Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Spice Rack.

I've been talking about doing this post since last Thanksgiving, so I thought it was about time I got around to it. Obviously this is another of my food posts: a list of what's in my spice rack, where it came from, what part of the plant it is, all that. Plus odd commentary if I think of it. This is kind of long, but I know some of you were curious. There won't be a test later, if this isn't your thing and you aren't interested.

To get technical (it's a compulsion), there are herbs and spices on this list. Herbs are the leaves and stems of plants (green bits), and spices are roots, seeds, bark, and all the other stuff (usually not green bits). So it's more accurately the spice and herb rack, but most people don't differentiate too much. Not even me, the plant freak.

One of the best things about these, all of them, is that they deliver a lot of flavor for little or no calories. So unless you're allergic, there is no drawback to these things. I've long thought that one reason the west goes so overboard on fat and salt is because our food is relatively bland, compared to that of many cultures, and we've gotta taste it somehow.

ALLSPICE: The only major spice native to the New World. (Ironically. Considering spice is what Columbus was after when he ran into it.) Native to the Caribbean and associated central and southern American shores. It's from a tree. We eat the berries, dried and ground fine. Allspice was named by Euros who thought it tasted like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

CELERY SEED: Celery is one of those ancient plants that got passed around Eurasia at such an early date that no one's quite sure where it's native to, but it looks like the Middle East is the best candidate - it grows wild there. Celery seed is in fact a very very teeny tiny fruit - those little 'seeds' are actually a casing with the real seeds inside them. Celery salt is made from celery seed ground fine and mixed in with salt. Apparently it's also capable of triggering wicked bad allergic reactions much like peanuts do (though it's not closely related to peanuts).

CINNAMON: Is actually made from more than one species of tree (that's why some cinnamons taste so much better than others). It's native to Sri Lanka. The part we eat is the bark, peeled off (like birch bark for you Americans and Canadians), dried, and ground up. The curls of bark, un-ground, are called 'quills'. Cinnamon slows the growth of yeasts, so if you're making spicy breads, expect it to take longer to rise.

CLOVES: Cloves come from a tree native to Indonesia. The part we use is the dried flower bud (take a really close look at a whole clove some time; you can see the flower). It's closely related to bay leaves and damsons. The oil is used in dentistry and related products.

CORIANDER: Native to the Mediterranean area, and used world-wide in all sorts of ethnic foods. In the US (and possibly other places), the seeds/fruits of the plant are known as coriander, and the leaves are known as cilantro. Both are from the same plant. As with celery seed, the 'seed' is in fact an itty-bitty dried fruit.

CUMIN: Another of the hard-to-place Eurasian plants. Possibly native to the area now known as Syria. We use the seeds. Use goes back at least four thousand years, by the archeological record.

DILL: We use the leaves and top parts of the stems, fresh or dried, and sometimes the seeds. Native to Eastern Europe. The name comes from Anglo-Saxon for 'soothe', probably because dill IS soothing on the digestive tract. Dill is used a lot in Northern European foods; I wonder if that's because it is easy to grow there. (Anyone from N Europe want to check in with an opinion on that?)

GARLIC: Technically I'm not sure this counts since it doesn't live in my spice rack, but what the heck. It's a member of the onion family, native to China. (Yes, really. China.) A major source of trace elements, vitamins, and minerals, it was passed along the trade routes so early that men were eating it when they built the pyramids. Garlic is also interesting in that it is so domesticated that it cannot reproduce and survive on its own - it has to be dug up, the bulbs broken up and replanted, to spread.

GINGER: Native to somewhere in Asia. We use the rhizome, which is a fleshy underground stem. It is dried and ground up, or used fresh and grated by the cook right before use. Ginger has been shown in many studies to work better on motion sickness than Dramimine, and I used it that way with good results.

MUSTARD: There are two kinds, brown/black and yellow. The one we know best and use most is yellow; it's easily cultivated by machine and therefore cheaper. Spiciness has more to do with how the seeds are processed, than whether brown or yellow seeds are used. It's thought to be native to India, where it has been in use for thousands of years.

NUTMEG AND MACE: These are from the same plant, a tree native to Indonesia. The tree produces a fruit kind of like a small peach; it breaks open in halves with a big seed inside. Nutmeg comes from the dried and ground seed. Mace is the dried and ground aril, which is a vein-like covering wrapped around the seed. In the areas it is grown, the fruits are also eaten. They contain chemicals that vaguely resemble serotonin and people speculate that eating nutmeg can cause something of a 'high'. It is also said that enough nutmeg can cause hallucinations, but from what I've read, the hallucination 'dose' and the toxic dose are so close together I wouldn't risk it. (We're talking tablespoons of the stuff.)

