Spices - Corner Stones of a Cuisine

Monday, July 21, 2008

Posted by Dee

Pungent and hot , sweet and fragrant, and sometimes mellow. Spices are the cornerstones of any cuisine. I couldn't dream of having an pantry devoid of, or with a meager amount of spices. Men have traveled thousands of miles in search of lands known for their rich spices. Countries have opened doors for one another, trading these wonderful nature's gifts to mankind. Each spice is unique it in its appearance, smell, taste, culinary and medicinal use. They are one of mother nature's best gifts bestowed upon us.

As we have grown beyond one pot cooking, spices have become indispensable.They are used to enhance the existing flavors while at the same time aiding in digestion. They complement almost any dish such as salads, soups, casseroles, desserts, cakes, drinks and pickles.

When I decided to write an article such as this, my comprehensive list had about 50 spices both common and lesser known. I intend to publish the list in an alphabetical order so one is not swarmed with too much information.

Some tips to buy -

Check the date of manufacturing, packaging etc. They are best bought in small quantities as their flavors diminish fast and always need to be stored in airtight containers. Avoid buying replacements in glass containers as they are more expensive and less environment friendly. Grind spices in small quantities for blends and make sure they last only a week or two as their flavours diminish fast. A heavy mortar and pestle is great for grinding spices than a lighter one. After you have been bitten by the "spice bug" you might want to look at a spice grinder. Spices are more than culinary delights , they are commonly used for home remedies for treatments you might want to cure at home. Also, we need to keep in mind , that seeing a doctor for treatments that cannot be cured by ourselves is important. Here is a comprehensive spice directory which will tell you about the medicinal uses, culinary benefits etc.

Clockwise : Cayenne pepper , cardamom, amchoor,chilli , cinnamon ,asafoetida (spoon) , cloves, ajwain.

Ajwain - A cousin of Caraway and Cumin, commonly called as lovage or carom and a native of southern India . It is similar to thyme or lovage and can be used instead. Only note that Ajwain is stronger in taste. Boiling crushed ajwain in a water and drinking relieves one of indigestion.

Allspice - A dried fruit of the tea, native to central and south America, can be a great substitute for the wood in the jerk seasoning. It adds a spicy flavor to curries, lamb and shellfish. This can be used the same way as nutmeg, cloves or cinnamon. It is great in pickles, vanilla pies, drinks and mulled wine. Try adding some berries to your pepper mill to add that zest, its flowers can be infused in tea and the leaves are used to make bay rum. Allspice helps in aiding digestion and gas.

Amchoor - Native to India, commonly used in north indian cooking instead of tamarind to inject a sharp , acidic and tart taste. It is made by drying the unripe mango fruit. Unlike vinegar and citrus juice, it is gently acidic .

Anise Seed - Cultivated by the egyptians, used by the romans first, the anise seed has a distinct hint of licorice and is slightly sweet. This piquant spice is used to flavor cakes and confectionary. The oil is used to flavor various liquers and the seeds being mild and sweet can be chewed after a meal to sweeten the breath. This is different from Star Anise

Asafoetida - Little known outside India, commonly used in southern and western indian cuisines and probably one of the most foul smelling plants. This is a resin from the stems of the plant and the sulfurous odor disappears on cooking and it becomes milder and pleasant. It is said be aiding digestion and lessening flatulence like garlic and is commonly used in vegetarian and lentil dishes.

Bell Peppers - Yes they are a spice , it surprised me as well! They have a clearly tangy tasted and hail from tropical america. They are known to have revitalizing and antiseptic qualities and are used to stimulate the digestive system. Their sweet flavor and cheery color make them a "feelgood " food.

Capers - A Mediterranean shrub commonly grown in France, Spain and Italy. They grow wild . The flowers buds and also the fruit borne by the plant can be pickled. Capers are available pickled in vinegar or brine. They need to be stored in a non corrosive jar or in a layer of salt lest they become dry. They are used commonly in North African cooking and medicinally they aid digestion, to increase the appetite, induce a general feeling of well being and vitality, The flower buds can be infused in tea to ease coughs.

