Spice It Up!
Featuring the Top 10 Spices
What Are The Top 10 Spices?
What Do You Know About Them?
How Do They Affect Our Experience?
Which Ones Have Healing Properties?
Imagine Pumpkin Pie Without Cinnamon
Chili Without The Chile
Vanilla Ice Cream Without Vanilla
Hot Dogs Without Mustard
Potato Salad Without Black Pepper
Look Inside And Put More Spice In Your Life….
TOPIC: POPULAR SPICES
Through the spice trade, great wealth was amassed by the courts of Portugal and Spain, by Italian port cities, Dutch trading firms, German bankers, and British speculators. In 1672, the US became competitive due to her fleet sailing ships. Elihu Yale, who made his fortune as a spice merchant, was integral to the founding of Yale University. Yale, located in Connecticut, was known at the time as the “Nutmeg State”. UCLA History
& Special Collections Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library
Spice It Up!
Spices are the essence of human expression. This is reflected in the many cuisines that are identifiable by their spicy tastes. At one time, all spices were thought to have miraculous healing properties. Today, only a few have healing documentation. That said, spice always delivers excitement and interest to the palate.
The history of spice is equally exciting and interesting, involving daring, adventure, discovery, cruelty, injustice, intrigue, and wealth. In the novel Dune, Paul Atreides, Muad’Dib, declares, “He who controls the spice, controls the universe.” (Herbert, 1965) For thousands of years, spice fueled the empires of this world.
From the backs of camels crossing ancient sands to the cargo holds of wooden sailing ships, spices have inspired exploration, promoted human intercourse, and set into motion our geographical understanding of the Earth.
According to the American Spice Trade Association, the spice story began over 50,000 years ago. Trade had developed as far as East Asia by 2000 BC. It was dominated by the ancient Arabs then and for another 3000 years.
Early uses were connected with magic, medicine, religion, cosmetics, perfumery, tradition, and preservation. These uses continue today.
A spice is a dried seed, fruit, root, bark, or vegetative substance used in nutritionally insignificant quantities to flavor or preserve food. (Spices are antibacterial.)
In the kitchen, spices are distinguished from herbs, which are leafy, green plant parts. However, until the late 1800s, they were also distinguished by cost. Herbs could be grown and used by everybody while only the upper classes could afford spice.
In this issue, we cover ten spices, and a bonus. Eight are commonly found in American kitchens: allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mustard, nutmeg, and vanilla. Two others have healing properties: turmeric and chile pepper. Our bonus, saffron, is the most expensive spice in the world.
Except for turmeric, which is only sold in powdered form, spices are better purchased whole and prepared before use. This conserves the essential oils, which carry the distinctive aromas and flavors. Once crushed, the oils dissipate rapidly. A mortar and pestle or a small electric grinder can be used. (Extra spice can be frozen.)
Today, most spices are irradiated. In this process, food is exposed food to ionizing radiation which destroys microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, or insects.
Irradiation is not radiation poisoning. There are pros and cons to the technique. However, this quandary won’t be resolved here. Natural product stores stock non-irradiated spices.
America’s Two Most Popular Spices
Black pepper and mustard are the two most popular spices in America. Nearly every household contains some form of black pepper.1 Mustard may be less common but is more likely to be present than any other spice.
BLACK PEPPER, Piper nigrum, likely has the most ancient human roots. Native to India, the plant is a vine. The berry-like fruits are picked unripe and dried to peppercorns.
The course of human history has been affected by the desire for this humble ingredient. It is the most widely traded spice in the world. Vietnam is the world’s largest exporter.
Recently, Kaboodle.com listed five spices that enhance metabolism. Black pepper is the first. It works by stimulating the production of hydrochloric acid and improving digestion. Simultaneously, nutrients are better absorbed and flatulence is inhibited.
Further, piperine (the pungence component) stimulates the breakdown of fat cells by as much as eight percent for several hours.
