In the culinary arts, the word spice refers to any dried part of a plant, other than the leaves, used for seasoning and flavoring food, but not used as the main ingredient.
The green leafy parts of plants used for seasoning and flavoring food are considered herbs.
Many spices have antimicrobial properties, which may explain why spices are more prominent in cuisines originating in warmer climates, where food spoilage is more likely, and why the use of spices is more common with meat, which is particularly susceptible to spoiling.
Spices are also a great way to add vitamins and minerals to our diet.
The word “spice” comes from the Old French word espice, which became epice, and which came from the Latin root spec, the noun referring to “appearance, sort, kind”: species has the same root.
The earliest written records of spices come from ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures.
The spice trade developed throughout the Indian subcontinent and Middle East by at earliest 2000 BC with cinnamon and black pepper, and in East Asia with herbs and pepper.
Initially, the spice trade occurred overland via camel caravans. Its main artery, the Silk Road, connected Asia with the Mediterranean world, including northern Africa and Europe.
Early Romans expanded the use of spices in foods, medicines, and indulgent items such as lotions and perfumes.
Spices were among the most demanded and expensive products available in Europe in the Middle Ages, the most common being black pepper, cinnamon (and the cheaper alternative cassia), cumin, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.
From the 8th until the 15th century, the Republic of Venice had the monopoly on spice trade with the Middle East, and along with it the neighboring Italian maritime republics and city-states.
Opium was a part of the spice trade and some people involved in the spice trade were driven by opium addiction.
Columbus headed westward from Europe in 1492 to find a sea route to the so-called, ‘Land of Spices’, instead he found the New World.
With the discovery of the New World came new spices, including allspice, capsicum, chili peppers and vanilla.
The United States entered the spice trade, as it now exists, in the late 1800s and is the largest spice importer and consumer in the world.
Today, India contributes 75% of global spice production.
Black pepper is the world’s most traded spice, and is one of the most common spices added to cuisines around the world. It is often described as the “king of spices,” and it shares a place on most dinner tables with salt.
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is costly because only a small part of the saffron flower — the stigmata — is actually used for the spice. More than 225,000 stigmas must be hand picked to produce kilogram 0.45 (1 pound).
Interestingly, fresh vanilla beans have no taste or aroma. They must undergo an extensive curing process that results in the release of vanillin with its distinct aroma and flavor. The traditional method begins with subjecting the harvested beans to a process of nightly sweating and daily exposure to the sun for about 10 days, until they become deep chocolate brown in color. This processing and the need for manual pollination make vanilla the second-most expensive spice after saffron.
Paprika is one of the world’s most popular spices. Although it is often associated with Hungarian cuisine, the peppers from which it is made are native to the New World and were later introduced to the Old World.
Curry powder is a spice mix originating from the Indian subcontinent. Most curry powder recipes include coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and chili peppers in their blends.
In the ancient Egyptian civilization, cumin was used as a spice and as a preservative in mummification.
In the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder wrote off 350 grams of cinnamon as being equal in value to over five kilograms of silver, about fifteen times the value of silver per weight.
In Britain in the 17nth and 18th centuries, cloves were worth at least their weight in gold, due to the high price of importing them.
In Elizabethan times, it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague, so nutmeg was very popular
Nutmeg is highly neurotoxic to dogs and causes seizures, tremors, and nervous system disorders which can be fatal.