OREGANO: Leaves and stems from a little herby plant. It's native to Europe and related to mint. This is THE flavor we associate with Italian foods. It's so closely related to marjoram that it's really hard to tell them apart.

PARSLEY: Possibly native to Central Europe. This is THE generic garnish for everything, which is too bad because parsley aids digestion and has some good vitamins and minerals in it. It also makes a good companion plant in gardens because it attracts friendly bugs.

PEPPER: Black, green, and white pepper are all the dried fruit of the same vine, native to southern India. Black pepper is from the fruits, picked while unripe, cooked briefly, then dried. Green pepper is the fruit picked unripe and allowed to dry as-is, or freeze-dried. White pepper is the seed of the fruit only, with the skin removed, then dried. Usually it's used ground up. It's been used in India for at least four thousand years, and is one of the world's first major trade items.

POPPY SEED: These are real, actual seeds. We've discussed poppies in depth before, so I'll just say that yes, it is true, if you eat enough poppy seeds you will test positive for opiate use on drug tests.

SAFFRON: These are the stigmas (the little thready bits of the flowers) from a specific member of the crocus family, native to Southwest Asia. A pinch will flavor a whole pot of food. There are wall frescoes depicting women gathering saffron, dating to the bronze age, in Greece. It's been the most expensive spice in the world, usually worth more per pound than gold (depending on the markets).

THYME: Probably native to Europe; the green bits of several species of plant. My personal favorite for flavoring meat, along with a bit of garlic.

TURMERIC: Closely related to ginger, and similar in most other ways, too. Native to tropical Asia, the rhizome is dried and ground, etc. It's used as a yellow flavor and food colorant in many foods, including traditional yellow mustard.

And a last one that isn't in my spice rack because I can't stand it. But it's probably in yours.

MINT: The mints cross-breed so easily and regularly there's a whole lot of debate as to which plant is related to or a crossbreed of what other ones. But generally, most of the ones we use in foods are native to Eurasia. They're very easy to grow in gardens, but they're invasive as all heck so don't be shocked if you plant some and it tries to eat your yard.

There you go. I think that about does it, at least for the major spices and herbs.

ETA: Here are some more herbs that got mentioned in the comments.

-Basil is related to mints, and grows in many of the same areas. It's another of the famous Eurasian plants that's probably native to the eastern half of the Mediterranean, somewhere. The chemicals in basil are delicate and cooking destroys them, so make sure to add it to foods at the last minute, before you eat it.

-Epazote isn't really a spice I don't think (technically) but a seed eaten as a grain. It's a chenopod native to S America, meaning it's most closely related to quinoa and goosefoot. (I talked about this a couple months ago in my 'native American foods' post.)

-Fennel is related to carrots, dill, and a bunch of other culinary plants. We eat the 'bulb', which is similar to onion in physical terms - it is a tightly curled rosette of specialized leaves, not an actual root. Technically the whole plant is edible, though it isn't always eaten that way. It's native to somewhere in Europe.

-Marjoram is an herb so closely related to oregano, I wonder if one is the ancestor of the other. They are different species of the same genus, and closely related even for that.

-Mexican Oregano is a very close relative of European oregano, just native to south and central America instead of Eurasia.

-Pink Peppercorns are from a tree native to South America. It's not a true pepper, and not very closely related to 'real' pepper (which is native to India). It goes by a lot of folk names - American Pepper, Peruvian Pepper, etc. It's the red/pink stuff you see among the black, green, and white peppercorns in bottles of 'mixed' pepper. They've been used in S America for at least 1500 years. Probably longer.

-Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean area (not shocking, considering the native cuisines it is popular in). It contains lots of iron, is an anti-oxidant, and works as an anti-inflammatory. The wood is aromatic and used in grilling, and we use the leaves when cooking.

-Tarragon is related to wormwood (the stuff in absinthe) and white sage (the native American incense). It's also related to tumbleweeds, if memory serves. It's native to nearly the entire northern hemisphere, though there's argument about whether the north American versions are naturalized from imported plants or truly native. We eat the leaves.


Bob & Phyllis said...

I generally lurk, but I really enjoyed this post.

WORD on mint. It's a very very close second to kudzu on invasiveness. Like kudzu, you can't stand still in a patch or it will over-grow you. It's nice to have, though, PITA as it is.

amy said...

I'm also a big fan of thyme. In fact, my herb combination when making tomato sauce is thyme, oregano, parsley, and basil, although I wouldn't necessarily associate thyme with Italian cooking in general. I don't like overmuch oregano, and I'm Italian, so there you go. ;) I would associate basil with Italian cooking more than oregano, but I don't like overmuch basil, either. I'm fond of moderation in all herbs.

