Spices are natural flavoring elements, most often dried seeds, but some, mostly roots, are Fresh. Herbs are fresh leaves, stems, and flowers, that may also be found in dried form. Herbs ar on a separate page Herbs, Leaves & Flowers.
We have separated the Dried Spices from the Fresh Spices on this page because they are used so differently.
Most of our well known spices are grown in tropical coastal regions of India and Southeast Asia, but a few are from the tropics of the Americas. From ancient times, spices have been a major article of trade to Europe and the Mediterranean region. The trade was long controlled by Arab and Venetian monopolies, making spices absurdly expensive.
Medieval recipes call for many spices but fail to give any quantities. These recipes were written for professional cooks who learned how much in their apprenticeship. Many writers presume these spices were used with a heavy hand. Others say the many spices may have been used judiciously in sophisticated mixes, as it is done in India. Unfortunately, amounts recorded in trade records, divided by the number of people who could actually afford spices, indicates a heavy hand.
Many writers claim that the heavy hand with spices was to hide the taint of spoiled meats. This is certainly false. Given the very detailed instructions to staff on daily shopping that have come down to us, it is clear those who could afford spices were not eating spoiled meat - and those who had to eat spoiled meat could not afford spices that cost more than the meat.
The reason spices were used with a heavy hand is simple. They were very costly, so using lots of spices was a display of wealth and prestige.
The high cost of spices was a major factor in European development of the highly sophisticated sailing ship technology that made world conquest and the colonial era possible. Ironically, these ships were so efficient and so effective at breaking the trade monopolies, the cost of spices plunged. As costs plunged, so did usage - they were no longer a display of wealth when everyone could afford them. Today, most European countries use few spices, and little of those they do use. The only one still costly is labor intensive saffron.
Today, every time our government is thrown out of a country it invaded or has been meddling in, all the collaborators move to Los Angeles and many open restaurants. Naturally, they send home for ingredients as soon as they can. Specialty markets are soon opened and new crops are planted on farms. The happy result is that nearly every spice used in the world is available here in Southern California.
Buying Storing & Preparing Spices
The best place to buy spices is from an ethnic grocer or importer who services a large community that uses those spices. Supermarket spices may have been years getting to you. Comparing ground turmeric from your local supermarket with that from an Indian market will be a revelation.
Since ground spices degrade so rapidly it is better to buy them whole and grind as needed.A small whirling blade coffee grinder does a remarkable job of grinding spices in just seconds. Gun it a few times, then turn it upside down and whack it with the palm of your hand to shake the spice into the lid.
Store spices, whole or ground, in tightly sealed containers in a cool dark place. Direct sunlight is very destructive to spices. Buy in quantities that will be used up in about a year for whole spices, 6 months or less for ground.
Black pepper declines very rapidly after grinding but is used so frequently I don't want to grind it every time. I grind a tablespoon or so every week and keep it in one of those ultra-tiny "must be good for something" gift basket jam jars, to be spooned out as needed.
When roasting spices, do them one at a time because their timing is so different. Of course, in India, experienced cooks know the order and timing by which to add them to the pan so they are all done at once, but you probably don't have that level of experience.
Heat them over high heat stirring and shaking the pan frequently
until they start releasing their characteristic fragrance and start to
darken just a touch, then pour them out onto a plate to cool well before
grinding. I always start with cumin since it is so distinctive it'll let
me know when the pan is hot enough for the others. I also do all this
before handling dried chilis or I may not be able to smell anything at
Achiote / Annatto
- [Bijol; Bija (Caribbean); recado rojo (Mexico); Atsuete
(Philippines) pimentão doce (Spanish); Bixa orellana]
Seeds of he Achiote shrub, probably native to Brazil, have a pleasant but subtle aroma and flavor, but it is for their color they are most widely used. Aside from ethnic cuisines, the intense red-orange pigment, annatto (E160b), is used to color cheddar cheese, margarine, smoked fish, custard powder and other foods. It includes two pigments, one oil soluble which is more red, and one water soluble which is more yellow. The photo shows seeds (about 0.2 inch long) and oil extracted color.
The seeds are used in cooking in the Philippines, Mexico, Central
America, the Caribbean and northeastern parts of South America. Seeds,
Leaves and other parts are used medicinally for a number of conditions.
