||What has been used by the human race since as early as 5000B.C.E and has been a central item in trade among the ancient civilizations of Greece, Egypt, and India, and is of central importance in the preparation, preservation and flavoring of food?
And what is this greatly desired luxury item that spurred trade from the ancient civilizations and fueled the maritime exploration and trade in the age of discovery when Christopher Columbus set sail for the Indies? It is none other than spices. For millennia, it has played an important role in driving trade, civilization, and today continues to be a rich part of our culinary experience.
For the month of December, we will explore the rich and varied world of Asian herbs and spices and look at this rich treasure trove of flavors. We will look at Asian herbs and spices, their unique culinary properties, uses, and medicinal values.
Herbs or Spices
The words herbs and spices are commonly used interchangeably to refer to parts of plants used to prepare and flavor food. But herbs and spices do have subtle differences. Herbs refer to the leaves of non-woody plants and herbs are commonly used in larger quantities than spices to add flavor to food.
Spices are usually obtained from roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or barks of plants, and spices can come from both woody and non-woody plants. Spices often have a stronger flavor than herbs and as a result are used in a lesser quantity. Spices are also often used as a form of preservative.
Asian Herbs and Spices
Also known as chili peppers, chilies originated on the American continent, and were used as early as 7500 B.C.E. Since what historians have termed the Columbian exchange where a massive amount of plant species, food, culture and ideas were exchanged between the Western and eastern hemisphere in the 15th century, chilies have become widespread all across the world and is today used in many Asian cuisines.
Most typical, chili is popular in South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines. Even many places in China use chili as a condiment to their cuisine. Most notably in Sichuan (or Szechuan), where garlic, chili pepper and a unique Sichuan peppercorn are used in the cuisine. South Korean cuisine also favors a fermented red chili paste, known as gochujang.
Red chilies are high in Vitamin C and carotene. In addition chili peppers are also a rich source of B vitamins, magnesium, iron and potassium.
Cinnamon, although commonly used today in many Western cuisines, originated in Southeast Asia. Native to India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Bangladesh, cinnamon’s origins remained a mysterious to many Europeans until the 16th century.
Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of a few types of trees in the genus of cinnamomum. Cinnamon bark that is obtained is often grounded into powder form, even though cinnamon bark can be ingested directly. The flavor of cinnamon is aromatic and flavorful. Today, cinnamon is commonly used in the manufacturing of chocolate, as well as desserts and cocoa drinks and tea.
Scientific studies are still attempting to unlock the medicinal values in cinnamons. Studies have found that a substance in cinnamon may inhibit the development of Alzheimer’s disease in a mouse model study of the disease.
Originating in China, it is also known as the Chinese cinnamon and often confused with cinnamon. Cassia bark is extracted from evergreen tree species native to Southern China, Bangladesh, India, and Vietnam.
Less delicate than cinnamon, cassia bark is often a cheaper alternative to cinnamon, and as a result carries the name of “bastard cinnamon”. Usually, the name “Chinese cinnamon” is a distinction marker from its more expensive relative “Ceylon cinnamon”.
Cassia is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Studies have also found that cassia barks have some anti-diabetic effect. It should, however, be noted that cassia bark also contains a toxic component known as coumarin. Usually, when ingested in small amounts have no effect on human health, but European health agencies have warned against consuming large amounts of cassia barks.
Curry leaves (Sweet Neem leaves)
Sometimes also known as sweet neem leaves, curry leaves come from the curry tree—a tropical or sub-tropical tree native to India. Curry leaves is widely used in India cuisine. Most typically, curry leaves is found in almost all dishes of Tamil Nadu.
Curry leaves carry a citrusy smoky aroma and are often in the preparation of curry dishes. They are fried fresh along with chopped onions. Dried curry leaves are also sometimes used, but their aroma is largely lost when dried. It should be noted that curry leaves are not related to curry powder and are commonly first toasted in oil in a cooking pan before any other ingredients are added. In this way, the flavors of curry leaves are released.
Medicinally, it is believed that curry leaves are beneficial to human digestion and promotes clear and healthy skin.
Also known as coriander leaves or Chinese parsley, cilantro is an annual herb that is native to parts of Southern Europe, North Africa and Southwest Asia. Often in America, coriander refers to the seed part of the same plant. The leaves of coriander have a very distinct taste that is different from the seed. Citrusy and at times cited as a soapy or rank taste, cilantro is popular in Chinese, Indian and Mexican cuisine.
Used in the production of Indian chutney, Chinese dishes and guacamole and salsa in Mexican cuisine, cilantro is a widely used herb. Medicinally, cilantro, like many other spices, contains anti-oxidants. Studies have also found that cilantro has effects of treating diabetes and lowering cholesterol.
Today, ginger is a common sight in kitchens all across the world, and is widely used in cuisines from all over the world. But originally, ginger originated in South Asia and later spread to East Africa and the Caribbean.
Young gingers are usually soft, fleshy and mild in taste. They can be steeped in tea with added honey. Mature gingers are dried and fibrous in texture with a strong taste, and are used in many Indian, Chinese and Japanese dishes.
In Japanese cuisine, young ginger is pickled. Known as gari, or sushi ginger, this pickled ginger are thinly sliced using ginger graters and are in shades of yellow to light pink. Gari is eaten in between sushi dishes and are said to cleanse the palate. Ginger is also added to the Korean kimchi. Finely minced, ginger is added to the spicy paste before it is fermented into kimchi.
Ginger is believed to relief pain from arthritis, and to relieve motion sickness. Although inconclusive at the moment, some studies have also suggested that ginger may have the effect of thinning blood and reducing cholesterol.
Used fresh, dried or powdered, lemon grass is an extremely popular herb and spice across Asia. Used in tea, soups and curries, lemon grass has a delightful citrusy and fresh aroma. Lemongrass is essential to Thai cuisine, producing a zesty, citrusy tone to dishes.
Native to India, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, lemon grass is also sometimes used as insecticide or preservative. Oil can also be extracted from lemon grass to be used in aromatherapy.
Medicinally, lemongrass is believed to aid in digestion and to relieve spasms, muscle cramps and headaches.
A spice derived from the flowering plant known as saffron crocus. When the saffron crocus blooms, it produces up to four flowers with vivid red stigmas. The stigmas are dried and are used for seasoning and coloring. Native to Southwest Asia, saffron is the most expensive spice by weight today. Saffron can reach up to $500 USD per pound.
Saffron carries a bitter and hay-like fragrance and infuses food with a rich golden-yellow hue. Conoisseurs describe its taste as a metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes.
Studies on the medicinal benefits of saffron is still ongoing, but it has already been discovered that saffron has anti-carcinogenic (cancer suppressing), anti-mutagenic mutation prevention), and antioxidant properties.
Beyond all the varied spices and herbs discussed, Asia also boasts of unique condiments that may be familiar to those who are fans of Asian cuisine. Below are three interesting and common Asian condiments.
Light green in color and rich in texture that melts in the mouth, wasabi is often found in Japanese restaurant and is taken with sushi dishes and is often paired with soy sauce.
Wasabi comes from root of the wasabi plant, also known as the Japanese horseradish. Wasabi carries a very strong and potent flavor and produces vapors that stimulate the nasal passage.
The wasabi paste commonly served in Japanese restaurant originates from the root of the wasabi plant and is prepared by a grating method using a metal grater or the traditional tool of dried sharkskin.
Because wasabi is very difficult to cultivate, most of the wasabi commonly used is what is known as “Western wasabi” and includes a mixture of Western horseradish. True wasabi, also known as “sawa wasabi” is a very expensive type of wasabit that can cost one hundred times as much as Western wasabi.
Chinese Five Spice
This is something that you can pick up in any Asian supermarket, and comes ready for use in a bottle. Chinese five spice is a mixture of the five spices endemic to Chinese cuisine. The five spices included in this mixture are: Star Anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and ground fennel seeds.
Five spices is used in a variety of Chinese dishes, specifically for the process of marinating meat. Used to prepare the Cantonese Roasted duck and beef stew, the Chinese five spice is easily accessible and an inexpensive way to give your dishes a unique taste.
Japanese Seven Spice
Known as shichimi, the name literally means seven taste, the Japanese seven spice is a commonly found and use season mixture that includes: coarsely ground red chili pepper, Sichuan pepper, roasted orange peel, black sesame seed, white sesame seed, hemp seed, ground ginger, and seaweed. This spice mixture dates back to the 17th century when spice and herb dealers in Edo. Today, the seven spice is commonly used with noodle soup dishes.
Beyond the various types of herbs and spices covered in this month’s newsletter, a wide and varied world of spices and herbs exists and awaits your discovery and exploration.
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