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Spice on Screen

On the silver screen, spice is immortalised in all its gore and glory. We discover some of the best movies and documentaries covering its storied history.

It is perhaps Jack Turner, author of Spice: A History of Temptation, who put it best: “For the sake of spices, fortunes were made and lost, empires built and destroyed, and even a new world discovered. For thousands of years, this was an appetite that spanned the world and, in doing so, transformed it.”

It is this exact nature – elusive, exotic, and eminent – which makes spice something of a muse for the artistic world. Novelist Herman Melville imagined “spiced groves of ceaseless verdure.” Sculptor Kumari Nahappans’ oversized chillies grace our nation’s famous stretch of shopping: Orchard Road. And in our latest issue, local contributors Gwee Li Sui and Crispin Rodrigues joined a long line of poets in waxing lyrical about the likes of nutmeg, saffron, and coriander.

And in this context, film and television have lagged behind. Indeed, there are comparatively few shows which attempt to dissect spice in the way of art and literature. Thus, the ones that do assume a rare and important space. We present a short round-up in their honour.

1. THE SPICE TRAIL

(Image courtesy of BBC)

Originally aired on the BBC in 2011, The Spice Trail delves into the rich history of spices. Host Kate Humble, television presenter and narrator, becomes a sort of modern-day merchant, retracing the winding routes of the spice trade around the world. Each episode serves as a deep dive into two spices, beginning with pepper and cinnamon, followed by nutmeg and cloves, and culminating with vanilla and saffron. Humble traces the respective spices to India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Morocco, and Spain. What the show lacks in more meaningful cultural engagement, it makes up for with its focus on local economies — as well as the forces of disease and globalisation that threaten to collapse them.

To watch The Spice Trail, visit bbc.co.uk

2. BANDA: THE DARK FORGOTTEN TRAIL

(Image courtesy of Lifelike Pictures)

Director Jay Subiatko’s ground-breaking documentary, Banda, is a bold confrontation of history. It chronicles the Banda islands in Eastern Indonesia – once prized for the growth and production of nutmeg – from its pre-colonial era, to brutal occupation by the Dutch, to contemporary struggles with commercialisation and globalisation. A collage of first-hand accounts and historical analysis make for a film as educational as it is evocative. For Indonesians and foreigners alike, the scenes of environmental deterioration, religious divide, colonial brutality, and economic rape are all poignant reminders that the history of spice, one we tend to romanticise, is far more savage than sensual.

To watch Banda: The Dark Forgotten Trail, visit netflix.com

3. THE STORY OF INDIA

(Image courtesy of BBC)

This landmark show by PBS and BBC follows historian Michael Wood through India, “seeking in her present for clues to her past, and in the past for clues to her future.” Fittingly, the six-part series tracks India from its ambiguous “out-of-Africa” roots to current status as a world power. But it is episode three, aptly titled Spice Routes & Silk Roads, which pays homage to the spices that define the nation’s flavourful cuisine. As Wood sails through the Gulf and samples pallao, we learn how the earliest merchant caravans brought with them not only silk, spices, and gold, but also unique cultural and religious beliefs. This era of exchange opened India up to the rest of the world and, in the process, propelled it to prosperity.

To watch The Story of India, visit pbs.org

4. TODAY’S SPECIAL

(Image courtesy of Reliance Mediaworks)

The brainchild of Aasif Mandvi, Today’s Special is a nuanced unpacking of generational and cultural tension combined with the Daily Show correspondent’s trademark humour. Mandvi plays Samir, a young chef whose aspirations to Parisian fine cuisine are upended by his father’s heart attack. With no knowledge in Indian cuisine, he takes over the family’s Tandoori restaurant and soon finds an unlikely mentor in Abkar, a taxi driver. The movie’s titular scene sees Samir and Abkar preparing masala – a vibrant mix of coriander, cardamom, star anise, amongst others – as the latter instructs: “The Masala is the symphony, and the oil is the orchestra.” Here, viewers see spice at its most wholesome: a marker of national identity, a connector of families, a salvation for the prodigal son. 

To watch Today’s Special, please visit amazon.com

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Claire Quan

Editorial Intern

Small in stature, large in appetite. Likely to be found loitering around secondhand bookstores, frequenting dance studios, and petting other people's dogs. Dislikes complete sentences.

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