There can be no argument that the culinary world would be a dull place today had we not been introduced to the magical, transformative properties of spice—a myriad of which are now easily purchased, with many so commonly used they have become indispensable pantry staples.
Spices are, put simply, dried plant parts. Although spices are generally broken down into four basic groups—seeds, fruit, roots and bark—there are, of course, exceptions. Saffron, for example, is the hand-picked, deeply golden stamen of the crocus flower—and the world’s most expensive spice.
Spices not only add flavour to cuisines across the world, but they have been utilized for centuries as preservatives, colourants and therapeutics. Spices played an integral role in the development and production of natural medicines in the ancient civilizations of China and India—many of which are still popular today. Concentrated spice extracts are believed to have stimulating, calmative or balancing effects on the body’s nervous system-providing relief for conditions ranging from the common cold to Alzheimer’s disease, depression and impotency. Some spices have such a profound and direct effect on our systems that even a small amount applied in cookery may not only provide remarkable aroma and flavour, but might just bestow you that well-needed spring in your step.
If it has occurred to you lust how useful a commodity these tiny treasures are—you are not alone. Spices have been highly prized items for much of human history. The first recorded reference to spice occurred between 4000 and 5000 years ago although their true value was only recognized during the Middle Ages.
Most spices, being authentic to South Asia, Southeast Asia and India, were first transported across seas and deserts to the Middle East, Egypt and some parts of the Mediterranean through Arab-controlled waters and by camel caravan. Not surprisingly, the time and cost involved in transportation—as well as the obvious benefits of spices-dramatically increased their value, producing an expensive, luxury item. As word spread, Italian ports eagerly provided an alternative route and the region became extremely wealthy. Eventually the sea-faring Portuguese, the English and later, the Dutch, became heavily involved, taking control of the sea routes and opening up trade opportunities with Western Europe, which in turn provided access to the Americas. These sea routes, referred to as the spice routes, set the backdrop For centuries of trade and the tumultuous battle for control that ensued. Used to purchase food, land and even, controversially, slaves, spices have a long, colourful history indeed.
While common spices are readily available today, lesser known species can usually be found at specialist spice or food stores, especially those in Chinatowns and Little Indias around the globe. Sometimes found in bulk, these spices can generally be purchased either whole or groond depending on your needs. However, be aware that the quality will start to deteriorate once the spice has gone through the grinding process, so try not to purchase more than you require.
Pie-made, store-bought spice mixes and pastes are a convenient substitute when time poor, or certain ingredients are inaccessible, but to achieve the best flavour in your cooking, fresh is simply best—it is therefore preferable to make your own. Grinding up a fresh batch of garam masala, green curry paste or fiery harissa is simpler than one might imagine. The aromas that fill your home while preparing these recipes are incredible and hunger inducing. Take a mind-tip to Thailand while you pound together a paste of coriander, galangal and roasted chillies in preparation for your evening curry. Or wander through the souks of Morocco as you inhale the exotic aromas of freshly prepared chermoula or ras el hanout while your tagine simmers away.
Be bold and inventive and most of all—enjoy the flavour, wonder and magic that a sprinkle of spice provides. Your journey awaits.