Kanelbullar, or as I was taught “Svenska Bullar”

Upon perusing several recipes to fuel my insatiable desire for making edible things in general, I came across an interesting feature in the Cinnamon Roll. Cinnamon rolls (Skillingsboller or Kanelbullar depending on where you’re from) are quite an interesting pastry, in the sense that they have an ingredient that is rarely used in any cuisine outside of India.

For those that are unaware, most Scandinavian cinnamon rolls don’t just have cinnamon in them, they often add powdered green cardamom for its unique fragrance. What we typically refer to as green Cardamom (taxonomically: Ellataria Genera), is a relative of the Ginger Root and part of the same wider taxonomic family. This is not to be confused with black cardamom which is a specific species in the Amomum genera that has a much smokier scent and flavour. Where black cardamom originates in Nepal and the highland regions of Northern India. Green Cardamom has a much more widespread origin, Ranging from Southern India to South East Asia (mostly Malaysia).

This raises the question: how did this small pod travel from the place that it was grown, all the way to the far frozen reaches of Scandinavia and when? Admittedly, the research on the movement of this spice through various trade routes is thin. Preambles to papers discussing the medical properties of Cardamom use history to provide a brief introduction to the paper, and as a result, not much attention is paid to the history itself. As of now, Swedes consumes 18 times more Cardamom than the average country in baked goods and stewed desserts.

As myths go, the most popular narrative on how cardamom travelled so far north was through Vikings that found it in the “Bazaars of Constantinople”. In terms of periodisation, this makes sense. Vikings were largely around during the 11th Century and the Byzantine Empire as the Eastern Fragment of the Roman Empire didn’t fall until 1453 to the Ottomans. However, this account has been dubbed “unlikely” by Daniel Serra in An Early Meal-A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, where he noticed that many of the early recipes incorporating Cardamom were almost identical to “Moorish” recipes. If we assume that Cardamom was introduced during the same period but through this route, it would still make sense. The Mediterranean trade route originating from the end of the silk road at Constantinople and Tyre, bypassed the ports of Algerica (now Gibraltar) and Al-Lixbuna (Lisbon), two major cities in the Iberian Ummayad Caliphate that survived the Abbasid overthrow in 750AD. From there, the spice would have travelled upwards towards London and onwards through the Hanseatic Trade Network, into Scandinavia. This is corroborated by an archaeobotanical study by Alexandra Livarda, which examined samples of spices originating in tropical or subtropical environments that were present in Northwestern Europe during the Roman and Medieval Periods. In a table of data, there were 5 separate samples of Elettaria cardamoum (Green Cardamom) that was recovered. In a brief digression, this paper is an especially interesting one. Combining statistical archaeological methods with conventional historical inquiry.

 With the question of how Cardamom reached the Scandinavian region answered, we can now move on to why as a spice, it is so widely used. The speculation that Serra asserts is that Scandinavia, being on the fringes of the European continent, “clung” to Medieval Cuisine much longer than the rest of the continent did. A critical analysis of this assertion would likely have to look at theories of social change and geography in the specific context of Northeastern Europe and ideas around cultural insularity and trade routes. This question of why a particular ingredient “sticks” to a specific food culture is a much more interesting one than how it got there. Perhaps with some more research, we’ll be able to understand the history of ho

Cinnamon Rolls and Cardamom: A Story of Trade

One thought on “Cinnamon Rolls and Cardamom: A Story of Trade

  • March 31, 2021 at 11:09 pm

    I find your research topic for the long essay fascinating, and in the past two weeks, I have had the time to read up more on the topic. The last sentence of this post, where you express your interest in learning about why a particular ingredient stuck to the cuisine rather than how it got there, reminded me of an article that I just read. The article discusses the journey of curry and how it travelled from British India to various other parts of the colonised world and finally ended up in Japan becoming its ‘favourite dish.’ Bhaumik starts by discussing the inadequacy of the word curry as it uses the coloniser’s language to describe the food of the colonised. There was much intrigue around this vaguely saucy yellow dish prepared with spices during the 18th and 19th centuries. During the occupation of India, the British were overwhelmed by the range of spices at their disposal. To make sense of it, Indians were asked to make appropriate versions of their traditional dishes, which would also fit the needs and tastes of the colonisers. Bhowmik narrates the origin story of the Japanese curry, which she admits has an unlikely origin. A starving Japanese boy hid aboard a British ship. Curry was served by the British navy every week- the boy happened to be on board the same day as it was served. Upon trying it, he rushed home to his village, spreading the news of the curry throughout his neighbourhood. Later, she also discusses the political developments during the Meji era and the lift on the ban of eating meat that contributed to this dish’s growing popularity. Further, industrialisation and globalisation in the 19th century also had much to do with its ever-growing demand. After reading your proposal and previous blog posts, I have been curious about colonisation and the politics of food and cuisine.

    This may be out of context from your general research and this post; last year, I took a module on gender and sexuality in SA, where I studied the relationship between colonisation, food and masculinity. Jayanta Sengupta discusses the gastronomic excesses of the ‘gluttonous British officials’ and how it was crucial in asserting their superiority. The Indian kitchen became an object of revulsion displayed as dark and mysterious through the smoke, heat and filth. The idea of the Indian effeminacy can be traced back to the 18th century, where it was primarily attributed to the climatic conditions, as Thomas Metcalf has discussed. However, some historians of the 18th century, like Robert Orme, exclaimed that the people’s diet exacerbated these shortcomings as they heavily consumed rice which was obtained easily, with little labour. The relationship of food in the Bhadralok was a part of a larger discourse of the new domesticity emerging in Bengal. Food occupied a keyspace in the nationalist politics of gender. As I have discussed in my previous blog posts and will discuss in my long essay, this period saw the emergence of a distinct identity for Indian women. They wanted to be distinguished from the debauched western women, who spent time away from the kitchen. The new Indian woman, who was traditional and educated and exposed, was supposed to learn how to cook a myriad of dishes- that ranged from native brahmin dishes such as rice and lentils, meat in the Moghul style to western-style pickles, jams, cakes, puddings and biscuits. This may seem irrelevant to your topic, but this was just a general commentary on how the relationship between food and colonisation encompasses various political and social phenomenon such as gender identity and nationalism. The history of food is not just important in understanding trade, but also political events that were shaped by these connections.


    SENGUPTA, JAYANTA. “Nation on a Platter: The Culture and Politics of Food and Cuisine in Colonial Bengal.” Modern Asian Studies 44, no. 1 (2010): 81-98. Accessed March 31, 2021.

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