Sap from the (inedible) fruits is used to treat type 2 diabetes and fungal
infections. The red pigment has long been used by tropical American Indians
as body paint and hair dye.
Details and Cooking.
This member of the Parsley family is native to India, Pakistan
and the Near East, and is used as a spice through the region. It has a
flavor much like thyme, because, like thyme, it contains thymol. It is
stronger than thyme and needs to be used with discretion. In India it is
considered helpful to digestion, and often included in dishes thought
hard to digest. The part used is the dried fruits, which contain the
seeds. The photo specimens (whole fruits) were quite small, typically
0.122 inch long by 0.033 inch wide (3.0 x 0.8 mm).
Native to the Caribbean, southern Mexico and Central America, this spice is produced by a tree that can grow to 60 feet tall. The name comes from the English, who thought the dried fruits tasted like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. The tree has now been planted in tropical climates around the world. Allspice is very important in Caribbean cuisine, and has been enthusiastically adopted in the Levant. In Germany it is used in sausages.
This spice should always be bought as whole
dried fruits, as it declines rapidly if ground. It is soft and easily
ground. In the growing region the leaves are also used as a flavoring,
but they become worthless when dried, so are not a commercial item. The
photo specimens vary considerably in size, with the largest 0.330 inch
diameter and the smallest 0.227 inch diameter (8.4 to 5.8 mm).
- [Amchur powder, Green Mango; Mangifera indica]
This is a popular souring agent in India, particularly in dry regions
where lemons and limes cannot be had. Being dry it has the advantage of
being easily stored and transported. Called for by many recipes from
northern India, it is very sour with a slight sweetness and just a bit
resinous. Use it for marinades where it has the same tenderizing effect
as lemon juice (1 teaspoon amchur powder is equivalent to 3 tablespoons
lemon juice) and in curries. It is available both in powdered
form as shown, and as dried chunks of mango. It is available in markets
serving an Indian community.
The bulbs and fronds sold as "Anise" or "Sweet Anise" in the groceries
are actually Fennel. See also
Star Anise for another unrelated spice with a
similar flavor. Anise fades rapidly if ground so you should keep whole
"seeds" (actually a dried fruit) and grind them as needed.
[Hing (india), Ferula assa-foetida (Parsley family)]
Dried sap from roots of this parsley family herb native to Central Asia was used in Europe from the time Alexander until the 16th century. It was important in Roman cuisine as a substitute for Silphium which was very expensive. It is still much used in India, particularly as a substitute for onions and garlic by Indian Brahmins for whom those are forbidden. The flavor is not the same but it adds a similar sophistication. Asafoetida is used mainly with vegetable dishes but it can also add an interesting flavor to meat.
Food writers have struggled to describe the foul smell of the raw resin - struggled because food writers aren't familiar with SAE 90W hypoid gear oil which contains similar sulphur compounds. Fortunately the odor is subdued by cooking. This product is sold in two versions, pure resin (which may be in powdered form) and Hing powder, which has powdered resin cut with rice flour and other substances. I strongly recommend the pure resin.
Asafoetida resin must be fried in hot oil briefly before other
ingredients are added to the pan. For pure resin powder this is just a couple
of seconds but will be a little more for coarser resin. Hing powder is
supposed to not need this step but I disagree.
Details and Cooking.
Native to western Asia and Europe the dried fruits of this plant are
used mostly in the cuisines of Central and Northern Europe to flavor bread,
sauerkraut, cheeses, liquors, casseroles and other foods. They also have a
long history of medicinal use. The roots may be cooked as a root vegetable
but are not grown commercially for that purpose.
Caraway, Black - Generally refers to Nigella - there is no Black Caraway.
Cardamom - Green
- [White Cardamom, True Cardamom; Elaichi (India); Hel
(Persia, Hebrew); Hayl (Arabic); Elettaria cardamomum
Green Cardamom is native to India and Malaysia. India produces nearly the
entire world's commercial supply (and consumes most of it). The seeds are
highly aromatic with a sharp brilliant flavor. White cardamom is green that
has been bleached. This is the cardamom to use whenever black is not
specifically called for by name or region. It is the cardamom commonly
available in Europe and North America and used in sweets, coffee and tea
in the Arabic regions, Persia and India. Details and Cooking.
