Monday, August 5, 2013

Just Life | Spices 101

A world without spices would be a tasteless world. Have you ever realized how boring our foods would taste without spices?

To be honest, I don't think I can cook without them. 

Let's see, I add turmeric and pepper to almost any dish that I cook. I put cardamom in my tea, I put mustard on my hot dog, I use saffron to flavor and color my rice, I put chili powder to add a little bit of heat to my foods and the list goes on and on.

Spices have been used by Mediterraneans since the early times. Egyptians used them in medicines, embalming, ointments, and in fumigating their homes. The use of spices in Europe weren't widespread until the end of 14th century. Back then, spices were so valuable that they were kept in locked cabinets and they were even used as trade commodities.

I confess, I use spices but I know very little about them. But one of the advantages of working in a library is that answers are always a few shelves away.  So, I went book hunting and here is what I found:

The complete Books of Spices
Practical guide to natural medicines

Here is what I have learned so far:

Dried Barks from Cinnamon Tree.
  • Cinnamon comes from the dried bark of an ever green tree called Cinnamomum tree
  • Besides being a flavor enhancer, Cinnamon is also used to treat:   upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, and bloating. It is also believed to boost blood circulation. 
  • Cinnamon is traditionally from Sri Lanka. The Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka to get access to this spice.
  • The best cinnamon comes from the thin shoots from the center of the cinnamon tree.
  • In Iran, we use cinnamon in baking, rice puddings, or in tea. 


  •  Do you see these three tiny red threads (stigma) on this picture. These are Saffrons.
  • Saffron is collected from the flowers of the Crocus Sativus plant.
  • These reddish threads have to be hand picked from these tiny flowers.
  •  It takes 75,000 flowers to yield 1 pound of saffron. 
  • The deeper the color of these threads, the better the quality of saffron.
  • In old medicine, it was used to treat urinary and digestive problems.
  • Saffron is rich in vitamin B and riboflavin.
  • Saffron may reduce the risk of heart disease and increase blood oxygen supply. 
  • Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. 
  • In Persian, we call it Zafferan.
  • Since saffron is so expensive, I usually grind about 1/2 teaspoon of saffron and add a few tablespoons of hot water to it and let it sit for 15 minutes or so. Then I add it to my rice or my stew to add a nice flavor and color to my dish.

  • Turmeric comes from deep yellow Rhizomes (underground stems) of Curcuma Longa shrub.
  • This plant is a member of the ginger family. 
  • It is usually sold as powder.
  • It is widely used in Indian and Chinese medicine to treat blood clots, hepatitis, and gallstones.
  • The substance Curcumin, from turmeric, is believed to have the ability to fight bacterias and protect the liver.
  • Turmeric is used in Iran in all sort of dishes. We usually add a few teaspoons of turmeric to almost anything that we cook. When I make salmon, I make a mixture of turmeric, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and rub my salmon with it before putting it in the oven for 15 minutes. It takes the fishiness out of the fish.


  • Cardamom is the third most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla. 
  • Cardamom comes from a large Perenial bush that grows between 6-15 feet high.
  • The cardamom are tiny oval fruits (capsules) that are produced after the flowering.
  • After the harvest, the pods get dried under the sun.
  • Beside being used in cooking, chewing a few seeds can get rid of bad breath. 
  • Cardamom was used in perfume in ancient Greece and Rome.
  • It is also used for stomach disorder.
  • I use cardamom whenever I make tea. I crush a cardamom pod and put it in my tea and let it sit for a bit before drinking it. 

Black pepper 
  • Black pepper is originally from India. 
  • It comes from the unripe fruit of Piper Nigrum vine. 
  • Green berries are picked from the vine then these berries are piled to ferment. After fermentation process, these berries are placed under the sun. This forces these berries to shrivel and become hard and black.
  • The aroma of black pepper disappear quickly so it is better to grind the peppercorns as needed.


  • Sumac bush grows wild in the Middle East. 
  • Red berries collected from this plant are deep red.
  • Sumac gives a fruity sour taste to foods.
  • Sumac is usually sold as a deep purple-red coarse powder.
  • In Iran, it is used on top of rice or Kabobs.

More books on this topic:

Savoring spices and herbs

Healing spices

Herbs & spices : how to make the best use of herbs and spices in your cooking 

Signing off until next Monday- Panteha

1 comment:

  1. Oh, no, you wrote another blog post that makes me hungry! ;)

    It made me think of a novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (one of my favorite authors.) The book is called "The Mistress of Spices." If you like spices, and great storytelling, I recommend it highly.