Spices have always tickled our palates long before the word cordon bleu was coined. Whatever dish we cook would taste bland and unpalatable if we don’t use any seasoning other than salt. Spices have been an essential part of cooking ever since the beginning of civilization. It has dominated the ancient trading system between nations and has driven the desire for conquest. Spices have its equivalent in gold.
There may be hundreds of spices all over the world, some are endemic in one continent, others can be found anywhere and some are yet to be discovered. In whatever food culture existing to date, there are a few basic spices common to most countries.
- Garlic. One of the most commonly used spice. Other than its strong aroma and taste that enhances the flavour of any dish, its sulfur compound Allicin is known to have medicinal properties. Drinking a glass of hot water with four crushed fresh garlic cloves can significantly lower hypertension in just a few minutes (talking from personal experience). This spice is also used in controlling high cholesterol levels and as an antibiotic for wounds and bacterial infections. Garlic is known to relieve common colds and flu.
- Onion. A cousin of garlic, onion is the second most commonly used spice in the world. This is an ever-present ingredient in most Indian dishes. Discovered medical documents of a Greek physician dating back to the 1st century AD disclosed studies of the onion as a medicinal spice. Considering its long storage life, the onion was brought to other continents by the Spanish and European conquistadores. Its organic compound Allicin is released when you cut the bulb and can make you cry. When cutting an onion, peel the skin and soak in cold water for a few minutes before chopping it.
- Ginger. This spice is widely used in many Asian cuisines, mostly together with garlic and onion. Ginger has been used as a medicinal root for thousands of years and its efficacy still holds true to date. This root crop can be used in different forms; powdered, dried or fresh. When used fresh as tea or a poultice, it has been proven to be a natural remedy for cough, colds, colic, and sore muscles. Ginger is a warming food and is great in soups during the cold days.
- Peppercorn. The fruit of the Black Pepper vine, this spice is as old as time. As early as the 4th century BCE, these wrinkly seeds have been widely used as a spice, and used in embalming the dead in ancient Egypt. Peppercorn is one of the most expensive spices in the Roman Empire. It was so valuable that it was used as a means of currency in those times. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of this spice. Peppercorns are sold as whole dried seeds, powdered and cracked seeds and often used as an ingredient for meat and fish marinade.
- Bay Leaves. In ancient Rome, bay leaves, also known as laurel leaves, were fashioned into a crown to honour reputable scholars and poets. The dried bay leaf is a popular Asian spice used in meat stews, soups and almost any dish. Its strong aromatic scent when burnt is known to have a calming effect in people suffering from anxiety. It has been found to lower blood sugar levels in diabetic patients and helps de-clog arteries and strengthen cardiac walls. Bay leaf can also help relieve indigestion and believed to destroy cancer cells.
- Cinnamon. Cinnamon is a popular spice in Indian cuisine. Its use is not only limited to enhancing flavour in curry dishes but also in sweets and pastries. It is quite amazing to think that a tree bark can add so much flavour to many recipes. In addition to being a famous spice, cinnamon also has medicinal properties. Its oil is high in cinnamaldehyde, an antioxidant that protects the body from free radicals that cause cancer.
- Saffron. For centuries, Saffron has been called the King of all Spices. This is due to the fact that cultivation and harvest are labour-intensive and there is no other way to do it but by hand. Every purple flower of Crocus Sativus yields just three dainty stigmata or “threads”. To get a pound of these bright red spice, you need to pluck about 75,000 flowers! Saffron threads are dried to prolong shelf life. When used for cooking, the spice gives off a distinct musky sweet aroma and turns the food into a bright yellow colour. Apart from its hefty price tag, Saffron is also high in antioxidants and nutrients essential to good health. Studies show that the delicate stigma can strengthen the immune system, improves metabolism, relieves pain and anxiety, and promotes overall wellness.
- Turmeric. This is the spice that gives the curry its distinctive yellow-orange colour. Turmeric is very popular in India where most (if not all) its dishes have this spice. Due to its bright hue, it is used to dye not only food but also fabric and cosmetics. Turmeric is also used as a natural remedy for many ailments such as arthritis, stomach pain, headache, irritable bowel syndrome, upper respiratory tract infections, among others.
- Cayenne Powder. Who doesn’t love a little spice in our food? Even the simplest recipe would taste even better if you add a dash of cayenne powder for that spicy hot “bite”. The Capsaicin in cayenne pepper is an active compound that has medicinal benefits and has been used for generations as a natural cure for many sickness and diseases. The next time you feel bloated, nauseous, feverish or having a sore throat; try turmeric powder. A home-made turmeric poultice is also effective in treating fungal infections and muscle pains.
- Mustard Seeds. Mustard shares the cruciferous plant family with broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. The seeds are so small that it inspired biblical parables. It is a popular sauce in the USA and has a wide following in India and Africa. Its importance is not only for its taste as it is also known for its nutritional and medicinal value.
- Cumin Seeds. Cumin is generally used in Indian dishes as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its spicy flavour is favoured for seasoning meat dishes and stews. This spice is known to promote healthy digestion and boosts the immune system. This member of the parsley family is a rich source of iron and Vitamin E and is a good decongestant.
- Coriander Seeds. The last but never the least, Coriander is a well-loved spice for its slightly sweet fruity taste that is best for beef marinades. To acquire full flavour, add ground coriander when cooking is almost done. Coriander is a seed spice from Cilantro plant and is known to help lower blood pressure, relieves gas spasm caused by poor digestion, treats urinary tract infections, promotes healthy circulatory system and helps against food poisoning.
We use spices to flavour our food and we believe in its efficacy as a cheap natural remedy for all sorts of aches and nutritional problems. These benefits we have enjoyed for thousands of years and continue to help us to date. The world is never the same without our versatile spices.