Cardamom - Black -
[Black Cardamom, Brown Cardamom; Kali Elaichi, Moti Elaichi (India);
tháo quá (Vietnam); Amomum subulatum (India),
Amonum costatum (China) (Ginger family)]
Black Cardamom is not interchangeable with green cardamom. While the green
is sharp and brilliant the black is dark and smoky with high tones of
camphor and mint. It is the cardamom used in China and Vietnam, and in India
it is often included in Garam Masala mixes and certain curries, particularly
in the northern regions.
Details and Cooking.
Cassia Bark -
[Cinnamomum cassia (aromaticum)]
Charnushka (U.S. Armenian) - Nigella
An important and prolific member of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae),
chilis produce varieties of fruit that are used as spices, fresh or dried,
and others that are used as vegetables. Originating in Central and South
America, they were spread throughout the world by European traders and are
now essential to many cuisines. They are so diverse and so important we
have a separate (and rather extensive)
Celery Seed -
Another member of the aromatic Parsley Family. Celery seed is often mixed with lovage seed, or may be entirely lovage seed. Apparently lovage is a better seed producer and the seed is about the same. Celery seed is often mixed with salt to produce Celery Salt (1 part celery seed, 2 parts salt). This mix is used as a table condiment, as a flavoring for the Bloody Mary cocktail, and on Chicago and New York hot dogs. The photo specimens were 0.055 inch long by 0.022 inch wide ( 1.4 x 0.6 mm).
Celery seed is also a strong medicinal, first recorded as a treatment
for pain around CE 30. Currently, celery seed extract is reputed to be
an effective treatment for gout. Celery seed contains significant
amounts of nitrites, so it acts as a mild preservative. Some people
have a celery allergy, similarly dangerous to peanut allergy.
[Cinnamonum verum (zeylanicum)]
Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and the Malabar coast of India, but now grown also in the West Indies and South America. Cassia is native to Burma and is grown in China, Vietnam and Indonesia, with Vietnamese (Cinnamomum loureiroi) considered the highest quality. The aromatic bark of both these trees is peeled and dried for use as a spice. The two are easily confused but pretty much interchangeable in recipes.
Shown are long Cinnamon sticks (top), standard U.S. Cassia sticks (center), broken Cinnamon common in Indian groceries (right) and ground Cinnamon/Cassia (left). Preference for and availability of these spices is a mater of region. Cassia predominates in the U.S. but Cinnamon predominates in Mexico. Cassia is difficult to find in Europe where Cinnamon predominates. China and Southeast Asia use Cassia almost exclusively, but Cinnamon is used in India and Sri Lanka. Cinnamon generally has a cleaner, sweeter flavor and Cassia has a touch of bitterness.
Cassia bark is much thicker and often a darker color than Cinnamon which
can be almost paper thin. Cassia tends to curl from one side into a
cylindrical quill while Cinnamon curls from two sides into two cylinders
making a double scroll shape quill, though exceptions will be found in
both cases. Shown are two sticks of Cassia (left), a stick of Cinnamon
(top right) and a stick of Cinnamon made up of paper thin layers.
Details and Cooking.
[Laung (hindi); Nelke (German); Syzygium aromaticum]
Cloves are flower buds of a myrtle family tree native to Indonesia. To
maximize quality they must be harvested just before opening into flowers,
and then immediately dried. Cloves have been in great demand in Europe since
the Roman Empire and were very expensive considering they had to come all the
way from Indonesia. They were not grown elsewhere until recently. Despite
demand abroad, cloves have never been an important spice in Indonesia,
where the major use is in cigarettes.
- [Dhania (India); Coriandrum sativum]
These "seeds" are actually dried
fruits containing the seeds. While not now used in Europe to anywhere near
the extent they were in Medieval times, coriander seeds are still used in
pickling and sausage making. In India they are used in vast quantity for
all manner of curries and spice mixtures, almost always with Cumin at a
ratio of about 1 T Coriander to 1 t cumin. This combination was also
popular in Imperial Rome and is used in Africa and the Middle East.
Coriander seeds from India are larger and lighter than those from Europe.
Coriander greens, known here as Cilantro, are also a major food
flavoring. The photo specimens, from India, were typically 0.140
inch diameter (3.6 mm).
Details and Cooking.
[Jera (India); Cuminum cyminum | Blackseed,
Black Caraway; Kala Jeera, Black Cumin (India); Shahi zeera (Hindi)
Cumin is another member of the aromatic parsley family. What are called
"cumin seeds" are actually the dried fruit, and they contain the seeds.
