Spices are either a root, bark, fruit or seed of a plant that are used for either flavoring, preserving of bringing a certain color to food.
Spices maybe used wholly or maybe ground to form various combinations and added to food as a powder. Their main purpose is to add flavor to the food.
Spices are also known to have antimicrobial properties and are thus used more in warmer climates as they help prevent infectious diseases, specifically those spread through meat.
Apart from being used in foods, spices are also used as part of certain rituals, medical purposes and certain cosmetics like perfumes.
History of spices
The trading of spices is believed to have started around 2000 BC with pepper and cinnamon being the first to be exported to other parts of the world.
Spices were produced during this era along in the South East Asian region and the Mediterranean region.
Egyptians were also known to use spices for cooking as well as medicinal purposes. They were also made use of for the process of mummification and jars filled with various spices were discovered fro, intact tombs as they were believed to be an important aspect for the survival and well being of the departed soul in the afterlife.
By the year 1000BC, spices were widely used all over the world and could be easily found in the areas around modern day China, India as well as Korea. The South East Asian region was specifically known for exporting spices to other parts of the world especially the regions of Europe and the Americas.
The merchants from Indonesia were known to have traveled all around the globe including the regions of Africa, America and the Middle East for exporting spices.
This lead to certain sea routes being developed so as to facilitate the trading and the exchange of spices from one part of the world to the other. These sea routes came to be famously known as the spice routes and gave birth to port cities across the globe, including the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, the middle eastern port city of Beirut and the South African port city of Cape Town to name a few.
Thus we see how the ancient trade routes helped develop various cities all over the world and some of them went to become extremely important business and trading centers for countries even till today.
The Mesopotamian texts, the Indian Holy texts such as the Ramayana and the Romans have made definitive mentions of the use and the properties of the clove which was used extensively during those days.
Historically speaking and from the point of view of Religion and Religious texts, in regards to the story of the Genesis, the father of Jesus Christ, Joseph was also believed to have been sold as a slave by his own brothers to spice merchants and even in the Song of Solomon, a poem in the Bible, which is the Christian religious text, spices have been named and mentioned many a times.
Thus, the spice trade was the most famous and the most revered mode and route of business and spices were extremely expensive and considered as a commodity for the rich and privileged in the Western countries. The same continued till around the early 19th Century until the discovery of the new world and the Americas which then lead to the introduction of new flavors and spices such as vanilla, chilli peppers and chocolate.
Over the years, even though the production of spice has drastically increased, the quality of the same seems to have been compromised as the mixtures are now available in a powdered form and certain parts of roots, skin, bark and dried leaves are added to increase the quantity of the spice, thereby compromising and diluting its quality.
Spices can be available in various forms. Certain spices give a better flavor when used freshly as compared to those which can be dried or powdered and used later for cooking or other purposes.
Ginger, for example is best of use when obtained fresh as compared to a dried, stored form or powdered form of ginger.
Turmeric on the other hand is best made use of when it is obtained in the ground or the powdered form unlike the fresh form.
The advances in botany and our understanding of the medicinal and the culinary uses of spices have over the years lead to an increase in the use of various parts of the plants.
The seeds of certain plants are made use of as in the case of pepper, nutmeg, fennel and mustard.
Pepper of chilli is obtained from the fruit of the plant.
The barks of certain plants are used as spices as in the case of cassia and cinnamon.
Clove, a commonly used spice is the dried flower bud of a plant.
Saffron a spice used for its flavor especially in Indian cuisine is the stigma of the plant.
The most commonly used ingredients such as ginger and garlic are actually roots and have to be extracted from the soil.
Asafoetida, a flavoring agent is the resin or the extract from the plant.
Thus we see how we have evolved to use even the smallest and most delicate parts of the plant to obtain their flavors and make use of their benefits
Nutritionally, owing to their strong flavors, spices tend to add on to the calorific value of food. The ones made of or obtained from seeds contain more fats and carbohydrates and are the highest among the spices in regards their calorific value.
Certain spices are known to help with supplementing certain essential nutrients in the body as they are rich in both vitamins and minerals.
Paprika, for example contains a high quantity of vitamin A, approximately 1100 IU per tea spoon and is thus used to supplement the same.
Spices when consumed in large quantities also benefit the body as they supplement the same with certain essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron to name a few.
Spices are also known to have a high content of phenolic compounds especially the flavinoids and are thus known for their anti oxidant properties.
Recent studies carried out on the medicinal and beneficial properties of fresh ginger and cumin concluded that the two have the highest anti oxidant properties and are extremely beneficial to the body.
This thus helps give an overview to spices and how they same have been as essential commodity from the point of view of trade and have gone on to become an essential part of our daily lives and also helping us through their beneficial medicinal properties.
We shall now understand the medicinal properties of certain spices in detail and explore the action of each on the body.