Top 10 Spices
Spices, where would we be without them? For thousands of years people have sought spices for their food and the spice trade opened trade routes around the world. It was just a few hundred years ago that spices from the Far East were so valuable that they were virtually a currency.
Today we are lucky enough to be able to find just about any spice we want from the local grocery store and they still add something special to our meals.
Cardamom is a seed spice that has great aromatics and an intense pungent flavour. It comes from a tree genus that is related to the ginger tree and historically comes from southern India and Sri Lanka. It can be used in the whole seed form (actually in seed pods), or ground into a powder.
It’s great in curries but is used in a variety of foods including breads (in northern European countries) and desserts (in the Middle East). It was even used by the Romans in coffee. Expensive, but worth every ounce.
Nutmegs are the seeds of the Nutmeg tree, Myristica, which is indigenous to the islands of Indonesia (historically known as the Spice Islands). It is now grown in many countries around the equatorial regions of the world.
Nutmeg is a fragrant spice that is at its best when grated fresh from the nut. It is used as a flavouring in a wide variety of foods including both sweet and savoury dishes. It is also an ingredient in some spice mixtures such as curry powders. Use it in your next bolognese sauce. A classic combination.
Make the most of this delicious spice by grating it fresh at the time of cooking. Magnificent.
Cumin comes from the seeds of the Apiaceae family of plants. It can be used either in seed form or ground into a powder and produces a distinctively strong nutty, rather pungent taste. It is particularly popular in Middle Eastern, African and Indian cooking.
Ginger is the Rhizome (part of the root system) of the Zingiber plant. It is another incredibly versatile spice whether it is used freshly cut, dried or used to provide oil. Like most spices it is not great to eat by itself, but it adds a very fragrant bitterness to many different types of dishes, soups and even desserts.
If the ginger is harvested young it is quite fleshy and less intense in taste. You see this type of ginger often with sushi. The later ginger is harvested the more fibrous and intense it becomes and fine chopping and dicing becomes necessary.
It is also used for medicinal purposes including motion sickness and other general stomach upsets. It can even be used in beer, producing a spicy, tangy drink that is perfect for hot days.
Garlic is a member of the onion family and has been used in cooking and medicine since the ancient Egyptians. Along with black pepper, garlic is one of the most widely used flavour agents in the world, producing a sweet, pungent and slightly spicy smell and taste.
In cooking, garlic can be finely chopped or crushed, thinly sliced, or broken and left whole. It can be cooked in oil, most often with complimentary ingredients such as onion and ginger. It can also be used whole, such as in roast meat dishes.
Whichever way you eat it, if you eat more than a few teaspoons it will produce a strong garlic smell on your breath and even come out through your pores. A strong smell and taste from this delicious spice.
Turmeric is a perennial plant that comes from India where it thrives in the hot, wet conditions. Turmeric comes from the rhizomes (part of the root system) of the plant which are crushed and then dried to produce the orange-yellow powder which is used widely for both flavour and colour. Famous as a key component in Indian curries, turmeric is also used in a range of food stuff for its strong colouring properties.
Apart from flavour and colour, Turmeric is a great anti-inflammatory and is thought to provide positive benefits for arthritis, circulation and certain cancers.
Paprika is made from dried and ground capsicum, or sometimes chilli, and has long been popular in Eastern Europe and Spain. Hungary in particular has developed a range of styles of paprika that feature heavily in their national cuisine.
The colour of paprika can vary from bright red to red-brown depending on the type of pepper used. But beware the orange paprika. This is the colour of capsaicin, the compound that gives chillies and capsicums their ‘heat’. Paprika is used for seasoning and to provide colour.
3. Chilli Pepper
Chilli is part of the capsicum family and has been used in cooking since the dawn of civilisation (or thereabouts). Red chilli peppers give food a ‘hot’ sensation that is caused by the compound capsaicim which binds to pain receptors in the mouth and throat, tricking the brain into thinking these areas are feeling something very hot. It can be used freshly chopped or dried and ground into a powder.
Chilli is used widely in Indian, Asian and South American foods, providing an extra dimension of flavour and spiciness to almost any savoury dish.
Cinnamon comes from the inside layers of the bark of a tropical tree known as Cinnamomum. The bark is stripped from the tree in the rainy season when the bark is wet, then dried and allowed to curl into the familiar stick shape we are familiar with.
This is a super flexible spice that has been used in cooking for thousands of years. It’s slightly sweet and therefore good in dessert dishes that have cooked fruits and custard. It’s also great with savoury dishes, particularly anything with pumpkin. Try it on toast, in coffee, sprinkled on tarts and even roast meats.
1. Black Pepper
Peppercorns are the seeds of a perennial vine that is thought to have originated in southern India, but which is now grown widely in tropical areas of the world, particularly in Asia.
Pepper seeds can be harvested at different times to produce slightly different results, but in general they are green when first harvested as unripe seeds. They are then put through a fermentation or blanching process which turns the green seeds black. At this point the black outer casing can be removed to reveal the white pepper.
Pepper is the most widely traded and used spice in the world, featuring regularly in most cuisines to add a heated spiciness caused by a compound called piperine. Freshly ground pepper can lift the taste profile of many dishes and is often used in conjunction with salt to enhance flavours. It’s also a good sneeze inducer if you feel like a good sneeze.
Salt is not included and perhaps should be, but it’s a mineral, not a spice, and probably not that good for us. It was nicely put to me the other day – ‘spices come from the seeds of plants, herbs come from the leaves of plants, salt comes from the sea or mines’.