Spices have been sought after, and traded for thousands of years. They’ve been used to heal the sick, and to transform a mundane meal, into a mouth-watering kick-ass party in your mouth! They can turn an average cook into a chef, and can turn an informed parent into a dealer. This article from positivehealth.com, details the history and most effective uses for many of the most impactful spices around us.
In a world that is awash with taste-alike processed foods and synthetic flavourings, the many reasons for using real spices have all but disappeared, together with the cultures for whom the use of spices was an essential part of the fabric of daily life.
Historical Importance and Value of Spices
Long before the development of modern medicine, spices were valued for their ability to help people resist disease and maintain good health, even though the essential nutrients, antioxidants and health-enhancing phytochemicals they contain had not been isolated or scientifically identified. For millennia, spices from five continents have been used to enhance beauty and vitality, and to treat and prevent diseases. They have enriched our language and our folklore, excited our senses and inspired us.
By understanding the importance of spices in traditional medicine, we can approach an understanding of how ancient cultures managed not only to thrive, but also to reach high levels of sophistication. Only a few generations ago, people lived without modern technology or laboratory experiments, but they knew how to turn the pods of the vanilla orchid into a fragrant spice, how cloves could relieve toothache, and that poppy seed heads could be used to make a sedative tisane. They knew that spices made food easier to digest and less prone to go off. They also knew how spices could transform a simple dish into something extraordinary, literally helping food to become medicine. The ancient civilizations of the Americas, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India prescribed spices in a wide range of medicines to treat infections and infestations, relieve pain, clean wounds, ease digestion, aid sleep and purify the air.
It is no surprise, then, that modern science confirms the nutritional value and medicinal properties of a wide range of spices, and that the pharmaceutical industry is discovering increasing numbers of possible applications for spice-derived chemicals in the treatment of contemporary illnesses, such as cancer and viral infections. Recognized as powerful disinfectants, medicines and food preservatives, spices are attracting great interest because of their medicinal properties and the potential they have for the prevention and treatment of many of the most serious diseases of our time.
Spices were once extremely valuable and some literally worth their weight in gold. Not only did they help shape the economic structures of the modern world, they also helped underpin the development of human civilization.
For many centuries, spices have been transported around the globe over land and across water. The oldest records of this are from Egypt where a sculpture in a burial monument by the Nile shows a series of canals and lakes linking the river with the Red Sea. Ancient Egyptians followed this route to reach Africa and India via the Arabian Sea in search of condiments. The Phoenicians (3000-1500BCE) are known to have traded spices along the Mediterranean coast (even as far north as Cornwall, according to some sources), and to Africa and India. Ancient Greeks (800BC-600CE) and Romans (750BC-500CE) flavoured and preserved their food with spices and used the Silk Route to China to trade them.
The Vikings (800-1100CE) came the other way from the Baltic, down the Volga river and over land to trade their Northern treasures for Southern goods and spices. And as the centuries unfolded, the Moors (700-1500CE) began to dominate the Mediterranean trade and took their local spices over to Asia where the taste for them grew. Chinese traders visited the Spice Islands (now known as the Maluku) in the South China Sea to source clove, nutmeg and mace more than 2000 years ago.
In the quest to find new, faster routes and more valuable spices, continents and islands were also discovered. It was in his attempt to find a shortcut to the Indian Ocean and Asia, for example, that Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) accidentally landed on an island off the coast of Central America (1492), hence the confusing name of ‘the West Indies’ given to the islands of the Caribbean.
For centuries, spice traders have had a habit of keeping the origins of their wares secret, in order to control their market. Fortunes have been made and lost as nations competed to find and distribute the spices from Asia as speedily as possible, and new routes were constantly sought. The Portuguese found the passage around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, which brought them new wealth and power. But Spain was in the game, too, with Columbus’s Atlantic adventures unlocking the aromatic riches of the Caribbean and Central and South America. Spices from Asia were also planted in the New World and New World spices were shipped to countries in the Mediterranean and the Far East.
Ships on the trade routes often passed the Malabar Coast to pick up Indian spices, and European traders also sent ships to collect spices from along the North African coast to take north into Europe. As a result, Mediterranean cities such as Venice were able to create trade monopolies and became increasingly rich and powerful – until the Ottoman Empire closed their access to the Black Sea, and invaded Egypt in 1517, thus destroying most of the Venetian spice trade.
Wars, Colonization, Destruction – Middle Ages into Modern Times
The spice trade continued to drive the world economy from the end of the Middle Ages into modern times, and helped establish European domination of East and West.
The Portuguese and the Spanish adventurers were followed by the British and the Dutch, who set up the mighty East India Companies and spent years fighting over the Spice Islands and other important Asian spice havens. They guarded their territories fiercely, and created spice monopolies which were only broken when Pierre Poivre, known to the English-speaking world as Peter Piper, established a new pepper plantation on the island of Mauritius with seeds and cuttings he had stolen from the Spice Islands.