Freshly ground pepper is the most effective. Peppercorns are widely available in self-grinding containers. Hotness: 8
MUSTARD, Brassica alba, was being used in China, Egypt, and Greece over 4000 years ago. The ancient Greeks applied it to relieve sore muscles, and it continues to be used as a counter-irritant today. A member of the cancer-protective cabbage family, over 400 million pounds are eaten annually worldwide.
From the Mediterranean, mustard spread around the world. During medieval times, travelers carried it to the East. Later, it came to North America via California when Spanish priests planted it at their missions.
Surprisingly, the dry ground seed is bland. Ten minutes in cool water are needed to yield the desired pungency. On the other hand, both hot water and vinegar stop the reaction. After the cool water soak, other ingredients can be added.
Dijon is made from a type of brown mustard seed. English and American mustards are milder and owe their deep yellow color to the golden spice turmeric. In India, the seeds are sauteed until they pop, producing a mild nutty flavor.
Mustard is metabolism booster #2. Scientists at England’s Oxford Polytechnic Institute found that just one teaspoon of hot mustard can “boost metabolism 20 to 25 percent for several hours after eating.
This results in an additional burn of about 45 calories if a 700-calorie meal is consumed”. (Don’t forget to put mustard on that burger!) Hotness: 3-8
America’s Two Most Popular Spices
1 Salt and pepper are both condiments. But only pepper is a spice. Spices grow. Salt is a crystal mineral made up of the elements sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl).
Appearing In Kitchens Everywhere!
Here in alphabetical order are the spices that are typically kept in American kitchens.
ALLSPICE, Pimenta dioica, comes from a 40 foot tree that will grow only in the Western Hemisphere.
Jamaican allspice is famous. At one time, islanders used it to cure meat, called boucan. Later when European sailors mimicked this practice, they were called boucaniers (e.g., buccaneers).
The allspice flavor resembles a combination of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. Today it enjoys use worldwide, but it was never as popular as cinnamon and pepper in long ago Europe.
However, it was popular enough to be used in the liqueurs Benedictine and Chartruese.
Allspice has ayurvedic uses for flatulence, indigestion, muscle pain,2 and toothache (1 or 2 drops oil in the carie, not more often).
Allspice trees are renowned for their scent. In 1755, a botanist wrote “nothing can be more delicious than the aroma of these trees in bloom.” Hotness: 4
2 The oil is not used on the skin because it contains high amounts of eugenol (also found in cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, basil, and bay).
Overdose is possible. Symptoms are radical and include convulsions and unconsciousness.
CHILE PEPPER is divided into two categories: Capsicum anuum and Capsicum frutescens. The C. annum ranges from the sweet bell to the very hot wild bird pepper. C. frutescens includes the most pungent peppers (e.g., Tabasco) as well as the more mild Anaheim. Shape, color, taste, and pungency vary widely. Native to Central and South America, chiles now grow everywhere.
Capsaicin is the active ingredient of chile. There is no documentation for the belief that capsaicin (as cayenne) has “the ability to prevent or even stop a heart attack”.3
Nonetheless, chile does have healing virtues. For one, chiles are among the richest foods in vitamin C. Secondly, capsaicin works to quell pain topically as a counter-irritant and by blocking the transmission of substance P, which transports pain messages to the brain. Thirdly, it increases endorphin secretion, elevating mood.
Last, chile aids weight loss. Studies in the Journal of Obesity show that it increases fat oxidation, “ramps up energy expenditure, and stimulates activity by the sympathetic nervous system”.
Nicholas Perricone, MD, writes that capsaicin also acts as an appetite suppressant. Happily, it doesn’t have to be eaten. Capsaicin is equally effective in capsule form. Hotness: 8-9
3 This is an exact quote from the late Dr. John Christopher, a true Old School herbalist.
CINNAMON, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, is tree bark. Grown in Sri Lanka, its name means sweet wood. The best varieties of bark, called “quills”, are pale and parchment-like. Universally popular, the largest importer is Mexico. There it is used to flavor coffee and chocolate.
The ancient Arabs began the cinnamon trade. (Some caravans had up to 4000 camels.) They were also sailors and established the first sea routes to the East Indies. To protect their “trade secrets”, Arab traders spread tales exaggerating the dangers of cinnamon gathering.
