Spices are natural flavoring elements most often in dried form but sometimes fresh (ginger for instance). Herbs are fresh leaves, stems, flowers, etc. that may also be found in dried form. I cover herbs in a separate document Herbs & Leaves but there are links from here to some of them that have a spice-like usage.
History & General Information
Most of our well known spices are grown in tropical coastal regions of India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia. From ancient times they have been a major article of trade to Europe and the Mediterranean and were until recently horrifyingly expensive due to monopoly control.
The spice trade was a major factor in European development of the highly sophisticated sailing ship technology that made world conquest and the colonial era possible - and which, incidentally broke the monopolies that had controlled trade resulting in lower prices. Today, all except labor intensive saffron are quite affordable.
Many authors state that in Medieval Europe spices were used with a heavy hand and to hide the taint of spoiled meat. Both statements are probably 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. Medieval cookbooks call for many spices. Unfortunately, none give quantities, but given the expense, and the professionalism and sophistication of the cooks of that day, they were probably used with subtlety, not a heavy hand.
Working with Spices
Buying & Storing 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 grocer is 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 couple teaspoons 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. Heat them stirring frequently until they start releasing their
characteristic fragrance and start to darken just a touch, then pour out into
a bowl to cool. 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 this step
before handling dried chilis or I may not be able to smell anything.
Every time our government is thrown out of a country it invaded or has been meddling in, all the collaborators move to Los Angles and open restaurants. Naturally they send home for ingredients as soon as they can and specialty grocers are soon opened. The happy result is that nearly every spice used in the world is available here.
Achiote / Annatto -
[Bijol; Bija (Caribbean); recado rojo (Mexico); Atsuete (Philippines)
pimentão doce (Spanish);
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.
Amchur, Amchur Powder - unripe fruit of the mango tree, available as slices and powder. 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. Because it's light, dry and does not spoil easily as lemons and lemon juice do it's more portable in hot climates.
Anise -[Pimpinella anisum]
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.
Annatto - [Achiote (sp)]
Asafoetida - [Hing (india),
Ferula assa-foetida (Parsley family)]
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.
Caraway, Black - Generally refers to Nigella - there is no Black Caraway.
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.
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 - 
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) Chili Page
Cinnamon - 
Cloves - [Laung (hindi);
Nelke (German); Syzygium aromaticum]
Coriander - 
Cumin [Jera (ind)]
Curry leaves dry well but lose a great deal in drying. OK for some spice mixes if freshly dried but otherwise a poor substitute for fresh. If you don't have a ready source we recommend buying some fresh ones, stripping the leaves off the stems and freezing them in small bags. They turn dark, but they're going to turn dark fried in oil anyway.
Fennel - [Sweet cumin, Foeniculum vulgare
Fenugreek [Methi, Trigonella
foenum-graecum (Bean family)]
Five Spice Powder
As with other spices, Five Spice is best mixed from the whole spices and ground in a spice grinder when needed. It is most used in batters for coating deep fried meats and in marinades for meats.
Kalonji (India) - Nigella
Khas Khas - see Poppy Seed, White
Mace - see Nutmeg.
Mahlab [(variously spelled), Mahlepi
(Greece), St Lucie
Cherry Prunus Mahaleb]
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.
Nigella - [Onion Seed (improper),
Black Caraway (improper), Black Cumin (improper), Charnushka (U.S. Armenian),
Nutmeg & Mace -
Panch phoron (Bengal) - a mix of 5 spices in equal part - nigella, fenugreek, cumin, black mustard seed and fennel. Panch phoron and mustard oil together provide the distinctive flavor of Bengali cooking. The spice mix is always fried in mustard oil before use to bring out the flavors and is generally used unground.
Pepper / Peppercorns - Black, White, Green, Red
- [Piper nigrum]
Pepper originated on the Malabar (south west) coast of India, but major plantations were later established in Indonesia for trade with the Dutch. It is now grown also in Brazil and several Southeast Asian countries. Pepper has never been popular in Indonesia despite being grown there, but has long been used in India and parts of Southeast Asia, particularly before chilis were brought from South America. In Europe it has been the most important spice since the Roman Empire and was extremely expensive until the 18th century due to trade monopolies.
In more recent times pepper has spread to just about every cuisine,
particularly since the price has fallen so much and growing area has
increased. Pepper use has increased in Southeast Asia due to it being grown
there now and Thailand has taken a liking to fresh green peppercorns.
The photo specimens are: brined Green Peppercorns (top), force dried
Green Peppercorns (right), White Peppercorns (left) and
Black Peppercorns (center). All these are from the same
piper nigrum pepper vine, just picked at different stages of
ripeness and processed differently.
Details and Cooking.
Peppercorns, Pink -
[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 (Szechuan) -
[Flower Pepper, Prickly Ash (English); Teppal (India);
Jiao (china) Zanthoxylum piperitum, Z. simulans and others
Peppercorns, Tasmanian -
[Mountain Pepper; Tasmannia lanceolata | Dorrigo Pepper;
Sambar Podi [sambar powder]
Silphion - [(Parsley Family)]
Star Anise - [Bat Gok (china),
badiyan (from persian but adopted by other languages),
Star Anise is almost always sold as whole or broken pods and should be ground just before use.
The powdered form is most commonly used in India and is ground weekly from dried roots whenever possible. The U.S. spice trade considers Turmeric mostly for it's color so the dried powder is likely old with inferior flavor. That found in Indian groceries generally has better flavor and aroma because turnover and expectations are much higher.
White Turmeric (Zedoary) is also available as fresh root and is used particularly in Southeast Asia as an aromatic vegetable, and in India it is grated and added to various pickles. It has little color but a considerably sharper taste than yellow turmeric.
spices 06 - www.clovegarden.com
©Andrew Grygus - email@example.com - Photos on this page not otherwise credited are © cg1 - Linking to and non-commercial use of this page are permitted