Imagine a world without spices. There would be no late night indulging in our favourite vanilla ice cream, or crisp gingerbread cookies, fragrant biryanis, tagines or cinnamon rolls. It’s unimaginable.
Spices have been used throughout the world for thousands of years. Wars have been fought over spices, territories won and lost, economies formed from their trade and they have undoubtedly influenced the course of history. They enhance food, taking the dishes they are used in from conventional to fascinating; imparting endless flavours whether used singularly or in a myriad of combinations.
Spices still play important roles not only in our kitchens but also in the economies of many countries. I am taking you on a spicy trail around the world highlighting some exquisite spices, their history, origins and elegant flavours.
Ras El Hanout, Morocco
Literally, Ras El Hanout means “top of the shop” and is a Moroccan spice blend, which can contain more than 30 spices. It is a matter of honour for the Moroccan spice merchant to provide the most sought after blend of spices and there are stories of merchants creating custom blends of ras el hanout for special clients with ingredients that include hashish. The traditional blend however consists of the more conventional aromatic ingredients like coriander seeds, allspice, nutmeg, lavender and rose buds to name a few. Ras el hanout has a spicy kick, a floral fragrance and subtle nuances within an overall robust flavour. Extremely versatile, it can be used for chicken, lamb and vegetables, imparting its gorgeous golden colour and enticing flavour to the dishes. Transcend an ordinary couscous with a sprinkling of ras el hanout or enhance a lamb roast with a ras el hanout spice rub and the difference will not go unnoticed.
Sumac spice is a delicate spice often used in Arabic cuisine. It comes from berries harvested from a bush that can be found in the wild, grown all across the Mediterranean. It has an agreeable, tangy flavour that makes sumac a great substitute for lemon or vinegar. Arabic and Lebanese dishes rely heavily on sumac spice and use it as a spice rub on meats and kebabs. It can also be added to marinades, soups and stews, rice dishes, casseroles, salad dressings, dips, and many other dishes for additional components of flavour. Or simply use sumac spice as a condiment on the table to replace salt and pepper.
Saffron is used in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes. In India, when cherished or important guests come to dinner the Indian housewife will show her hospitality and, in some cases, will flaunt their prosperity by using this precious spice generously.
The most precious and the most expensive in the world, the first mention of this delicate spice dates as far back as 1500 BC in the Bible and in several classical writings. Saffron is derived from the Arab word zafaran, which means yellow. Other derivations come from the Ancient French – safran, Medieval Latin – safranum and Middle English – safroun.
Saffron threads should be lightly crushed before using, and then steeped in the cooking liquid for more flavour. The rule: the longer the saffron threads are steeped, the stronger the flavour and colour of the dish. For ground saffron, lightly toast and grind the threads.
Turmeric, South East Asia
While saffron is the most expensive spice, turmeric in comparison is the cheapest of all spices. Mainly used in Indian dishes for its medicinal properties and for the gorgeous, intensive colour, it is mildly aromatic and has a delicate scent of ginger. An ancient spice, Turmeric is a native of South East Asia, where it is cultivated in Bengal, China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Java. Its use dates back nearly 4000 years, to the Vedic culture in India and the name is derived from the Latin terramerita meaning “meritorious earth,” which refers to the deep vibrant yellow colour of ground turmeric, resembling a mineral pigment.
Juniper Berries, Hungary
Although juniper is widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere, its origins remains rather obscure. The berries were known to Greek, Roman and early Arab physicians as a medicinal fruit and are also mentioned in the Bible. Today, the main commercial producers of juniper are Hungary and Italy. Initially, juniper berries are hard and pale green in colour, ripening to become blue-black, fleshy and contain three sticky hard brown seeds. When the berries are dried they still remain soft and the seeds within can be easily crumbled. Juniper has a delicious flowery fragrance and a bittersweet aroma reminiscent of pine trees. The specific taste profile of juniper contributes uniquely to the character of food through its “freshening” ability. The bold hearty flavour of juniper goes extremely well with strong meats, like game, pork chops, roast leg of lamb, veal and venison, which are all enlivened with just a touch of juniper. Herbs and other spices like thyme, sage, oregano, allspice, onions and garlic harmonize perfectly with juniper berries. In Sweden juniper berries are used in pâtés and sauces, while the Germans add juniper berries to sauerkraut and pickled meat, fruit and vegetables.
Nutmeg, West Indies
The nutmeg tree, which is cultivated in the West Indies, produces two spices – mace and nutmeg. While the lacy covering on the kernel is mace, nutmeg is the actual seed kernel inside the fruit. Until 1512, Arabian merchants were the exclusive importers of the spice to Europe. After this Vasco de Gama reached the islands of the Maluku in Southeast Asia and claimed the islands for Portugal. To preserve their new found monopoly, the Portuguese restricted the growing of the trees to only two of the islands.