Sadly, the raging Spice Wars of the 17th century – and the many conflicts and skirmishes that preceded and followed them in the pursuit of wealth and dominance – had even darker consequences for countless thousands of indigenous peoples who were brutally robbed of their lands and livelihoods by European greed. Peaceful, ancient, highly evolved societies were colonized and destroyed within decades of the Europeans’ arrival, and the ruthless desire of the spice traders for power and money fuelled the 350-year obscenity of the North Atlantic slave trade.
But perhaps the saddest part of the way spices and lands were discovered, colonized and conquered is that the ancient knowledge of how to use them as medicine, understanding of their inherent healing qualities, and of centuries of experience of trying and testing their use, was lost as highly evolved peaceful well-connected and caring societies were brutally destroyed, and the people turned into refugees or slaves.
We need more than ever now to reconnect with the Earth and each other, and notice that people from all races and places are just like ourselves. When we destroy habitats with war and poisons, and when we create deserts with factory farming, we forget that everyone breathes the same air, drinks the same water, eats the same nutrients, and uses the same energy. There can be no ‘survival of the fittest’ if the fittest believe life can be conquered by destructive force.
In these days of war, terror, fears of infections and mass migration, it is important to learn how to live where we are, to share knowledge and wisdom, love and curiosity, because no man is an island, no one can monopolize life and vitality. As the world shrinks and multiculturalism takes root, natural spices can be used help protect people and populations from the infectious challenges we continue to face, and thus heal the wounds of the past.
Spices – Properties, Cultivation and Healing Ability
Although spices come from all over the world, many are related and belong to the same botanical genus or family for example, chillies and paprika; ginger, galangal, turmeric and zeodoary; and all the peppercorns.
Most originate from tropical equatorial regions and dry mountainous areas, though there are some notable exceptions such as salt, which is a mineral that comes (essentially) from the sea, and juniper, which is common throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
In cooler parts of the world, salt is traditionally used to give or improve flavour, and to preserve and cleanse. In hotter regions, and especially in the tropics, the sun has more power, plants grow faster, flavours are stronger and food goes off more quickly, so the need for effective preservatives and disinfectants is greater. The Spice Islands, or Maluku, in Indonesia, were the birthplaces of nutmeg and cloves, once the world’s most treasured spices, and the Mediterranean provided a suitable cradle for many of the aromatic spices, such as cumin and coriander, fennel and fenugreek, poppy and aniseed.
Spices are now cultivated in many parts of the world, particularly in Asia. They are an essential and valuable example of the Earth’s nourishing and healing ability: creating balance, giving strength and enhancing the health and immunity of the world’s inhabitants.
Most are consumed far from where they are grown, and many are cultivated far from their original habitats. Nearly 2 million tonnes of spices are grown, processed, traded and sold each year worldwide, and the nations of the Western world have become the world’s largest spice consumers.
Below is a chart of some of the best known spices from the 5 continents. You will notice that the same types of plants occur all over the world. The strongest where the sun is most powerful, and the ripening process is faster. The fewest and blandest in the areas where the sun is less fierce.
ALLSPICE, Pimenta dioica, Myrtle family (Myrtaceae)
Allspice is made from the dried berries of an evergreen tree native to the Caribbean. They look like large peppercorns, have a pungent, peppery flavour, and contain antioxidant phenols and volatile oil, including eugenol, which is also found in cloves. They are antioxidant and antimicrobial, effective antiseptics, and locally anaesthetic. Allspice has warming and opening qualities, and can be used to relieve indigestion, diarrhoea and wind, as well as to treat infections. It is also used in the manufacture of deodorants and some perfumes.
ASAFOETIDA, Ferula asafoetida, Parsley family (Apiaceae)
Native to southwest Asia and the mountains of Iran and Afganistan, asafoetida is a perennial herb that grows up to 2m high. The whole plant gives off a pungent, almost fetid smell which comes from a resin found in the sap. The resin is extracted from the root, then dried and made into a powder. The sulphurous smell of asafoetida powder is reminiscent of a mixture of onion and garlic and, used sparingly in cooking, it has a mild sweet flavour and is an excellent flavour enhancer. Asafoetida contains resin, gums and a volatile oil rich in polyphenols. It is a powerful antiviral, antioxidant and antimicrobial, and was famous for its use in fighting the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
CARDAMOM, Elettaria cardamomum, Ginger family (Zingiberaceae)
True green cardamom is one of the world’s most valued and expensive spices, only surpassed in price by vanilla and saffron. The plant is native to the mountain rainforests of southern India and Sri Lanka. Cardamom seedpods contain 10-20 tiny, highly aromatic, dark brown or black seeds which smell sharp and lemony. The seeds contain volatile oil including terpineol, myrcene, limonene, menthone, eucalyptol and borneol. Cardamom is strongly antiseptic, and can be chewed like gum to treat mouth and gum infections and freshen the breath. It has long been valued as a treatment for a range of digestive and respiratory disorders as well as malaria, and it is a traditional warming, soothing digestive remedy to relieve colic and ease acid reflux.
