So full of ginger and pepper and other spices…

Travels of Jean Baptiste Tavernier to India and With Contemporary Commentary


In these mini series, Andy Hodgins, a Canadian traveler and adventurer, will take you with him to places where prominent travelers visited in the past and provide you with insightful articles which are unique amalgamations of his and ancient voyager’s travels.

Briefly about Jean Baptiste Tavernier

‘If the first education is, as it were, a second birth, I am able to say that I came into the world with a desire to travel.’  So wrote Parisian Jean Baptiste Tavernier who in the 1630s, by the time he was twenty five, had managed a grand tour of Europe. By his own account he managed to take in France, England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Hungary and Italy, and picked up a healthy range of European languages. Thereafter he had a desire to see Asia, and so he did.  He made a total of six trips to the east, the first as far as Isfahan in Persia, the remaining five to India and beyond, his third journey taking him as far as Java.

He was a man willing to face the dangers of travel of the time.  He boarded a Dutch ship when in which he knew there was a good chance it would be attacked by the English, ‘This combat was not without my life having been in jeopardy, more particularly from a cannon shot which struck two Dutchmen who were close to me, and a splinter of the vessel cut open the head of another and carried away a part of my coat, so that I was covered with the blood of these Dutchmen who were slain at my side.’

Jean Baptiste Tavernier

He was a diamond merchant, the trade of his family and the income from which he used to afford his travels, this was also the profession which brought him into contact with the jewel loving Indian monarchs of the time.  He is famed for returning to France and selling a 118-carat blue diamond to Louis XIV, which subsequently turned up in London as The Hope diamond.  As a jewel merchant he was able to travel well; always with servants, minders of animals and cooks, his entourage often counting fifty people.   With his valuable cargo he required the protection of armed horsemen, often provided by local governors for his wellbeing.  He could afford to travel by animal, by carriage when the roads were so suited or to be carried in a Pallankeen by four or more persons.  There is a portrait of him, done in Europe probably at the end of his Asian travels in which he is dressed in apparent Persian garb.  He is a large man with a large girth and heavy jowls an image of a man who quite likely ate well and made little physical effort.

Food of India

And he ate well, always having with him a cook ‘who understood cooking better than the Dutch in India, and knew how to make good soup and to bake.’  This was to help him while in India to eat as much as possible as a European.  He carried with him always Spanish or Persian wines which were shared whenever the opportunity arose, usually in the company of other Europeans.  ‘Arriving in Patna with M. Bernier, we encountered some Dutchmen in the street who were returning to Chapa, but who halted their carriages in order to salute us.  We did not separate before we had emptied together two bottles of Shiraz wine in the open street.’ Similar episodes occurred while on his travels and not just with Europeans but with local travelling merchants or local governors who, when they heard he was nearby, would seek him out to share in his spirits.

A stall in a spice market in India

He did eat the food of India, for it would be unlikely that he could have spent that much time there without having to resort to the local fare.  He did not bring food with him for his servants ‘even in the smallest villages, they always found in abundance rice, flour, butter, milk, beans and other vegetables, sugar and other sweetmeats, dry and liquid.’  His fame as a diamond merchant had the local governors send him gifts of rice pillaus, ‘hams, ox tongues, sausages, fish, watermelons and other fruits of the country.’  He would entertain others with pigeons with pistachios piled in pyramids.

There were the foods of the Moghuls, of north India, a food heavily influenced by Persia from where the ruling Moghuls drew much of their cultural influence.  When he travelled further south, to the mines of Golconda outside of modern day Hyderabad he encountered different foods and while entertained by local Princes found ‘their rice and vegetables, which constitute…all their dishes, were so full of pepper, ginger and other spices that it was impossible for me to eat them, and I left the repast with a very good appetite.’

Tavernier found it impossible to eat food with pepper, ginger and other spices, this is where the man disappoints.  Willing to leave his home time and again, travel to distant lands, entertaining and entertained in these lands, for the most part enjoying the foods and willingly sharing his wines of Spain and Persia, these pleasures are all part of what the travel experience should be.  Except having my clothing covered with the blood of Dutchmen, this is the travelling that has always drawn me to all parts of the world and the food, whether of China, Turkey, Italy or Mexico has always been of prime consideration.  For a man to travel to India and balk at some ‘pepper, ginger and other spices’ is really quite surprising.

The map of Tavernier’s travels

A history shaped by spices

Traders have been venturing to India for Millennia in search of spices. From the east the people of the Malay Archipelago arrived on the Malabar Coast to trade their own spices for pepper during the first century.  The Chinese arrived shortly after incorporating pepper into their own recipes.  Indian trade to the west took shape about the same time.  To the same Indian ports sailed small ships by crewed Indians, Persians, Arabs and Greeks from the shores of the Indian Ocean.  In Rome these spices became much sought after and used, as they were quite pricey, in the wealthier kitchens of the land.  The increased imports to Rome caught the attention of Pliny who complained that Roman trade with India drained the Empire of 550 million sesterces.  I don’t know how to value a sesterces but 550 million drew the attention of Pliny, it must have been substantive.

