You use whole spices every day in the kitchen (hopefully freshly ground with the help of a good quality spice grinder!) but you may not have known the interesting history and background behind everyday herbs and spices.
Spices have been used for thousands of years, by many cultures all over the world. From the traditional spices of India to the hot seasonings of Mexico, the complex blends used in Chinese cooking, the simple combinations favoured in French and Italian dishes and the tried-and-trusted favourites used in South Africa, a meal without spice will literally not taste the same.
The diverse origin of spices shows just how much of a history seasonings have had over time, while also showing a number of surprising benefits and unique features!
Things You Never Knew About Whole Spices & Herbs
Some things about whole spices that you may or may not have known include the following:
- Red peppers are one of the highest sources of vitamin C. Paprika, which is a tasty spice made from red pepper has more vitamin C than lemon juice when compared by weight. This spice is also rich in other antioxidants, making it an excellent one for daily health.
- The hottest chilli in the world award goes to the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion chilli. This chilli pepper puts new meaning to the term ‘red hot’, and is apparently able to burn its way through latex gloves!
- Nutmeg is known for its deliciously sweet taste that is ideal for baking and desserts and curries. This spice is also a psychotropic – in high enough doses, it causes hallucinations, delusions and an impending feeling of doom.
- The powerful, pungent spices of mustard and wasabi are only spicy once when are crushed. In whole seed form, they have a much milder flavour. Once their cells are damaged, components within the plant combine to create allyl isothiocyanate, which is a compound that gives these spices a pungent taste.
- The spice known as allspice is often assumed to be a blend of spices. In reality, this spice comes from a berry of a Jamaican plant known as pimento. The nickname is likely to have come from the spice’s well-rounded flavour, which tastes a little like cinnamon, nutmeg and gloves combined. This spice is commonly used in sweet and savoury dishes.
- Pepper is one of the oldest spices in the world. Peppercorns are believed to have been used in food for the last 4,000 years. From as far back as the 4th Century BC, texts mention this spice being used to prepare feasts in India.
- Another nutmeg fact – this plant actually produces two spices, which are nutmeg as we know it and another spice known as mace. Nutmeg is the seed, while mace is the covering on the seed. They have similar flavours, with mace being a bit stronger. Nutmeg was at one point considered so exotic that the Dutch allegedly traded the island of Manhattan to the British in return for nutmeg growing islands owned by the British Empire.
- There is a big misconception that spicy foods such as chilli can cause stomach ulcers. In reality, spicy foods actually have the opposite effect. They stimulate the protective lining of the stomach, helping to kill bacteria that cause ulcers. Other foods that have similar properties include garlic, onion and oregano.
- The most expensive spice in the world is saffron, which is grown in Iran, India and Mexico. The spice is commonly used for its rich, complex flavour but is also popular for the bright yellow colour it infuses into dishes.
- Cumin is a popular spice for curries and savoury food, with a history that dates back to Biblical times. The Romans and Greeks often used this spice for seasoning. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that cumin promoted fidelity, and the pretty pink and white flowers were often used in wedding ceremonies.
- The deliciously sweet cinnamon is one of the few spices taken from the bark of a tree rather than its leaves, berries or seeds. It is very similar to cassia but the latter is not as pure. Bark is carefully taken from the tree and then put out to dry. In warm, dry environments, the bark forms perfectly dried quills in up to six hours. These quills are them cut and packaged for sale.
The next time you are cooking up a storm, stop for a moment and consider the amazing journey that your favourite whole spices have come to get from their origin to your pepper grinder.