As I’ve been exploring and cooking more in my adult life, I couldn’t help but ask myself why we use the spices we do, not only in South Asian foods but across the globe. Once I got researching, I found many interesting things, including how spices have literally shaped the world we live in today, which is also saddening once you delve into the wars and genocide caused to acquire spices. It's crazy to think how something we use in our everyday lives has such an intense history and so I think it's important to understand its origins. With this project, the more I understand about food, the more I understand myself, others and humanity! So let’s delve right into it!
What are spices?
Spices can come from the roots, flowers, seeds and fruits of herbaceous plants, as well as from shrubs and vines, trees and aromatic lichens. Seasonings are spices used in the preparation of food whereas condiments are spices used after the food is served. Herbs are normally used in their fresh state whereas spices are generally dried. Phytochemicals in plants are what give spices their unique aroma and flavor. These chemicals are the plant's natural defense against other organisms, which is interesting because that’s the part we humans enjoy!
Why do we use spices?
Spices were primarily used to preserve meat; hunters and gatherers would wrap meat in leaves to preserve it, which they discovered would also enhance the flavor. This was also the case for certain nuts, seeds, berries and bark. Given that spices have antimicrobial properties this verifies why recipes originating from countries closer to the equator call for more spices where, before modern refrigeration, foods could spoil easily. Spices were eventually used for medicine and personal care, and were seen as valuable items of trade. For example, in 408 AD, Alariach the leader of the Goths demanded various metals and 3000 pounds of pepper as ransom when he laid siege to Rome.
Where are spices used?
Different spices grow all across the globe, however they are naturally more abundant in warmer climates (countries closer to the equator) as more plants evolved to have phytochemicals to defend themselves against bacteria and microbes that grow rapidly in these high temperatures. People in countries closer to the equator therefore needed more spices, before modern refrigeration, and had more options for spices. I highly recommend watching the video ‘The Geography of Spices and Herbs’ by Atlas Pro on YouTube to get a better understanding of the country origins of specific spices.
Where are we now with Spices?
From early hunter gatherers preserving their meats, to ancient civilizations using plants for medicines, to Europeans in the search for spice trade routes leading to colonization and all that came with it, it interesting to think what was a food preserver and an extremely valuable trade commodity has become completely decentralized and is enjoyed across the globe with the primary reason of it making our food taste good, as it always has. Modern medicine is also catching up and verifying ancient medicinal practices and plants and the health benefits of spices are making their way back into everyday life.
Find out more about spices!
There is a lot of information out there, and there have been a lot of studies on spices, so if you’re interested in learning more you can start with:
‘The Surprising Reason Why We Eat Spicy Food’ by It’s Okay To Be Smart on YouTube
‘The Geography of Spices and Herbs’ by Atlas Pro on YouTube
‘Darwinian Gastronomy: Why We Use Spices: Spices taste good because they are good for us’ by Paul W. Sherman, Jennifer Billing. This is a really interesting research paper which includes a study on spices to see if they inhibit bacterial growth and garlic, onion, allspice and oregano inhibited 100% of the bacterial species!
So this was a brief summary of things I have learnt so far! What’s your favorite spices to cook with? And do you have any interesting facts about spices? Let me know in the comments below!