Liz said...

I like mint... traditional accompaniment to lamb in the UK as well as in the Middle East.

Thanks for the info on cilantro - I will know that it means "fresh" coriander rather than the whole or ground seeds now; I've never been sure when trying to translate US recipes.

TinkingBell said...

ennel and dill are closely related - but you can eat the seeds, leaves and bulb of fenneal

Ginger is brilliant for any sort of nausea - I inhaled enormous quantities of fresh ginger, pickled ginger, ginger tea, preserved ginger, candied ginger, dry ginger ale, ginger beer and any other sort of ginger while I was pregnant because I was nauseous all the time - brilliant stuff

Turneric - also thought to be a natural antiseptic and anti cancer treatment - further investigation is happening, but it seems to prevent and shrink tumours - if fried.

Galad said...

Interesting as always. Who knew so much interesting info lived in our cupboards?

Emily said...

And oh boy, are you right about the invasiveness of mint...I planted a tiny bit once & it beat out everything else in short order, including stuff that was also supposed to be invasive!

Ripping it up (which I still have to do) creates a cloud of minty mist. I have no sense of smell, usually, but the air is so thick with mint that I can taste it.

Anonymous said...

hey - what about tarrgon? it's a weird one.


Anonymous said...

Rosemary? I use it all the time, especially on anything roasted.

Caroline said...

I think you might be right about the dill, it is awfully easy to grow here (Sweden). I don't much care for it though.

Rooie said...

Another fascinating post....

You don't mention the pink peppercorns...they aren't really pepper, are they? Though they are awfully pretty in those jars of combination peppers.

Heh - Just found the answer to my question:

"These are not true "peppercorns", but a similar tasting berry of the Baies Rose Plant, or Peppertree (Schinus molle) that is a native of South America. The Baies Rose plant is a small tree that has numerous compound leaves with slender, symmetric, leaflets on each side of the leaf. And like its cousin the mango (Anacardiaceae family), this plant can also cause allergies. Pink peppercorns have a delicate, fragrant, sweet, and spicy flavor. These rare little "berries" also add a dash of color to your culinary creations! Pink peppercorns are an ingredient in some Chilean wines and have numerous medical properties."

Roxie said...

I grew up in mint countr. Much of the commercially harvested and processed mint in the US is grown in central Oregon. When the farmers start mowing the mint the air is impregnated with the fragrance for miles around. A whiff of mint still carries me back to those hot, dusty afternoons when the aroma filled your head like a cold mountain stream. I love mint.

Michelle (makinika) said...


I love your blog - your interests are far and wide, like mine. Love that!

Would you mind exploring Epazote and telling me what the difference between Mexican Oregano, Oregano, and Marjoram are?

I made a lot of Mexican dishes and they frequently call for Epazote and Mexican Oregano.

Word verification: phypu

BB said...

My chocolate mint plant once reached out of the herb garden and grabbed me by the ankles.
I now buy my mint instead of trying to grow it.

Anonymous said...

Ginger is my favorite thing ever. It makes fantastic baked goods AND it's good for your tummy AND you can drink it in tea AND make spicy dinners with it. It's so yum.

Random spice-related story: Recently I tried making rye bread. I didn't have any caraway seed which is traditional for rye, so I looked online to find out which spices have a similar flavor. The most common answers seemed to be cumin seed and fennel or dill seed. I can tell you, though – neither cumin nor fennel taste quite like caraway, after trying both.

Amy said...

Oh, love the post! How about basil? Sort of like oregano but not bitter when it dries like some oregano can favorite spices to add to canned tuna is dill and basil....

Mark said...

I cant live without Rosemary and Garlic

Amy Lane said...

That is so awesome-- another one to pass onto my science teacher friends!

Lisa said...

Great post - I would however, disagree that Asian cooking is lower in salt. I do a lot of Japanese cooking and my mom is on a low-sodium diet. It really limits what she can have, because even low-sodium versions of soy sauce and miso paste have crazy high amounts of sodium inherent in their production. Some seaweed types also have a lot of salt in them. Already made sauces like Okonomi and Tonkatsu sauce are another source of sodium. Most Japanese dishes use at least soy sauce, so it's hard to get around the problem.

On the other hand, not much beats a nice hot bowl of udon with shiitake on a cold Ohio day.

Wren said...

Didn't realize celery seed was so allergenic - that is my go-to seasoning (usually in form of celery salt).

As to invasive plants - thyme has a tendency to spread too, at least here in the PacNW.

Spice Rack said...

Nice culinary herb/spices listing. I could use some of those on your list as an addition to my spice rack.

Thank you for sharing such a wonderful post.