CLOVES, Syzygium aromaticum, Myrtle family (Myrtaceae)
Native to the Spice Islands (Maluku) in Indonesia, cloves are the unopened dried flower buds of the evergreen clove tree that only starts to flower after 8 years of growth. Once extremely highly valued in the food and pharmaceutical industries for their strong flavour and their unique medicinal qualities, cloves contain at least 15% volatile oil, particularly eugenol, which is an effective antiseptic and local anaesthetic. Cloves have thus long been used in dentistry for local anaesthesia. They also contain methyl salicylate, salicylic acid, camphor resin, flavonols and sterols, and have antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal properties, used for gum disease and to calm digestive problems, relieve cramps and help ‘cold’ conditions. Clove oil can be taken as an alternative to aspirin to help prevent blood clots, and cloves can help increase insulin activity and lower blood sugar levels. They are strong antioxidants, helping to boost immunity, and are effective against Helicobacter and E.coli bacteria. As an antiviral remedy, they may inhibit herpes simplex, hepatitis C, HIV and other viruses.
JUNIPER, Juniperus communis, Cypress family (Cupressaceae)
One of the few spices that grows in cool, temperate climates, juniper berries are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic to Africa, Europe, Asia and the mountains of North and Central America. The berries are tiny cones that grow on a coniferous shrub with sharp, needle-like leaves. The species is extremely old and has been used as fuel, medicine, preservative and flavouring since ancient times. The green berries take 18 months or more to ripen, turning dark purple with a blue waxy tint, and the berries on the same bush don’t all ripen simultaneously. The ripe berries taste of pine resin and turpentine with a bittersweet, tart note. They contain tannins, sugars, resin, bitter principle, and volatile oils, including pinene, borneol, cadinene, camphene, terpenic alcohol and terpineol. Juniper berries are strong urinary antiseptic and diuretic, and are used traditionally to reduce oedema, treat bladder stones and reduce inflammation in cases of gout and arthritis. They are also a traditional ingredient in aperitifs to help stimulate appetite and aid digestion.
MELEGUETA PEPPER, Aframomum melegueta, Ginger family (Zingiberaceae)
Native to the coastal swamps of West Africa from Sierra Leone to the Congo, these tiny reddish-brown, grain-like seeds are obtained from the dried fruits of a herbaceous perennial. Melegueta was a popular spice and medicine in Great Britain until the 19th Century, when King George III forbade its use on grounds of it giving ‘fictitious strength’ to cordials and aquavits. Melegueta pepper adds a fantastically pungent peppery flavour to a dish, and is a favourite spice in West African cookery. It contains volatile oils, saponins, glycosides, flavonoids and phyto-sterols, and is a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antifungal properties. It has a warming and stimulating effect on the digestion and circulation, and it also appears to have some anti-diabetic and body-fat-reducing properties.
MOUNTAIN PEPPER, Tasmannia lanceolate, Winter’s Bark family (Winteraceae)
Mountain pepper is the dried leaf and berry of a tall evergreen shrub native to the gullies of the rainforests of south-eastern Australia, and was used by aboriginal people as a bush food, spice and a medicine. Later, the colonials used it as a pepper substitute as the berries are sweet with a peppery aftertaste. Both leaves and berries contain polygodial, anthocyanin, flavone glycosides, rutin, chlorogenic acid, and have strong antimicrobial and antixodiant properties. Mountain Pepper is traditionally used as a digestive stimulant that protects the stomach lining, and also for rheumatic problems, to relieve asthma, and to treat vitamin C deficiency.
SANSHO, Zanthoxylum piperitum, Citrus family (Rutaceae)
Sansho is also known as Japanese pepper, and ia one of the few spices commonly used in Japanese cookery. It is not a true pepper but a berry, produced by a Japanese variety of prickly ash (a spiny, aromatic, deciduous shrub or small tree). Sansho berries have an earthy, tangy, lemony, light, spicy flavour, and they contain volatile oils including geraniol, dipentene and citral as well as sanchool (which is responsible for their pungency), together with various flavonoids, including quercetin and hesperidin. Sansho is a warming, stimulating spice thought to benefit the spleen and stomach, stimulate digestion, and relieve cold digestive complaints. It has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and can be used as a worming remedy against intestinal parasites.
STAR ANISE, Illicium verum, