By: Kayla & Justin Butts Photos by: Rachel Benavides
Spices are powerful influencers. Those small, colorful containers in the spice rack that change and enhance the flavor of your food have long influenced global culture and cuisine, even the rise and fall of nations. Spices helped shape the map of the modern world.
The Silk Road was about spices as much as it was about silk. As spices and cuisines moved, religion, language, and culture traveled with them, and these small seasonings influenced the destinies of China, Persia, India, and Europe.
Vasco da Gama sailed out of Lisbon into the unknown waters of the Cape of Good Hope looking for a way to bypass the Silk Road. He discovered a new route to the coveted spices of India and China. His journey created the first shipping lane linking Europe to the Orient, still in use today. Spices bridged distant worlds.
The Dutch, in 1667, traded New York for the tiny islands of Banda (famous then but forgotten now) in Indonesia. Banda was at that time the world’s only source of nutmeg. The Dutch happily gave away all the future riches of the New World simply for the taste (and profits) of nutmeg. Nations rose and fell on spices.
Spice & Culture
Spices have been used since the dawn of mankind as medicine, to flavor food, to mask unpleasant tastes and smells, even to freshen breath.
For many lands, spices played a pivotal role not just in their cuisine, but in their political development. Wars were fought for the control of spice lands. Armies built forts (that became great cites) to protect merchants along spice trade routes. Brigands, pirates, and nomad bands created their own enduring societies by stealing from and selling to the spice travelers.
Spices can resurrect the lands of antiquity through modern cuisine: the saffron of Persia; the cinnamon of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); the harissa of Tunisia; or the piquant curries of southern India. The aroma of certain spices evokes strong images of distinct cultures and cuisines.
Navigating the Spice Aisle
Inexpensive spices found in the grocery store aisles usually sit on shelves too long and are already losing their flavor and nutrients by the time you grab them. Even worse, spices stored in bulk bins are often exposed to excessive light, heat, and inconsistent temperatures. These bulk bin products typically suffer in quality and are not replenished frequently enough.
Avoid any spices with fillers, artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, or anti-caking ingredients. Make sure to read the labels carefully before purchasing.
Buy organic spices if at all possible. Not only are they grown with special care, they are sterilized with steam treatment or dry heat. Non-organic (most grocery store spices) are often fumigated and irradiated with chemicals.
It is easy to find high-quality organic spices online and have them shipped to your door. This is the trend for home chefs—source only the best. These spices cost more than grocery store brands, but you will find yourself using them more and loving them more when you do.
Ground spices are widely available, which is their chief benefit. They offer acceptable flavor (if still fresh), good health benefits, and ease of use. However, ground spices tend to lose potency and go stale very quickly, and must be replaced on an annual basis or more often.
Whole spices are much more potent, stay fresher, have a longer shelf life – up to two years – and do not contain the contaminants or fillers often found in ground spices. Replace any spices, whole or ground, once they lose their robust fragrance. If they smell weak, they will definitely taste weak.
Whole spices require the extra step of grinding when ready to use. This may seem like more work, but it could well become your favorite part of cooking. The freshly ground fragrance is powerful and compelling; the colors are richer. You grind only what you need. Use a spice mill, a Turkish pepper grinder, or even a mortar and pestle. It feels really good, for some reason, to grind your own spices.
Storage & Uses
Protect spices from light, heat, and humidity. Store in individual airtight containers in a cool, dry, dark pantry. Sunlight and heat oxidize the essential oils in spices, which decreases their antioxidant content and diminishes their flavors.
Add spices and dried herbs at the beginning of the cooking process to let their flavors develop. Encourage whole and freshly crushed spices to “bloom” by heating them in oil for 30 seconds prior to adding the protein or produce.
Avoid shaking spices from their storage containers directly over a hot cooking implement – the resultant heat and steam can cause the spice inside the shaker to cake and clump. Make your own blends to control sodium content, eliminate impurities, and ensure the highest quality flavors for your meals.
Invest in good ones. Extraordinary ingredients make extraordinary meals. Treat yourself well – you are worth it.
Top Five Spices for Your Health
Cinnamon – fights inflammation; lowers blood sugar; improves insulin sensitivity; fights breast, lung, and prostate cancer; reduces chronic inflammation; decreases “bad” LDL cholesterol and increases “good” HDL cholesterol; lowers blood pressure; decreases Alzheimer’s risk; and restricts growth of H. Pylori in the gut.
Turmeric – prevents cancer cell and tumor growth; scavenges harmful free radicals; reduces oxidative stress and inflammation; improves carbohydrate and fat metabolism; aids in weight loss; reduces blood sugar; alleviates asthma symptoms; and ameliorates autoimmune response.
Ginger – eases nausea and improves digestion; contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds; alleviates allergies; increases detoxifying enzymes in liver; relieves aches and pains; and reduces the risk of colon cancer.
Garlic – inhibits cancer cell formation; contains allicin which reduces cholesterol and blood pressure; dissolves blood clots; promotes weight loss; improves antimicrobial functions; and lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Cayenne – kills cancer cells; stimulates digestion; lowers triglycerides and cholesterol; contains antioxidant properties; decreases blood sugar and increases insulin release; and helps the body absorb iron, calcium, and beta-carotene.
All-purpose Savory Spice Blend Recipe
Prep time: about 7 minutes
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp peppercorns
2 tsp paprika
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes or cayenne
Grind peppercorns with dried herbs in a pepper grinder or coffee grinder, or with a mortar and pestle. Combine remaining ingredients and stir well. Store in an airtight container in a dry, cool place. Try on eggs, popcorn, meat, or vegetables.