PLANTS 101: Spices
THE EARLY SPICE TRADE
As Rodney Dangerfield might have said, “Plants get no respect.” We seldom consider plants as a significant historical and cultural influence and that’s a shame; not only are plants the basis of our food chain, but they are a major contributor to the world’s economy and have changed the course of history several times. Some plants have altered the world’s history simply because they were desirable while others have fed billions of people over thousands of years.
For thousands of years, spices were highly desired plants that shaped civilizations and initiated cultural exchanges through exploration and commerce. In 2500 BCE, Egyptians developed a thriving trade in spices that eventually spread to Greece. The Greeks and Romans introduced spices to Europe and the explorer, Marco Polo, contributed significantly to the popularity and access of spices in medieval Europe. Since many of the spices could only be found in tropical regions in the eastern hemisphere, the spice trade first developed an overland route using donkeys, camels, pack horses and caravans as transportation, taking as long as two years to get to western markets.
The Spice Trade (along with the silk and incense trade) influenced migration, travel routes, and European discovery of “new” lands, creating a complex economy that offered many opportunities for "middlemen" to make money through taxes, tolls and duties. The increasing number of tolls and probable risk of theft and piracy motivated European countries to seek water routes. The profitable trade of spices motivated mariners to discover new sea routes and is responsible for the accidental European discovery of America.
As the East and West developed a spice economy (along with silk), cultural exchanges influenced and often destroyed the indigenous cultures through conquest and conversion to three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. The Dutch East India Company dominated parts of the spice trade during the 17th century, using exploitation and enslavement of indigenous groups. Small seaports became major centers of commerce and wealthy merchants built enormous mansions and temples to celebrate their success (apparently some things never change). Spices influenced culinary and cosmetic traditions throughout the western hemisphere.
WHAT IS A SPICE?
The basic definition from a dictionary: “an aromatic or pungent vegetable substance used to flavor food” hardly does justice to the many other historical and current uses, but we must start somewhere.
From the book, Healing Spices: “A spice is edible, aromatic and dried and it comes from a plant’s root, bark, stems, buds, leave, flower, fruit or seeds.” Herbs are generally recognizable as leaves and flowers but you may be surprised to learn what part of the plant some the familiar spices come from:
Cloves are dried flower buds.
Cinnamon is peeled and dried bark.
Allspice, nutmeg and vanilla are dried fruits.
Cardamom, coriander and mustard are dried seeds.
Ginger and turmeric are rhizomes (underground stems).
The most unusual? Saffron is the stigma of Crocus sativus.
The author of Healing Spices extends the definition of spices by limiting the definition of herbs to fresh leaves. For most of us in Western culture, spices conjure up plants like cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom.
HISTORICAL USES OF SPICES
Though we associate spices with cooking in the west, spices have a longer history as highly versatile plants. The Egyptians used anise, cumin and cinnamon in their embalming practices. In addition to flavoring food and drink, spices were also used to preserve food. The Greeks and Romans loved the exotic and mysterious scents, adding them to their cosmetics and perfumes and using them as incense to scent their rooms. In the East, Asian and Indian cultures developed knowledge of botanical medicine over 5000 years, utilizing spices and herbs as remedies. These medicinal applications are seeing a renewed interest as modern science confirms many of the time-tested healing powers of spices.
WHERE ARE SPICES GROWN?
Many spices like cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric and cardamom originated in the tropical areas of Asia between the latitudes 25° N and 10°S of the equator where the climate remains consistently warm and humid. Other spices like allspice, vanilla, and peppers originate from similar tropical regions in the western hemisphere. As the demand for spices increased, large plantations of cultivated trees and plants were created in these limited regions. Attempts to grow some of the spices in northern regions repeatedly failed and it was early botanists who revealed some of the highly specialized ecological relationships that spices needed in order to reproduce. To this day, some spices can only grow in its land of origin and while other spices like vanilla require hand pollination when grown outside of its land of origin. Exotic spices are expensive because because of their limited growing conditions and are labor intensive, picked and processed by hand.
HOW TO BUY SPICES
The quality of spices can vary widely; the last place to buy spices is at your local grocery store. Those little plastic bottles may have been on the shelves for many months exposed to lighting for 12-24 hours each day. For the best quality, purchase from a specialty herb and spice retailer. Because that is all they sell, they have a higher rate of product turnover and they have a genuine interest in selling the highest quality. I have used Mountain Rose Herbs for the last 7 years because their quality is excellent, they offer organic and sustainably grown spices and herbs and they give back to the earth by supporting non-profits who are working for positive changes. Frontier Co-op is another source of high-quality organic spices and herbs.
SHOULD YOU BUY WHOLE OR GROUND?
Though convenient, ground spices lose their flavor and aroma (through oxidization of their volatile oils) more quickly than whole spices so buying smaller quantities of ground spices is a wiser choice. Those gargantuan containers of ground spices at Costco? Not a good value unless you are cooking/baking for restaurants. Whole spices require grinding and screening before using but generally offer a more robust aroma and flavor. Whole spices can also be toasted before grinding to increase their flavor and aroma.