In medieval Europe, meals were often prepared in a single caldron, combining meat and fruit. Cinnamon was added to blend the flavors. Mince pie is an artifact of those times.
The news about cinnamon is its ability to augment insulin, helping to control blood sugar levels.4
Further, a 2003 study published in Diabetes Care showed a teaspoon (4 grams) of cinnamon per day boosts the body’s weight-loss ability by reducing blood sugar and promoting carbohydrate processing.
FYI: Keep cinnamon intake to 2t per day. Eating very large amounts can lead to liver damage. Hotness: 3
4 The original study also showed reduced levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. On www.lipidcenter.com Michael F. Richman, MD, reports that other studies have yet to replicate these improved blood profiles.
CLOVE, Eugenia caryophyllis, is another treasure from the Spice Islands. The name clove comes from the Latin clavus, meaning nail. Actually the little clove is the dried unexpanded flower of the clove tree. This spice is so strong that it needs to be used sparingly.
Traditionally studded into ham in the US, cloves are also important to Worcestershire sauce, mulled drinks, and pickling. Medicinally, a few drops of clove oil stops vomiting and nausea, and the oil is effective against strep, staph, and pneumonia bacteria. (Clove is another oil with eugenol.)
A nonfood use, Indonesians smoke clove cigarettes (called kreteks). They are so fond of these that cloves must be imported from Africa to supplement the indigenous crop.
One story of cloves reveals the connection of the spice trade to world history. Such was the competition for the trade that men sailed into the Great Unknown to secure fortunes for themselves and their patrons.
Magellan was one such person. In 1519, he sailed under the Spanish flag with five ships and over 250 men. Although this was the first voyage to circumnavigate the globe, Magellan was killed and many others also died.
Several years later, one ship and 18 men returned to Spain. They delivered a cargo of about 50 tons of cloves and nutmeg. These were the most valuable spices of the time and worth their weight in gold. The voyage was considered a financial success.6 Hotness: 5
6 We know exactly what happened on this voyage because an Italian called Pigafetta kept a detailed diary with the returning seamen listed by name.
GINGER, Zingiber officinale, originated in Southeast China. Today, India is the main producer and exporter. The root is a hot spice with a long history of use. In medieval Europe, it was included at table with salt and pepper. Much later, ginger ale evolved out of the predilection of people to sprinkle ginger in their beer.
Another spice with 4 millennia of culinary use, ginger also has medicinal properties. Studies suggest that ginger is effective in quelling different kinds of nausea, including motion sickness, chemotherapy, and pregnancy.
In China, it is used to aid digestion and treat stomach upset, diarrhea, and nausea. Ginger is also helpful for problems involving inflammation. In this capacity, it can alleviate pain, especially that of osteoarthritis. Ginger tea, ginger caps, or candied dried ginger can be taken.
Ginger is the final spicy weight loss aid. An effective diuretic, it also improves gastric motility, and hinders the absorption of cholesterol. According to the Mayo Clinic, preliminary evidence suggests that ginger may help increase metabolism.
Ginger can alter the effects of OTC and prescription drugs. Don’t use it without checking with your doctor or pharmacist. Hotness: 7
NUTMEG, Myristic fragrans, comes from the fruit of an evergreen tree. The seed contains both nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the kernel of the seed while the fuzz on the seed is mace.
Nutmeg trade goes back to the Byzantine Empire and those intrepid Arab traders.7 Crusaders carried nutmeg to Europe. Nutmeg had fabled magical powers and maintained its popularity for 100s of years. Nutmegs were used as amulets, and later carried in little cases with built-in graters. By the 1700s, nutmeg use was replaced by coffee, chocolate, and tobacco.
Some historians believe that the sensational popularity of nutmeg was due to its hallucinatory powers. Its name Myristic refers to a poisonous narcotic it contains. Normal usage will not produce intoxication. Overdosing can cause vomiting, epileptic symptoms, and death.
