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How Spices Have Made, and Unmade, Empires

 

 

 

 

From turmeric in Nicaragua to cardamom in Guatemala, nonnative ingredients are redefining trade routes and making unexpected connections across lands.

 

IN THE HILLY Boaco region of central Nicaragua, the turmeric plants on Celia Dávila and Gonzalo González’s farm stand over four feet tall — thriving giants, although as natives of South and Southeast Asia, they’re actually newcomers to this land. Coffee once ruled these fields, but as its price has grown unstable, smallholder farmers like Dávila and González, 52 and 65, respectively, have had to turn to alternative crops, among them this strange arrival that yields knobby rhizomes of shocking orange flesh, rarely eaten unadulterated; instead, the underground stems are dried and pulverized into a musky powder with a throb of bitterness, which is most widely recognized worldwide as the earthy base note and color in many Indian dishes. Nicaraguans have no particular use for the spice, which has yet to make inroads in the local diet. But Americans do, having suddenly and belatedly awakened to turmeric’s health benefits, some 3,000 years after they were first set down in the Atharva Veda, one of Hinduism’s foundational sacred texts.

 

Photo by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Suzy Kim

 

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