The interest in pepper, ginger and other spices did not diminish after the fall of Rome and any European who happened by took note of pepper production or the markets.  The Byzantine Cosmas Indicopleustas took note of pepper in the sixth century while checking out the churches of the Indian Ocean.  Marco Polo made note of it late in the thirteenth century while returning from China.  Ibn Battuta also saw the pepper first hand early in the fourteenth century.

Despite the rise of Islam and the apparent wall that separated Europe from India, the Venetians and Genoans had no qualms in trading with the supposed enemy of Christianity.  They came to control the gateways of pepper, ginger and other spices from the hands of Muslims and distributed it, at an impressive profit, to the rest of Europe.  The two city states, as early as the ninth century, built their informal empires on the profits of trade from the Indian Ocean and occasionally squared off in wars over territory and trade routes.

Painting of an old Indian market and the vendor women

Cut out of this profitable trade the rest of Europe was looking for means to take part in it or to take it over all together.  On the far western periphery the Spaniards cautiously thought that if they continued to sail westward, the earth would take them in a circle and they would eventually reach India.  It turns out they were right; however, their plan was inconvenienced by the unexpected obstacle of the Americas.  This slowed them down by a few decades.

These few decades allowed another European Kingdom to become the first to enter the India trade routes and dominate them. Portugal was a small and poor kingdom but got the jump on Spain and others, on another hunch which proved to be correct, that if they sailed far enough south along the West African coast, they would eventually round the continent, enter the Indian Ocean and sail direct to India.  All this happened in the closing decades of the fifteenth century.

The Portuguese came to dominate and bring the trade of the Indian Ocean under their control.  For much of the sixteenth century they ran the pepper trade in the Indian Ocean, sending the European states of Venice and Genoa into decline as well as many of the ports on the Arabian coast and Red Sea. The profit of the Portuguese was so great that others decided they could do the same.  The English, French, Dutch and even the Danish had their eye on this trade and arrived with plans, not so much to dominate the trade, but to partake in it and to make a profit.  And while they traded for many goods, they had their eyes first and foremost set on the pepper, ginger and other spices.

But while these traders took back with them were the pepper, ginger and other spices, they did not carry with them the recipes of India.  For the European cooking of the time, small amounts of the spices were added to enhance the flavor, not to transform it, or it was added to salted meat, to make it, according to Chris and Carolyn Caldicott, more palatable.  To be fair to Tavernier he was not the only European to be ill disposed to Indian cooking and its use of spices and it would be another couple of centuries at least until the rest of the world would start to warm up to its flavors.  Babur, upon conquering Delhi and establishing himself as the first Moghul Emperor in the sixteenth century lamented that ‘there is no good meat, grape, melons or other fruit.  There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets.’  He did however, keep four cooks from the household of the ruler he deposed, they were indispensable.  During one diner he became violently ill spilling his guts and his bowels until he purged himself of the malady and recovered.  One of the four cooks was held to be the culprit, spurred into poisoning Babur by one of the wives of the previous ruler.  The man was skinned alive.  I suspect the cook did nothing more than prepare a meal with pepper, ginger and other spices which offended Babur’s stomach.  The man was tortured to death so that history would not be left with the image of Babur’s inability to stomach spices.

The Moghuls, in any case, took their food very seriously and Babur used a military designation placing a commander of 600 at the head of the royal kitchen.  And in this kitchen were cooks not only from India, but Persia, Central Asia, south India and there was even influence from the Portuguese.  One of the mainstays of Indian cooking, Biryani, had its origin to the north, in Persia where Indian rice was mixed with nuts, fruits and other spices.  As it moved about local variations were added and in the south curry leaves, chilies, tamarind and coconut were added to make the famed Hyderabadi Biryani.

An old Mughal paintings

But the foreigners who came to India did not readily adapt to the local Fare.  In the late sixteenth century, a Dutchman, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten observed the Portuguese women of Goa eating Indian food.  It is important to note that he observed them eating food, but made no mention of himself having tried it, he and Tavernier would have gotten on well. The English were no different.  If one reads through the various editions Murray’s Handbooks for Travelers in India (the Lonely Planet or Fodors of the late nineteenth century) one is given a clear indication that ‘as a rule, the food in India is not good.’  Various comments throughout these editions reflect that; the meat ‘lean and tough and the fowls are skinny and small,’ ‘milk is dangerous,’ ‘Biscuits are not so digestible.’