Nutmeg gives eggnog its distinctive taste. It is used in colas, in egg dishes, and often found in coffee stores.
It is easy to use fresh. Just grate when needed. Mace is the flavor used for spice donuts. Nutmegs are not true nuts and allergies are rare. Hotness: 1
7 Byzantium was centered around the ancient Constantinople (present Istanbul) from 306 to 1453 AD.
VANILLA (Vanilla planifolia) is the 8 inch pod (called a bean) of an orchid native to Mexico. It is the most popular of the non-pungent spices. In pre-Columbian times, vanilla was used along with cayenne in the chocolate drinks of Mayan and Aztec royalty.
The Spaniards thought the pod resembled a little dagger sheath, a vainilla. Real vanilla takes nine months to mature and several months longer for the curing process, accounting for its cost. The freshly cured pods provide the strongest flavor, and pure extract, the next strongest.
However, over 95 percent of the world’s vanilla is synthetic, labeled “vanilla flavor” or “vanillin”. This is much less expensive.
Although there is no known medicinal use, from the time of the Aztecs, vanilla was believed to be an aphrodisiac. In 1762, a German study found that a medication based on vanilla extract cured impotence. All 342 subjects claimed they were cured!
Whole vanilla beans are available. Mexican is best. Buy dark, oily, flexible pods. Store by burying in sugar. After several weeks – Voila! – vanilla sugar. The bean itself can be used several times. Just clean it after use and re-bury it in the sugar.
Vanilla contains eugenol, capsaicin (cayenne), and zingerone, giving it a hotness of 1.
The World’s Most Expensive Crocus
SAFFRON, Crocus sativus, is gathered from the dried stigmas of the purple crocus. It is the most expensive spice in the world.
Over 225,000 hand-picked stigmas make a single pound of the spice. It is known for its yellow color, and is perhaps most famous as an ingredient of paella, the Spanish yellow rice stew.
Spain is the largest grower and exporter. Saffron was introduced there, along with rice and sugar, by the Moslems in the 8th century. Saffron comes from the Arabic zafaran, meaning yellow. The brilliant color is highly prized as a dye, and is the official color of Buddhist robes.
Like vanilla, saffron was once valued for its aphrodisiac quality. Today, it is used in Ayurveda for urinary, digestive, and uterine troubles (such as regulating menstruation).
Saffron can induce abortion so shouldn’t be used by pregnant women. In addition, large doses can be fatal.
To use in the kitchen, steep a pinch in a cup of hot water. This should be sufficient for a pound of rice. (Additional plain water is needed for cooking.)
Saffron is aromatic with a strong honey scent and a pungent bitter-honey taste. Hotness is 0.
Turmeric, The Healer
Turmeric, Curcuma longa, a bright yellow root from the ginger family, is best known for the color and flavor it brings to Indian curry. Today, turmeric’s healing properties are beginning to be recognized, but in the East it has been used to heal for over 4000 years. Both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine employ it for inflammatory conditions, digestive and liver problems, skin diseases, and wounds.
During the last decade, Indian researchers have isolated the active substances of the spice. Curcumin and its associated curcuminoids contain powerful healing properties. These include superb antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacities.
Inflammation is a known promoter of aging, aggravating every cell and wreaking havoc throughout the body. Curcumin reduces inflammation by lowering levels of two inflammatory enzymes (COX-2 and LOX) and keeps blood from clomping together to form clots.
The pain of osteoarthritis, an inflammatory condition, can be greatly ameliorated with the use of turmeric. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center website, a study using an Ayurvedic formula of turmeric, winter cherry (Withinia somnifera), boswellia, and zinc significantly reduced pain and disability.5 Similar formulas, using the potent curcumin, are available at the natural products store.
Besides reducing inflammation, turmeric shows promise for fighting infections, some cancers, and digestive problems. The German Commission E has already approved turmeric for a variety of digestive disorders. Other areas in which turmeric has potential are ulcerative colitis, stomach ulcers, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and uveitis (an eye inflammation). Hotness: 3
Turmeric The Healer
I can recommend the effectiveness of such a formula from my personal experience.