialising in cuisine history)