What Is A Spice?
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We can all agree that food without spices would be rather boring. Spices give aroma, flavour, colour and sometimes even texture to many of our favourite dishes, with each spice boasting its own unique chemical compound which creates its defining flavour. Spices are also very good for you and are well known for their healing powers. They’ve been used for thousands of years to treat all sorts of ailments, from ancient Egyptians who used garlic to promote health, to their important role in Ayurvedic medicine. Read on to learn more about these little powerhouses and how they differ from herbs.
Spices always come from plants. But unless you’re a plant nerd, you probably wouldn’t recognise many of your favourite spices before they’ve been harvested. There isn’t just one part of a plant which produces spices—in fact, spices can come from the following five main parts of a plant:
The seeds of a plant are the most common type of spice you’ll find. They’re essential to a plant’s ability to reproduce, and they’re packed with flavour, aroma and health benefits. Some of the most common spices which are seeds include star anise, cumin, cardamom, fenugreek and mustard.
Fruits are home to seeds, acting as a protective cage as well as playing an important role in seed dispersal. Fruits can also be categorised as spices, whether they take the form of berries, pods or cones. Some of the most common examples of fruits which are spices include peppercorns, chillies, sumac berries, juniper berries, allspice and vanilla.
Responsible for storing a plant’s food, roots can include rhizomes (underground stems that grow horizontally, shooting new vertical stems as they go) and bulbs (a globe-shaped underground bud with fleshy overlapping leaves). Some of the best-known root spices are ginger, turmeric, garlic, galangal and licorice.
Pure stem spices aren’t as commonly used as other parts of a plant, as they tend to be woody and difficult to eat. However, there are still a handful of stems and bark that are used as spices, some of which include cinnamon, lemongrass and mastic.
Flowers don’t hold the same intensity of flavour compared with roots or seeds, but they can give a wonderful aroma to your cooking. Spices such as cloves, saffron and rose petals are all derived from flowers.
At this point, you may be wondering ‘where do the leaves of a plant come in?’. This is the main difference between herbs and spices: while the seeds, fruits, roots, stems and flowers are a spice, the leaves are categorised as a herb. Herbs are typically taken from plants that have aromatic and savoury properties such as basil and oregano, and are used for flavouring and garnishing dishes. Having said that, some plants can also be a host to a herb and a spice at the same time. The classic example is coriander. Its seeds are used as a spice while its leaves are used as a herb.
While spices are mostly used in dried and ground form, herbs are often used in fresh form, although they can also be dried. As well as culinary herbs, some herbs are also used for medicinal properties such as chamomile, echinacea and Saint John’s wort.
Each spice has a unique aroma and flavour which come from the volatile oils which naturally occur in them. In some spices such as ginger and galangal, we can immediately detect the strong flavour and aroma. Other spices such as vanilla and peppercorns only develop their characteristic flavours once they’ve been dried and cured. To maximise the flavours and release all the oils, you should always grind or heat your spices before you use them.
Similar to spices, herbs also contain naturally occurring chemicals which give them their appealing flavours. When our taste buds come into contact with these chemicals, the nerve cells in our tongue read those specific chemicals, transmit the information to our brains, and recognise them as ‘tasty flavours’. This is why we love herbs so much—by adding herbs to our dishes, we’re increasing their complexity and making our food taste much more interesting.