buds have changed world history. For at least 3,000
years, and really long before that, peoples of the
Old World wanted spices for their food.
To get them, merchants and sailors had to cross the
wide oceans to find the sources of these precious
The most pungent spice of all, one
that would keep in storage for a good long time, was
piper nigrum, black pepper. That meant travel across
the Arabian Sea from the west, across the Indian Ocean
from the east, to south India, to Kerala where it
grew. In fact, the name "Malabar Coast"
really means "Pepper Coast."
Pepper grows on vines that use trees
for support: pepper is the berry, or fruit. These
are ready for picking in January when they are a reddish
color. Once picked, the berries must be dried and
when that happens the skin surrounding the seed wrinkles
and becomes fully black. The seed itself is white
and if the pepper berry is soaked and the skin removed,
white pepper is the result. White and black pepper
is exactly the same fruit. Today the peoples of the
world use more pepper than all other spices combined.
Yet in India another plant has taken its place as
the main "hot" element in dishes such as
curries. That plant is the chili pepper, a native
of the Americas, which was brought to India in the
16th Century by Portuguese traders. Indian cuisine
is unthinkable without these "hot peppers."
Ginger belongs to the Zingiberaceae
family which takes its name from ancient Indian words
meaning "horny body." That is probably because
the spice comes from the plant's rhizome, the stem
that runs underground. It was popular in Medieval
Europe (and China) as medicine for the stomach: today
ginger ale is often taken for an upset stomach and
travel sickness. It also tastes good -- freshly grated
it has a sharp "hot" flavor that is not
at all sweet. Ginger was widely used in regular European
cookery, especially baking, and so brought good incomes
to those who traded in it. We still eat gingerbread
cookies and cakes. In India and east Asian cuisines
ginger has always been a key flavor ingredient in
cardamom with black seeds next to immature
member of the Zingiberaceae family, cardamon (cardamom)
is one of the world's most expensive spices (the other
two are saffron and vanilla) and always has been.
It is the dried fruit of a tall (up to 6 feet) perennial
plant that is native to the Ghat Mountains of south
India, also known as the "Cardamon Hills"
and Sri Lanka. There are many kinds of cardamon and
related species, but the best "true" cardamon
comes from Kerala.
prices are based on the deep green color
and size of the capsule.
Ancient Greeks gave cardamon its
common name and Romans used it heavily both for flavoring
food and for medicinal purposes. Although used extensively
in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, cardamon appears
in western kitchens mainly as a flavoring in baked
goods. Scandinavians use a lot of it and today half
of Kerala's production goes to Sweden for various
specialty breads and cakes.
It would be hard to imagine the
taste of Christmas without another south Indian spice,
Found in every grocery store today, it was once a
precious spice, mentioned in ancient Egyptian and
Chinese documents. In their quest to make huge profits,
both the Portuguese and Dutch controlled cinnamon
plantations beginning in the 1500s, but they soon
produced so much of it that it became common in everyday
cooking and was used it in all kinds of dishes. Cinnamon
is the bark from the young shoots of an evergreen
tree (Lauracea). The thin bark is peeled and dried
into rolls. There is another kind of "cinnamon"
called Cassia. This is the bark of the same kind of
tree, only thicker and less flavorful. Usually, we
buy cinnamon already made into powder, but when freshly
ground it has a wonderful aroma, just like the fresh
leaves from the tree.
A member of the Zingeberacea family,
turmeric is a rhyzome that is used as a spice and
for its yellow color. In fact, it is one of the very
few spices that serves this dual purpose. Turmeric,
called haldi in India, gives a distinctive yellow
color to the curries of India and southeast Asia,
and it is said to taste something like saffron, maybe
the world’s most expensive spice. Turmeric is
used for color in many other foods, especially ordinary
yellow mustard. It’s bright color is also prized
for dying clothing, especially in south and eastern