Buy spices and herbs in glass bottles and jars rather than plastic whenever possible. I often buy in bulk (especially when making gifts) and I transfer the plastic-packaged spices to Mason jars. Tins are another choice for storing but avoid the magnetic display of spice and herb filled tins on the refrigerator; your fridge is a major source of heat in the kitchen.
HOW TO STORE SPICES
Where do you store your spices? My grandmother had a set of two Spice Island racks that held the glass bottles of Spice Island herbs and spices and they hung on the wall just above her stove. It looked quaint and seemed logical. While it makes for easy access to store your bottled spices and herbs close to the stove, it is not the best choice for preserving their quality. Constant exposure to heat, steam & light can quickly degrade your collection of herbs and spices.
And yet, habits are hard to break: each time I visit my mom, I cringe silently as I look at the seasonings lined up on top of her range. Then I open the cabinet directly above her stove and see those huge plastic containers of ground herbs and spices that she bought at Costco YEARS ago. Bulk is not always a good deal!
If you do purchase ground spices and herbs, storing them in your freezer is a great way to preserve their flavor. My smaller bottles of herbs and spices are stored in a cabinet over a counter that I use to prepare food but my larger Mason jars are stored in a room I have designated as my still-room - a former bedroom now dedicated to making herbal medicine and products.
PREPARING SPICES AT HOME
If using whole spices (rather than ground) you will need a few tools to help prepare spices for your intended uses. Crushing and grinding can be done using mortar and pestles or electric coffee grinders.
I have multiple mortar and pestles that I use for smashing and grinding small amounts of spices but when I need to grind large amounts of spices to a consistent texture of fineness, I use a coffee bean grinder that is dedicated for spices only. I found mine at a local thrift store - it works just fine. (I think coffee drinkers become less enchanted with grinding their beans as time goes on.)
Don’t use a grinder that you will also use for coffee beans; both spices and coffee beans contain high levels of aromatic oils that will carry over to both your coffee and your spices. I use a small metal mesh strainer to screen the ground spices to ensure there are no larger particles. Another option is to use a micro plane to grate small amounts of spices.
Dry roasting some spices helps to bring out their aromatic oils and many Asian and Indian recipes recommend this quick practice. A small cast iron skillet is perfect; heat the pan until it is hot and then add the whole spice and heat until you begin to smell their aroma and they begin to brown. This can occur in a few minutes so never walk away from a hot skillet with whole spices in them. A few other cooking traditions include roasting whole spices in oil or liquid or using ground spices to make a paste that can be used as a rub, marinade, filling or condiment.
Here's a quick look at some of our favorite spices:
Cinnamomum cassia, C. verum, C. zeylanicum
- Dried inner bark of a cultivated cinnamon tree
- Native to the island of Sri Lanka, the Malabar Coast of India, Burma & China
- First described in 2700 BC and was the most sought after spice for centuries
- Best quality is stripped off in May/June when the bark is full of sap
- Cinnamon verum - true cinnamon
- Cassia (Chinese Cinnamon) - sweeter and most popular for culinary purposes
- Used in both sweet and savory dishes
- Long history of medicinal use and currently researched for blood sugar control/fighting microbes such as bacteria & fungi
- Native to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (formerly the Spice Islands), but now grown on other islands in the Caribbean
- Sensitive trees grown in highly specific conditions on plantations
- Sadly illustrates the tragic history of conquest, enslavement and greed of the spice trade
- Used primarily for culinary purposes in western culture but has a rich history of medicinal applications including as a sedative, digestive aid and an aphrodisiac
- Nutmeg can be toxic if taken in high dosages
- Native to the Moluccas of Indonesia; now grown in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tanzania, Madagascar
- Unopened flower buds of tropical evergreen tree that are Sun-dried, use whole or ground
- Nail-shaped buds - English ‘clove’ comes from the French clow
- Handpicked in the late summer & again in winter; available year round
- Two popular products include clove cigarettes and clove oil, often used to suppress toothaches
Elettaria cardamomum (green pods)
- Native to India, Bhutan, Indonesia; Largest producer is now Guatemala
- Grown in rainforest, 6 ft shrubs
- World's third most expensive spice by weight (#1 is saffron; #2 is vanilla)
- Used in both sweet and savory dishes, masala chai blends, Thai curry pastes
- Mother Nature’s Toothbrush - seeds are chewed to freshen breath
- Native to China and Vietnam
- Evergreen tree w/ large shiny leaves and small yellow flowers
- Star-shaped fruit - very strong flavored, similar to anise
- Used in cooking, perfume, body care products, toothpaste, mouthwash
- One of the 5 spices in the Chinese Five Spice Blend
- 90% of the star anise industrial crop is used to extract shikimic acid, used in the pharmaceutical synthesis of the anti-influenza drug, Tamiflu
- Native to the Caribbean - most of the crop comes from Jamaica
- Evergreen tree, canopy sized, used to provide shade for coffee trees
- Named allspice by the English in the early 1600s because the fruit had a combined flavor of cinnamon, cloves & nutmeg
- Used in a signature style of cooking: jerking, typically misidentified as another spice
- Also used in Mexican moles, sausage, curry powders and in baked products
Healing Spices by Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD
Silk, Scents & Spice by John Lawton
A Dash of Spice by Kathryn Hawkins & Gail Duff
Rosalee de Foret, Herbalist, herbalremediesadvice.com