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November 21, 2009 / kormanmatthew

Spice World

A variety of spices, courtesy of Brittanica

The story of spices is a long and historic perspective on the world, cataloging centuries and centuries of trade and discovery. They’re essential to the art of cooking, and effectively changed the way recipes were prepared. In essence, spices changed cooking from a necessity to a hobby, no longer committing food to the bland, uninteresting and downright awful tastes of pre-Renaissance Europe.  

According to Charles Corn’s 1999 book Scents of Eden: At History of the Spice Trade, spice is a dried seed, root, bark, leaf, fruit or vegetative substance used to enhance the flavors of other foods.

The historic trade can be traced back to 2600 B.C.E when Egyptians fed Asian spices to slaves to “give them strength,” according to the Encyclopedia of Spices. The more commonly known spices, the dinner table must owns salt and pepper, were used in older cooking to cure meat and to well, make it tolerable. In modern times, salt and pepper have become an absolute norm for any kind of cooking in any culture. In fact, most chefs (such as the ever-popular Food Network icon Bobby Flay) suggest to use salt and pepper in every recipe.

Oregano, a staple herb in Italian cooking, originates in ancient Rome and Greece. The flavor has become a normal ingredient in Mediterranean recipes, like sauces and tomato-based tastes. It was also the winner for herb of the year in 2005 by the International Herb Association.  

Paprika

 Chili powder, a combination of dried hot peppers across the world (from South and Central America to the Middle East of Asia), is grounded pepper that has a large amount of capsaicin; what gives pepper their spicy taste. The look, a fine red powder, is often confused with paprika, which also originated in the Americas.

Paprika is often associated with Hungarian dishes, according to The Spice House. Hungarian soups and meals, such as  “Pörkölts and paprikás,” use paprika as the central spice. Pörkölt is “is a ragout made from pork, beef or mutton or chicken with onions and paprika,” says Budapest Tourist Guide. The spice is much more popular in European dishes than in America, where it is often used in devilled eggs.

Although much sweeter than other typical spices, cinnamon is still considered a spice. Most often used for baking purposes, cinnamon can also be used to add variations in meat and sauce recipes. In Mexico, the spice is often added to chocolate, adding to the sweetness, and various liquor concoctions. All Recipes offers a nice recipe for Mexican chocolate cake, which contains the sweetness of cinnamon.

Garlic, with historical and modern perspectives in mind, may be the most popular spice of all time. Traced back some 6,000 years to Central Asia, garlic is used in most if not all cultures in their cooking and thousands and thousands of recipes. The spice is extremely popular in Italian cooking, such as garlic bread.

Garlic bread, for the miraculous few who may not know, is prepared as follows:

Garlic Bread

Ingredients –

(1) loaf of bread (a baguette); (1) tablespoon of minced garlic (in jar, or manually); (1) tablespoon of mixed herbs; (1) tablespoon of oregano; (1) tablespoon of margarine or butter.

  • heat grill to medium or oven to 350 degrees.
  • mix herbs, margarine (or butter), and oregano in a bowl to make garlic butter.
  • Cut the bread in half or into thirds. Spread the garlic butter on the pieces. Cover surfaces well.
  • Cook on grill butter side down. Or place in oven butter side up. Cook until bread is golden brown.
  • Sprinkle oregano and herbs when done

The finished product goes well with almost all dinners as a complimentary side-dish.

Cumin, one of the more commonly used herb world-wide, is used primarily in Spanish, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and Indian dishes, like soups, chilis, and various chicken, beef, and porn recipes. According to Culinary Cafe, cumin has a “distinctive, slightly bitter yet warm flavor.” As a seasoning, cumin works very well with sautéed dishes of all varieties, but because of the potent bitterness of the seeds, cumin can tend to overwhelm the tastes if used too heavily.

Ginger is sold in various forms across the world, from the bulky root form to a fine powder. Primarily used in Asian dishes, ginger as a seasoning is often used as an additive to common sauces, dressings, cakes, drinks, etc. In American cuisine, ginger is most often recognized in ginger-enduced baking recipes, such as ginger snaps and gingerbread.

Outside of its culinary uses, ginger has been used throughout history for its medicinal purposes. According the University of Maryland Medical Center, ginger can “help prevent or treat nausea and vomiting associated with motion sickness, pregnancy, and cancer chemotherapy. It is also used as a digestive aid for mild stomach upset, as support in inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and may even be used in heart disease or cancer.”

Thyme leaves

The herb thyme has over 100 different varieties, including several hybrids, but only common garden and lemon thyme are used in cooking. The plant offers a strong taste that is often used in soups, stews, and chicken dishes.

Used heavily in French cuisine, thyme as a herb is used often as a seasoning to various vegetables, like onions, potatoes, carrots, spinach, and other greens. In American cuisine, thyme is an additional herb to many sauces, marinades, and other blended flavors, like Cajun recipes like gumbo.

Hundreds and hundreds of more lesser-known spices are available almost everywhere. For the typical college student who wishes to up their cooking talents, know the uses and flavors of spices. Know them religiously, in fact. Spices, found in every grocery store, are usually extremely cheap (outside of Saffron), so not having at least pepper and salt is a bit demeaning to yourself.

For a different look at history of the spices we talked about, check out this time-line and map of where the flavors started from and how their popularity rose.: Here.

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