[Fennel; Foeniculum vulgare | Lucknow
Fennel; Foeniculum vulgare (parsley family)]
Native to the coastal regions of the Mediterranean, Fennel is unusual in being used not only a spice (dried fruits) and as an herb (leaves) but also as a vegetable (swollen stem bases). It grows easily in any temperate climate and is grown throughout the world, often becoming a weed. The yellow-beige fruits (left in photo) are now used as a dried spice through most of the world, especially for flavoring fish and meat, soups, sweets, drinks and curries. The fruits are similar to Anise but notably sweeter. The variety of fennel used for spice is not the same variety used as a vegetable but they are closely related. The photo specimens were typically 0.285 inch long by 0.080 inch wide (7.2 x 2 mm). Details and Cooking.
Lucknow Fennel, to the right in the photo, is a variety grown in northern India. It has much smaller seeds with an even sweeter more aromatic licorice flavor. This fennel is called for in many dishes originating in northern India and can be found in Indian markets (at a much higher price than regular fennel). The photo specimens were typically 0.233 inch long by 0.063 inch wide (5.9 x 1.6 mm).
- [Methi, Trigonella foenum-graecum (Bean family)]
This spice is made from ground dried ginger rhizomes (see
Fresh Spices section). It is NOT substitutable
with fresh ginger - in either direction. The flavors of the two forms are
very different. Dried ginger is used in North America mainly in baked
Grains of Paradise -
[Melegueta pepper, Alligator pepper, Guinea pepper, Guinea grains,
Aframomum melegueta - related
Atzoh, Mbongo (West Africa); Aframomum citratum (Ginger family)]
Native to West Africa, this spice is rarely seen in North America
but some is grown in the Caribbean. It was important to 15th century
Europe but was completely replaced by black pepper by the 16th century.
Currently it is used in West and Central Africa and quite often used in
Morocco and Tunisia. The seeds are always ground and added near the end
of cooking. The best substitute is probably
Black Cardamom, though this spice is
a bit brighter in flavor. It also has quite a bit of the tongue numbing
effect found with Sichuan Peppercorns. On the
islands in the Gulf of Guinea the fresh fruits are eaten raw. The photo
specimens were about 0.12 inch diameter.
- [Juniperus communis and others of family
These "berries" are actually the female cones of a type of conifer that
produces cones with fleshy scales that fuse together. The juniper berry
of commerce is spherical and smooth, but the lumpy blue green cones of
other junipers can also be used. Juniper berries are often used with
meats, particularly in Central European recipes. They are also used as
a major flavoring in gin (named after them) and other alcoholic beverages.
The berries should be fairly fresh, because they loose their sweet,
resinous flavor fairly rapidly. The photo specimens were typically 0.313
inch diameter (8 mm). Juniper berries also have medicinal properties and
have mainly been used as a disinfectant and as a female contraceptive.
Kalonji - See Nigella
Khas Khas - see Poppy Seed, White
Korarima - [Ethiopian Cardamom,
False Cardamom; Aframomum corrorima (Ginger family)]
These seeds are shelled from a pod very similar to a cardamom pod, but
much larger than that of the familiar green cardamom. The plant is
closely related to cardamom, It is a very important spice
in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines. The plant is native to Tanzania,
western Ethiopia, southwestern Sudan and western Uganda. It is cultivated
in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The photo specimens were about 0.165 inch
long. The best substitute would be green cardamom, the black is stronger
and much differently flavored.
Mace - see Nutmeg.
[Bird Cherry: Mahlab, Mahleb (Mid East, Anatolia, Armenia);
Mahlepi (Greek); St Lucie Cherry, Mahaleb Cherry,
This cherry tree is native from central and southern Europe east to Pakistan and Kyrgystan and south to Morocco and Lebanon. It produces small red cherries that are thin fleshed and bitter, eaten mainly by birds. The cherry pits are broken open to release the kernel which is used as a spice for holiday sweets and cakes, particularly in Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. It is also used to flavor Nabulsi cheese.
It is described as tasting like a combination of cherry and bitter almond.
Myself I don't detect much cherry, but it has a moderately bitter aromatic
resin taste. The specimen photo shows seed kernels 0.2 inch long
(5.0 mm), purchased from a market in Los Angeles. It is more available
in powdered form, but that must be fresh as it degrades rapidly.