But these meals are English meals, what one would find at home in England.  To a large degree the English, and others, did not arrive in India with the desire to try out the new cuisine, to experience the flavors of the land, they had the expectations that they could find in India, the same meals that dear old mom would have made back home, and there were efforts, unsuccessfully, to make mom’s cooking available.

Tavernier liked to stay with the Dutch who did their best to bring the foods of home. At Hugli he was able to enjoy ‘all the delicacies which are found in our European gardens, salads of several kinds, cabbages, asparagus, peas, and principally beans, of which the seed comes from Japan, the Dutch desiring to have all kinds of herbs and pulses in their gardens, which they are most careful to cultivate.’ Tavernier must have missed his artichokes as he made note that they were unable to grow there.

The English too had their gardens with the vegetables of which they were familiar but they also made attempts to have the meats of home, turkey, beef, veal, steaks, pigeon pies, chicken drum sticks, quails, Yorkshire ham, coast mutton, and English cheese.  Emily Eden, the sister of the English Governor General based in Calcutta, joined the Government of the English East India Company as it travelled up country to the hill station of Simla in order to escape the summer heats of the lower Ganges.  The food was, when possible, English.  They enjoyed tea, English style, and sandwiches and complained of the availability of beef, ‘we cannot kill a cow in the face of all these Sikhs, and at Simla the natives do not like it, so it is a long time since we have had the luxury of a beef steak or a veal cutlet.’  But she did not go without local food and was at least willing to try for some ‘of the dishes are very good, though too strongly spiced and perfumed for English tastes.  They make up some dishes with assafoetida! But we stick to the rice and pilaus and curries.’

A photo from an Indian spice market

Richard Burton travelled through the Portuguese territory of Goa and Kerala a few years after Eden in 1838.  He too found the English food wanting, the ‘beer is sure to be lukewarm, your vegetables deficient, and your meat tough.’  The food was redeemed while at Ooty, a hill station of Kerala, ‘the mutton had a flavour which you did not recollect in India.  Strange, yet true, the beef was tender, and even the ‘unclean’ was not too much for your robust digestion.    You praised the vegetables, and fell into ecstasy at the sight of peaches, apples, strawberries, and raspberries, after years of plantains, guavas, and sweat limes.’  But Burton too, succumbed to curry when the options were limited.

It seems odd that someone would journey so far for adventure and discovery and yet yearn for the familiarities of home.  Emily Eden seems to have come to India looking for, well, all things English and while Burton may have been a bit more accommodating of the unfamiliar he was condescending to it, Eden merely lamented the differences.  To be fair Eden spent three years in India and Burton six so it is not unreasonable to desire the foods that mum used to make, or at least what they served at boarding schools.  But Tavernier travelled to India on five occasions, he had sufficient opportunity to become familiar and even enjoy the food of the country yet he did not.

It was to Kerala that travellers came, Persians, Arabs, Chinese, Africans, Greeks from the Red Sea, Romans perhaps and of course the Portuguese followed by a gaggle of other Europeans.  When the Portuguese arrived they found most of the smaller kingdoms of the coast ruled by Idolators, Hindus as we now call them. It seems that anyone outside of the Jewish, Christian and Molsem chain of history was an Idolator.  They also found Muslims, some native who had converted and some from Arabia who had settled there.  There were also found, not real Christians mind you, but the pretend Christians of the Syrian or Nestorian persuasion who later had to be coaxed into Catholicism by the Indian inquisition. There were Jews as well, not many, descendants of those who had settled centuries earlier and had lived there, probably undisturbed, for centuries.  Ibn Battuta, out of curiosity, took note of the Jews a hundred and fifty years before the arrival of the Portuguese.

Map of the European settlements in India between the 16th and 18th centuries

The Jews, Christians and Moslems and perhaps a few others came, mostly, for pepper, that spice that could be found nowhere else and for which they had an insatiable appetite.  They were traders who settled to support the arrival of the ships that came from the Arabian Sea after a crossing from the east coast of Africa, the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea, from further east after rounding Sri Lanka or Cape Cormorin. They settled in Cochi, Calicut and a dozen other cities along the coast and brought with them their food, language and religion all of which still maintain a presence on the coast.  Islam thrives as does Christianity and Judaism hangs precariously on.  There is little that is seen of the arrival of the Chinese, no temples and other than tourists we saw no Chinese.  On the main beach in Cochi, where the ships perhaps anchored on their arrival, there were a few of the Chinese Fishing nets which the guide books draw attention to.  Chinese in origin perhaps, but they were no longer operated by Chinese, the Indians had taken over.

Unlike much of the rest of India Kerala, and a few other southern provinces, remained somewhat free of the frequent incursions from Delhi.  Penned in against the ocean by a chain of mountains, the land of pepper was more accessible by sea than by land, so the powers in Delhi never could get around to making a full scale effort to absorb the coast into their realms.  If they made the effort another part of the Empire would have taken the opportunity to throw off the yoke while attention was focused on the new acquisition.

