A Guide to Spices

What is Spice?

A spice is a dried seed, fruit, root, bark, or vegetative substance used in nutritionally insignificant quantities as a food additive for flavour, colour, or as a preservative that kills harmful bacteria. It may be used to flavour a dish or to hide other flavours. In the kitchen, spices are distinguished from herbs, which are leafy, green plant parts used for flavouring or as garnish. Many spices are used for other purposes, such as medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics, perfumery, or for eating as vegetables. For example, turmeric is also used as a preservative; liquorice as a medicine; garlic as a vegetable.

  • BASIL

    Basil, (Ocimum basilicum) of the family Lamiaceae (mints). 

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  • BAY LEAF

    The bay leaf is the aromatic leaf of the bay laurel tree (Laurus nobilis).

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  • BLACK PEPPER

    Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning.

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  • CHILLI

    Chilli pepper is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae.

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  • CINNAMON

    Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum.

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  • CORIANDER

    Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), also called cilantro, dhania or Chinese parsley, is an annual herb in the family Apiaceae.

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  • CURRY POWDER

    Curry powder is a mixture of spices, of widely varying composition, based on South Asian cuisine.

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  • DILL

    Dill (Anethum graveolens) is, depending on where it is grown, either a perennial or annual herb and is part of the Umbelliferae family.

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  • GARLIC

    Allium sativum, commonly known as garlic, is a species in the onion genus, Allium.

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  • GINGER

    Ginger, or ginger root, is the rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale, consumed as a delicacy, medicine, or spice.

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  • NUTMEG

    The nutmeg tree is any of several species of trees in genus Myristica, and it produces two spices: nutmeg and mace.

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  • PAPRIKA

    Paprika is a red spice produced from grinding dried bell peppers or chilli peppers (fruits of Capsicum annuum).

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  • SAFFRON

    Saffron is a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus.

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  • THYME

    Thyme (Thymus mongolicus) is a culinary and medicinal herb of the genus Thymus.

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Early History

Humans were using spices in 50 000 BCE. The spice trade developed throughout the Middle East in around 2 000 BCE with cinnamon and pepper, and in East Asia with herbs and pepper. The Egyptians used herbs for embalming and their need for exotic herbs helped stimulate world trade. By 1 000 BCE, medical systems based upon herbs could be found in China, Korea and India and early uses were connected with magic, medicine, religion, tradition, and preservation. Archaeological excavations have uncovered clove burnt onto the floor of a kitchen, dated to 1 700 BCE, in modern-day Syria. In the story of Genesis, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers to spice merchants. Indonesian merchants travelled around China, India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa with nutmeg, while Arab merchants facilitated the routes through the Middle East and India. This resulted in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria being the main trading centre for spices. The most important discovery prior to the European spice trade was the monsoon winds. Sailing from Eastern spice growers to Western European consumers, gradually replaced the land-locked spice routes once facilitated by the Middle East Arab caravans.

Handling Spices 

A spice is available in different forms: fresh, whole dried, or pre-ground dried. A whole dried spice has the longest shelf life, so it can be purchased and stored in larger amounts. Some spices are rarely available either fresh or whole, for example turmeric, and must be purchased in ground form. Small seeds, such as fennel and mustard seeds, are used both whole and in ground form. The flavour of a spice is derived in part from compounds that oxidize or evaporate when exposed to air and grinding a spice greatly increases its surface area and so increases the rates of oxidation and evaporation. Thus, flavour is maximised by storing a spice whole and grinding when needed. The shelf life of a whole spice is roughly two years; of a ground spice roughly six months. Ground spices are better stored away from light. To grind a whole spice, the classic tool is mortar and pestle but less labour-intensive tools are more common now: a microplane or fine grater can be used to grind small amounts; a coffee grinder is useful for larger amounts. A frequently used spice such as black pepper may merit storage in its own hand grinder or mill. As a general rule, the flavours from a spice take time to infuse into the food, so spices are added early in preparation.