Details and Cooking.
Marati Moggu - [Marathi Moggu, Karer,
Shalmali, Semul,Badi Laung, Andhra Moggu, Andhra Mogga;
Ceiba pentandra (Mallow family)]
These flower buds are described as a "kind of caper" in many
listings, but they obviously are nothing of the kind. They have been
identified as flower buds of the Kapok tree. They are used to some
extent in Maharashtra, but much more in Karntaka and Andhra Pradesh
farther to the south. This spice is important in many rice dishes in
those states. The flower buds are very hard and difficult to grind.
They are usually dry pan roasted before use. The photo specimens, about
1 inch long counting the stem (which is used with the tip) were picked
very young, but I have seen photos of much larger ones. These were
purchased from an exporter in India for 2014 US $11.99 per 100 grams
- [Sarson (India - all types); White mustard; Sinapis
alba | Black mustard; Brassica nigra |
Brown Mustard; Brassica juncea]
White Mustard Seed (actually yellow) is the familiar European variety most of which goes into the manufacture of the "prepared mustard" we buy in jars and squeeze bottles. The photo specimens were 0.085 inch diameter.
Black Mustard Seed is always called for in recipes from India and farther east. It is smaller than European yellow mustard seeds but the flavor is pretty similar. Black mustard seed also serves as the Indian temperature gage. When the seeds start to pop, the oil is hot enough for frying and other ingredients can be stirred in. The photo specimens were 0.073 inch diameter.
Brown Mustard Seed is used in Russia to make Hot Russian Mustard. It is also grown there to make mustard oil, much used in Russian cooking. This is also a variety much used to grow mustard greens in Russia and Asia.
Mustard seed ground to a powder has little flavor until it is mixed
with water and let stand for about 10 minutes. An enzyme reaction produces
the familiar mustard pungency. Mustard prepared this way loses its
pungency quickly so is usually discarded at the end of the day. Acid
must be added to stabilize the pungency.
- [Blend of Brassica juncea (brown mustard) with
Sinapis alba (white mustard)]
Most recipes calling for mustard powder presume using Colman's brand,
one of the earliest manufacturers (1814) of this very finely powdered
mustard, and that product (now owned by Unilever) is widely available.
Dry it is almost flavorless. For use as a condiment it is mixed with
water to make a paste and allowed to stand for 10 minutes or so until
enzymes produce the pungency. It should be mixed fresh for use as the
pungency fades fairly quickly, unless stabilized with acid.
Nag Kesar - [Nagkesar, Nagkeshar;
These flower buds are used as a spice in Korkani and
Maharashtrian cuisines in India. It is not a strong spice, but has
a slightly woody aroma with a vague hint of citrus in the taste.
The photo specimens, purchased from an exporter in India, were about
0.15 inch diameter. 2014 US $9.99 per 100 grams (3-1/2 ounces).
[Kalonji (Hindi); Charnushka (Russia, U.S. Armenian); Cörek otu
(Turkish); Siyah Daneh (Persian); Kalo Jeera, Kalojira, Black Cumin
(Bengali only, otherwise improper), Black Caraway (improper);
Onion Seed (improper); Nigella sativa]
This member of the mostly inedible Ranunculales order is native to
South and Southwest Asia. The seeds, which look a bit like the totally
unrelated onion seeds, are used as a spice in India, the Middle East,
Near East, Anatolia, Caucasus, Greece and Egypt. They have a strong,
aromatic and slightly bitter taste. These seeds are often mixed into
Armenian string cheese, scattered on the outside of Nabulsi cheese, and
used on some Jewish baked goods. In India, Nigella (Kalonji) is used as
a regular spice in many curries and other dishes. Nigella is held to
have strong medicinal properties for a number of illnesses. The photo
specimens were typically 0.104 inch long and 0.55 inch across.
Nutmeg & Mace
- [Myristica fragrans]
Less important than it was in Medieval times, nutmeg is still used in many European recipes, particularly in sauces and beverages, but also in baked goods and with vegetables. Mace is a wrapper around the nutmeg seed which is treated separately. Mace has a lighter, more fruity flavor while nutmeg is sweeter and stronger, so they find application in different kinds of recipes (and sometimes together). The fruit itself is also used in the regions where nutmeg grows. Details and Cooking.
