When food becomes currency

By on December 6th, 2016 in Editorial

Ever wondered where the word salary comes from? Probably not, but the answer is less tedious than you might expect. Salt is one of the world’s oldest currencies, and was supposedly used to pay Roman soldiers their ‘salarium’. We can only imagine the uproar this must have provoked among centurions with hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.

The ancient Aztecs believed that cocoa seeds were a divine gift from the God of Wisdom and Learning, the feathered serpent known as Quetzacoatl. The beans were so highly valued that they were a common form of currency throughout Mesoamerica prior to the Spanish conquest. Here’s a picture of Quetzacoatl eating up a man with a bit of cocoa on his two-cornered knee.


The popularity of tea in Asia meant it was highly valued and frequently used as currency throughout history. Tea (either finely ground or whole) would be compressed into high-density blocks, often with patterns or images relief-printed on them. The nomads of Mongolia and Siberia preferred tea bricks to metallic coins as currency because they could also be used as food and medicine, and continued using them as money in Siberia until World War 2.

Below is a fine example of a tea brick, alongside an image of the ‘tea porters’ who carried the bricks over vast distances, in a way that should put anyone who brings their purchases home from Ikea in a car to shame.


Bafia potato mashers were a form of ancient currency used in the area now known as Cameroon. They held particular value for ceremonial transactions; 30 potato mashers was the going rate for one Bafian wife – a dowry that ensured the bride’s family would forever have the ability to mash a frankly unnecessary number of potatoes.

The images below are taken from the Hamill Gallery, where today you can buy a Bafian potato masher for $500. That puts the modern day price of one Bafian wife at $15,000 dollars, though this figure has not been adjusted for inflation.


Italian bank Credito Emiliano has accepted parmesan as collateral on loans since 1953. The fact that the cheese matures with age ensures that it has its own inbuilt form of delectable interest, with banks keeping the giant wheels in vast, temperature controlled vaults that keep the Parmigiano-Reggiano in peak condition.

Parmesan is made using enzymes from calf stomachs, meaning that – like the new £5 note – it is not entirely suitable for consumption by vegetarians.


Tobacco is no longer the currency du jour in US prisons – the low quality of food given to inmates means that ramen instant noodles have become a high-value commodity, with some prisoners reporting that ‘I’ve seen fights over ramen. People get killed over soup.’ Other popular edible prison currencies include fruits, vegetables and mackerel (going by the hip street-name of ‘macks’).

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James is freemarket’s Chief Commercial Officer. He has a history of finding new ways to solve age-old financial challenges and was responsible for launching some of the first online money transfer and prepaid card initiatives in Europe.

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