Compared to Hyderabad, Cochi is a tame city, less crowded, less polluted, and with more tourists.  The environs of Cochi offer a world far removed from any sense of chaos, the backwaters are famous for their tranquility and lush greenery.  A series of inland waterways that support fishing, rice fields and villages are accessible only by water, tourists come here to escape the rush so familiar at home and in the large Indian cities and some have apparently come here to settle and to opt out.  The area has been compared to Venice but the similarities are fleeting, beyond the canals there is nothing familiar.  The tourists make minimal impact on the scene in Kerala and if they were to disappear it is unlikely that much would change, whereas Venice would sink into irrecoverable depression.  Venice is grey and Kerala green.

Tavernier gleaned some information from a Frenchman who had been to Kerala, a renegade from the Dutch forces in the area, but there were no diamonds, only spices, including pepper and ginger and since these did not appeal to Tavernier, he had no good reason to visit.

Taj Mahal

Tavernier gave the west the first detailed description of the Taj Mahal.  He was there during its construction and provided details from which our knowledge today is drawn.  Its construction lasted twenty two years and involved twenty thousand workers and was of an enormous cost.  There was no indication of worker mortality rates.  It was built, according to Tavernier, where foreigners come ‘so that the whole world should see and admire its magnificence.’

Bernier was awed by the monument ‘Nothing offends the eye; on the contrary it is delighted with every part, and never tired with looking….It is possible I may have imbibed an Indian taste; but I decidedly think that this monument deserves much more to be numbered among the wonders of the world than the pyramids of Egypt’.  Emily Eden on her journey ‘Up Country’ lamented that her party would not have the opportunity to stop by Agra to see the Taj Mahal, she also had concern that English interests were planning to turn the monument into a Hotel, we are fortunate that this did not come to fruition.

Taj Mahal

The story of the Taj Mahal is vaguely familiar to most of us.  The emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in honour of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, renowned for her beauty, upon her death.  It is held as a monument to true and everlasting love and have drawn people for centuries to honour it as such.  But there are cracks in the legend.  Bernier, a physician in the court of Shah Jahan who witnessed some of the happenings within the royal family noted that Mumtaz possibly was a mere trophy bride as ‘her husband abandoned himself to drunkenness and dissipation’.  I tend to see the truth of this, Mumtaz bore a total of twelve children for her husband not all of who lived to adulthood and she probably died when her body could no more handle the bearing of children.  The poor women spent one quarter of her thirty six years pregnant or one half of her adult life.  It seems to me that if Shah Jahan truly loved Mumtaz he could have shown a little more restraint during her life and enjoying her company rather than building a monument after her death.

And a costly monument it was.  This monument to love, and other monuments of which the Moghuls were so fond, sapped the Empire of much of its wealth, placed pressures on the need for goods and raised taxes which could not be supported. There was opposition to Shah Jahan which broke into open war as his four sons battled it out for control before their father had died.  The eventual victor was Aurengzeb, son number three, whose sentiments of fatherly neglect led him to imprison his high spending father in the Amber Fort, within site of the Taj Mahal, for the last eight years of his life.

Monument building under Aurengzeb was curtailed, a planned Memorial that Shah Jahan had planned for himself opposite the Taj Mahal on Jumna River was shelved and upon his death he was placed awkwardly alongside Mumtaz.  Aurengzeb realized that such lavish spending was not for the health of the Empire and sought to bring expenses under control, alternatively he spent his revenue on wars, expanding the empire to its greatest ever extent.  Aurengzeb enjoyed a lengthy reign dying at the age of eighty seven after forty nine years.  His successor, Bahadur Shah I, is not a familiar name for by that time the English had made greater inroads to India which challenged and put the Moghul Empire into terminal decline.  The family line continued as impotent rulers, puppets often of the English, who maintained the splendour and magnificence of their court with none of the power or influence.

An old painting of Taj Mahal

I will confess that my first meal in India was at the Delhi airport;  it was quick, it was convenient and it was filling.  But it was Pizza Hut and had to be the most disappointing meal in all of my travels.  The next two weeks provided me with ample opportunity to make amends for whether in homes, restaurants or hotels the pepper, ginger, chilis, cayenne, coriander, cumin, cardamom, turmeric and numerous other spices of which I’ve never heard of were part of every meal.  When western food was available, I declined.  Tavernier had a greater adventure that I, however I had the better meal.

Andy Hodgins
Andy Hodgins

Always in search of a story beyond the travel guides, he looks to the tales of travellers who have made their journeys in past centuries. With his family, Andy seeks departure from his winter-bound home in Toronto for an escape from his gainful misemployment. These short essays are a result of his journeys with those who have gone before. More stories can be found at caravantales.ca.