Nutmeg is known to have psychoactive properties, and some nutmeg
relatives in South America have very strong psychoactive properties,
but these are not relevant to a culinary site. Nutmeg is so highly
toxic to some animals, dogs, for instance, that culinary quantities
harmless to people can be deadly.
Pepper Family The Pepper family (Piper) has well over 1000 species. The largest number are in the Americas, but those of culinary fame are mostly from Africa and South and Southeast Asia. Pepper has been an important cooking spice since the depths of prehistory. Leaves of some species are also used. For more information and herbal uses see our Pepper - Family page.
- [Schinus terebinthifolius (Brazilian), also
Schinus molle (California / Peruvian)]
These "peppercorns" are from trees of the Cashew family
(Anacardiaceae) and are not at all related to the familiar black,
green, red and white peppercorns of Southeast Asia, nor to the Sichuan
peppercorns of China and Nepal. They have long been used as a spice and
medicinally in the Caribbean and some years back were a real rage with
the fancy chef set. During the rage many publications shrilly warned that
they were related to poison ivy and poison sumac, but even more so is the
spice "sumac" heavily used in the Near East. In any case dried berries
contain no significant amount of the suspected irritants. Today they are
commonly found mixed with black, green and white peppercorns in "gourmet"
pepper mixes where they serve a decorative purpose only.
Details and Cooking.
Peppercorns, Sichuan (Szechwan)
- [Flower Pepper, Prickly Ash (English); Teppal (India);
Jiao (china) Zanthoxylum piperitum, Z. simulans and others
Dried fruits of the Chinese prickly ash tree. These "peppercorns" are
essential to the famous Sichuan cuisine of China and a similar fruit is
important in Nepal. They are quite unique with a remarkably sharp, citrusy
flavor and a numbing anesthetic effect on the tongue. Other countries have
related species with flavors that vary more or less from the Chinese. Some of
these are listed on the page
Details and Cooking.
- [Mountain Pepper; Tasmannia lanceolata
| also Dorrigo Pepper; Tasmannia stipitata - both of
family Winteraceae, order Canellales]
Native to Australia, these "peppercorns" look much like dried black
peppercorns but have a pungency and numbing effect on the tongue
similar to Sichuan peppercorns. Both dried berries and dried leaves
carry the spiciness and both are used in cooking, usually dried and
powdered. This plant is grown commercially in Australia and some is
exported to Japan to be used to flavor wasabe paste (whether real
wasabe or the horseradish paste also called "wasabe" I do not know).
Both leaves and berries also show strong antimicrobial activity and
are high in antioxidants.
Photo by Melburnian distributed under license Creative
Attribution 3.0 Unported..
Poppy Seeds -
[Black Poppy Seed | White Poppy Seed; Khas Khas
(India) | Papaver somniferum of order
There are two kinds of poppy seeds sold on the spice markets, Black and White. They are imperfectly interchangeable due to color, taste and other characteristics. Both come from the infamous opium poppy, but contain only tiny amounts of the psychoactive alkalis morphine and codeine. Those have to be gathered from the sap long before the seeds are mature enough to harvest. Drug tests, however, may come out positive from eating poppy seed rolls, muffins or bagels. Poppy seed is also used as an oil seed, but in North America it's used for slow drying artist's oil paints rather than for cooking. Details and Cooking.
Black Poppy Seeds are commonly used in Europe and the U.S. sprinkled on baked goods and in baked goods stuffings. The photo specimens were 0.020 inch diameter.
White Poppy Seeds are milder than the black. They are always called for in Indian cooking, where they are used roasted and ground. They serve as both a flavoring and as a thickening agent in light colored sauces. They come from a line of poppies specifically bred for these mild light colored seeds. The photo specimens were 0.020 inch diameter.
- [Rampatri (Hindi); Kattujathikka, Kottappannu, Panampalka,
Pathiripoovu, Ponnampannu, Ponnampayin, Ponnampu (Malayalam);
Kanage, Doddajajikai (Kannada); Myristica malabarica]
This intensely aromatic spice is from trees native to swampy areas
along the Western Ghats (mountain range) of India, and used in
masalas (spice mixtures) in the region, particularly Karala. The
appearance is much like Mace, but much larger and more dense. The
aroma and flavor are much darker and less fruity than mace. The trees
are Red List VU (Vulnerable) due to draining of the marshes in which
they live for agriculture. The photo specimens, up to 2.4 inches long,
were purchased from an export house in India for 2014 US $9.99 / 50
grams (1-3/4 ounce).