The seed of the nutmeg is wrapped by a net-like, bright red covering, which is encased in a speckled yellow fruit. The net-like covering, called the aril, is dried and then sold as mace, while the oval shaped seed inside the dark shiny nut-like pit is the nutmeg. One can buy nutmeg ground or as whole nuts, which is preferred as the flavour of ground nutmeg deteriorates quickly. Whole nuts will keep indefinitely and can be grated as required with a nutmeg grater. Nutmeg has a wonderful sweet, aromatic and nutty bouquet with a warm and nutty flavour. Being a versatile spice it can be used in sweet and savoury dishes, working well in pies, puddings, cookies and spice cakes as well as in soufflés, soups and with a variety of vegetables.
Szechwan Peppercorns, China
Native of the Szechwan province in China, the Szechwan peppercorns are the dried berry of a tree of the rue family. Although they bear some resemblance to the black peppercorns, Szechwan peppercorns do not exactly belong to the pepper family. There are several varieties of the Zanthoxylum species, which grow throughout the temperate belt of China, Japan, the Himalayas and North America. Although all species have similarities, being aromatic and also used in herbal remedies, it is only the piperitum variety of the East that is actually used in cooking. Although the Szechwan peppercorns are very aromatic, they are not very hot. Before Asian cultures were introduced to chili pepper, Szechwan pepper was used along with ginger to give heat to many dishes. Szechwan peppercorns are rust coloured with hair-thin stems and open ends. Their rough skin splits open to reveal a fragile black seed, which is about 3 mm in diameter. The spice itself, however, mainly consists of the empty husks. Szechwan pepper can be bought either whole or ground. The Szechwan peppercorns have a warm pepper-like bouquet with a hint of citrus. There are warm with woodsy overtones and some species have a stronger anise aroma. Szechwan peppercorns have a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black or white pepper, or chilli peppers, but has slight lemony overtones and creates a kind of tingly numbness in the mouth.
Star Anise, Vietnam
Star anise is a spice native to China and Vietnam. Today it is almost exclusively grown in southern China, Indo-China and Japan. As the name suggests, the star anise is star shaped, with about 5 to 10 segments and a deep brown rusty colour. It is an unusual fruit of the Illicium verum, a small native evergreen tree of southwest China. The fruit is harvested between March and May and picked before it can ripen, it is then dried and sold either whole or as a powder.
Star Anise has a very distinct flavour very much like liquorice. It is powerful, pungent and stronger than anise. Both get their distinctive liquorice taste from a chemical compound called anethol, however there is no relation between both spices. Whole stars can be added directly to the cooking dish. Pieces of star anise are referred to as segments, points or sections. These are discarded once the dish is ready. Whole stars can be grounded into a powder and used as required. Use small amounts, as the powdered form of the spice is powerful.
Grains of Paradise, West Africa
Native to the marshy coastal area of the Gulf of Guinea off Western Africa, grains of paradise is the obscure member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae). The spice was introduced by Italian spice traders to the European continent in the 13th Century over the trade routes that spanned the vast African desert. Popularity of this intriguing spice was fuelled by its delightful flavour and it became a much-sought-after item on the list of new and exciting gourmet spices that was taking the continent by storm. This fascinating spice is often described as a vibrant blend of ginger, cardamom, and pepper and it seems to be just as valuable in the medicine cabinet as it is in the spice rack. It is believed that the name comes from Medieval spice traders who were looking for a way to inflate the price. The traders claimed that the peppery seeds grew only in Eden and were collected as they floated down the rivers out of paradise. The flavour of grains of paradise is deliciously complex with hints of coriander, ginger and cardamom, highlighted by a note of citrus and a floral scent. Although it is milder than black pepper is still has a wonderful kick and gives any dish it is used in a vibrant multifaceted flavour. This spice is conventionally used in West African and North African cuisine, but can be used creatively in breads, mousse, cakes and biscotti as well as in dips, sauces and soups.
The name allspice is derived from its aroma, which has a fragrance of a melange of spices, in particular cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. Allspice is the only spice exclusively grown in the Western Hemisphere. The evergreen tree, which produces the allspice berries, is indigenous to the rainforests of South and Central America. Allspice was imported after the discovery of the new world and while several attempts were made to grow the trees in regions of the east, they produced very little fruit. Dried allspice berries are very similar to large brown peppercorns and vary in size. The berries are harvested while still unripe and sun dried until the seeds in them rattle. Allspice is available whole or ground and has a pungent evocative bouquet with peppery overtones. It is a very popular spice in Europe and an important component used in marinades, pickling and mulling spice mixtures. Traditionally, allspice is used in cakes, fruit pies, puddings ice cream and pumpkin pie. It also adds a lovely note to soups, game dishes and beef.
Vanilla is native to Mexico, where it is still grown today. It was the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez who brought vanilla back to Europe in the 16th century, after experiencing the Aztec Emperor Montezuma drinking the luscious royal drink xocolatl. The cocoa concoction was made with cocoa beans, vanilla and honey. Today vanilla is used in a variety of dishes. Its mellow fragrance enhances a wide range of sweet dishes like puddings, cakes, custards and ice cream. Classic examples include crème caramel, pannacotta and Peach Melba. Vanilla is a highly fragrant spice, rich, full and powerfully aromatic, with the best quality of vanilla beans coming from Madagascar and Mexico.
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