Caraway - It has a pungent aroma with a warm, almost citrusy flavor. The seeds help in aiding digestion and stomach cramps, used in making the northern European popular liqueur, kummel, the caraway seeds are common in Jewish, Scandinavian and German cooking.

Cardamom - Now grown mostly in South east Asia and central America, cardamom seed has a mellow fragrant, lemon/camphor smell. It is used to relieve respiratory disorders and settle upset stomachs. Great in coffee, tea, desserts and pies. The pods are best when hard and green and the seeds need to be crushed just before used as once the seeds are powdered , the flavor quickly diminishes.

Cassia - Probably one of the first spices to be used as medicine, Cassia and cinnamon are similar the former is considered to be a poor substitute of the latter and many prefer to use it in mulled wine instead of cinnamon because of the sweet and stronger flavor. In the west, its used to spice cakes and confectionery while in Asia, it is used to season curries and meat. One of the ingredients in the chinese 5 spice mix, it is used in cold remedies and aids in digestion.

Cayenne Pepper - Used all over the world anmade by ginding dry red chilli, it is known to spice up any bland dish and warm up a cold winter day. Cayenne is known to be used in ointments for treatments of lumbago, chilblains and neuralgia.

Celery Seed - cultivated from the wild celery "smallage" celery seeds were used by romans for flavoring their food. They taste bitter and when eaten raw are said to lower blood pressure, rheumatism and stimulate digestion. They are also used to make celery salt used for cocktails etc. The seeds sold for cultivation should not be consumed for medicinal purposes as they are treated with fungicides.

Chili- They seem to come with a warning " beware of the heat" but there are many milder varieties and some are fruity too. They have a strong stimulant effect and they make a warming treatment for colds and have good antibacterial properties. Taking them in excess quantities may result in damaging the mucous membrane and cause in digestive and renal problems. They were first grown in South America and the spanish took them to Europe.

Cinnamon - Most Cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka , this ancient, fragrant inner bark has been a valued spice and has a strong sweet flavor. Medicinally , cinnamon is known to be a strong stimulant for the glandular system and helps relieve symptoms of cold and flu. The best cinnamon is made from the thinnest bark and has the best taste and fragrance. It is best when bought as bark rather than ground.

Cloves - They are dried flower buds of a tree. Cloves were used by the the Chinese in herbal remedies. Traditionally cloves are stuck in an orange and hung as a pomander. An old remedy for toothache is to clamp a clove between your teeth or rub clove oil on the tooth.They are commonly grown in West Indies , Madagascar and Zanzibar.

Above is just the ABC's of spices. D through Z would probably take me another 2 more posts. Stay tuned for the A to Z of Spice.

Are you interested in contributing to The Daily Tiffin? Drop us an email: blogmeeta@gmail.com. We look forward to hearing your ideas.

This Post was written by Dee from Ammalu's Kitchen


that's a great post on introducing people to the goodness of spices Dee! thanks for a fairly comprehensive list!:)

Mansi said...
July 22, 2008 at 12:23:00 AM GMT+2  

Good one Dee. Have you used capers? I've seen Rachel Ray/Sandra Lee using it a lot and also have heard that it's salty.

Beyond Curries said...
July 22, 2008 at 9:52:00 PM GMT+2  

Yes Madhu but only in Caponata... They are a little salty bcos they are stored in brine and add lots of flavor to the dish.

Dee said...
July 22, 2008 at 11:02:00 PM GMT+2  

A wonderful post and supplements my own "Enspiceopedia" on WFLH.
I do not think I could ever live without spices and am always checking out the spice aisle for new and interesting spices I have not tried yet. And yes my spice rack is more like a spice cupboard!!

Meeta K. Wolff said...
July 23, 2008 at 10:14:00 AM GMT+2  

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