[Wild Celery (not unique); Ajmod (Hindi / Urdu);
Trachyspermum roxburghianum alt Carum roxburghianum]
This plant is grown widely in South and Southeast Asia, including
Indonesia. Its highly aromatic seeds are use in curries, and in some
parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh replace mustard seed in the Bengali
spice mix Panch Phoron. It smells similar to parsley seed, but must be
used with considerable discretion as it is very strong and can overpower
a dish. The seeds are generally fried in oil until aromatic and crackling
before adding other ingredients. The herb can also be used fresh and is
reported to be so used in Thailand. The photo specimens, purchased from
an export house in India at US $9.99 / 100 gms (3.5 ounces) were about
0.040 inch diameter.
The only plant in the Iris family of culinary importance, the Saffron Crocus, does not appear in nature - it is sterile, so must have been the result of human intervention. It may have originated in Bronze Age-Crete, but is now harvested as a crop from Spain through India and North Africa. The only part of the plant with culinary use is the stigmas, thread like components of the flower. These are used as a flavoring and coloring in many cuisines. They must be dried, causing chemical changes, before they are effective.
It takes 150 flowers to make 1 gram (0.035 ounce), which is about 1/2 tablespoon of very loosely packed threads. These threads must be carefully harvested by hand. In North America, a single gram can cost between US $2.00 and $16.00, depending on size of the package, grade of saffron, point of origin and what the retailer thinks he can get from his customers. The photo to the left shows 1 gram of Spanish saffron, with our ubiquitous red kidney bean for size comparison. Details and Cooking.
Sesame Seeds -
[Ajonjolí, Sésamo (Spanish); Till, Til, Teel (India);
Goma, Shima (Japan); Zhi má, Hu má (China); Kunjut,
Shushma (Armenia); Ellu (Tamil, Malay); Sesamum indicum of
This plant is native to both India and Africa, with many wild relatives in both regions. It is now grown through much of the tropics for its seeds, used both as a spice and a source of cooking oil. Burma is the largest producer, but India is the largest exporter, and Japan the largest importer. Sesame is not much grown in the United States due to the labor cost in harvesting, though this is being worked on.
There are thousands of varieties of this plant, producing seeds in many colors, but the most commonly available in North America are White and Black. The brown seeds in the center of the photo are white seeds that have been toasted, a very common way sesame seeds are used. White seeds dominate in India, and black in China and Southeast Asia, so naturally the color used in those regions matches the color grown.
In Europe and North America, sesame seeds are much used as toppings for baked goods, including hamburger buns (McDonalds buys 75% of Mexico's crop). In other regions, usage is much more diverse, including many sweets like halva, and also tahini (like peanut butter, but sesame). Details and Cooking.
[Silphium (Greek); Laser (Roman); possibly related to
Ferula tingitana (Parsley Family)]
- [Bat Gok (China); Badiyan (from Persian, but adopted by other
languages); Illicium verum]
An essential for Chinese cooking, this spice is also grown and used in Vietnam, Laos and India. These licorice flavored seed pods grow on a tree native to Vietnam and southern China. The hard seeds which may be present in the pods can be ground with the pods or discarded - they lack flavor. Star Anise is almost always sold as whole or broken pods to be used whole or ground just before use.
Star Anise is an essential ingredient of the Five Spice powder used all over China and extending into Southeast Asia. In China it is used whole in many "red cooked" meat dishes. It is also widely used in India as an ingredient in masalas (spice powders). In Vietnam it is an important flavoring in the famous pho soups, and is also used in Malaysia and Indonesia. In the West it is used as a flavoring in a number of alcoholic beverages. Most of the harvest goes to processors for extraction of a chemical used in manufacturing the drug Tamiflu®.
This medium sized tree is of evolutionary interest because it is near the base of the development of flowering plants (see Basal Angiosperms). Illicium verum has two relatives in Florida, both toxic, and one look-alike relative in Japan which is very toxic.
- [Tirphul, Tirfal, Tirphal; Zanthoxylum rhetsa
These are dried fruits of a prickly ash tree native to India. These
"peppercorns" are similar to the famous Sichuan peppercorns of China,
but much larger and greenish rather red. They have a sharp, citrusy
flavor but are much milder than the Sichuan variety, and with a lot
less of then numbing anesthetic effect on the tongue. It is used in
Maharashtra and southern states of India. The photo specimens were
purchased from an exporter in India, 2014 US $9.99 for 100 grams
(3-1/2 ounces). Refer to the page for Sichuan Peppercorns for
Details and Cooking.
- [Haldi (India); Curcuma longa |
White Turmeric; Curcuma zedoaria (ginger family)]
This powder is ground form steamed and dried turmeric roots.
The dried powder is commonly used in India, and is ground weekly from
dried roots whenever possible. The North American spice trade considers
Turmeric nothing more than a coloring, so the dried powder is likely old
with inferior flavor and no aroma. That found in Indian markets has far
better flavor and aroma because both turnover and expectations are much
Details and Cooking
Vanilla Bean - [Vanilla
planifolia, Vanilla pompona, Vanilla tahitiensis]
The dominant vanilla orchid (planifolia) is native to Mexico but has been planted in other tropical areas with Madagascar and Indonesia the largest producers. Another species (tahitiensis) is grown in French Polynesia, but in comparatively minute quantity.
Vanilla beans are long seed pods containing thousands of seeds, but the
seeds are of no importance. The pods are picked green and then killed,
usually by heat or sun drying. They are then fermented for 7 to 10 days
at high temperature and humidity allowing enzymes to convert substances
in the beans into vanillin and something like 200 other flavoring
components. The beans are then dried and sorted by quality.
Photo © i0125.
- [mostly powdered horseradish B. Armoracia rusticana]
The one thing you should not expect in "Wasabe Powder", is a detectable amount of wasabe root. It's nearly all powdered horseradish, with a little green coloring - because powdered wasabe root is pretty much worthless (and very expensive). This powder is almost flavorless dry. It is mixed with enough water to make a paste, then allowed to sit for 10 minutes or so until enzymes have produced the pungency. It should be used within an hour or less because the pungency fades rather quickly.
The photo specimen, From Japan, is not as garishly green as
some. It lists as ingredients: Horseradish, Japanese wasabe root,
gardenia. The gardenia is, no doubt, for the green color, and the
wasabe root is probably just enough to list ahead of the gardenia.
These powders can claim to be Wasabe whether or not they contain any
wasabe root, because Wasabe is also the word for horseradish in Japan.
Details and Cooking
[Meerrettich (German), Seiyo Wasabi (Japan) B. Armoracia
This pungent white fleshed root was known in Roman times, probably
originating in southeastern Europe. Today it is grown worldwide for use
as a condiment, particularly popular in Germany, Poland, Russia and
surrounding countries. Actually, about 85% of the worlds supply is
grown in the bottomlands surrounding Collinsville, Illinois where the
soil is just the way horseradish likes it. A mixture of horseradish,
mustard seeds and green food coloring is used as a condiment in
Japanese restaurants, even in Japan, because real
Wasabi is so costly.
Details and Cooking.
[Japanese Horseradish; Wasabia japonica]
This very pungent green fleshed root is used grated as a condiment, particularly to accompany sushi. Most sushi lovers, however, have never tasted wasabi. Pretty much all sushi bars in the US and nearly all in Japan serve a fake wasabi made from Horseradish, mustard seeds and green food coloring. Real wasabi (hon-wasabi) has a more refined hotness, a sweet after-taste and is not nearly so bright a green as the fake. It's also very expensive and the flavor is extremely perishable.
Imported "wasabi" purchased as tiny cans of dried powder or tubes of paste is all faked up from horseradish. The Japanese can export horseradish under the name "wasabi" because the Japanese name for horseradish is "seiyo wasabi" (Western wasabi). They can even call it "real wasabi".
Several companies set up wasabi production in North America. At first they
expected to export it to Japan, but local demand has been so great there's
little left to export. Two grades are grown in North America: sawa-wasabi
(semi aquatic - for culinary use) and oka-wasabi (field grown - for the
nutritional supplement industry). Fresh product is available from these
growers (see Details and Cooking
for suppliers). Photo "borrowed" from
Pacific Coast Wasabi.
In general, the quantity of spices used in everyday cooking is not sufficient to have either a positive or negative effect on health. On the other hand, extracts of many spices are highly medicinal, and a few are toxic. Some spices, particularly nutmeg, which are harmless to people can be deadly to dogs, cats and other animals.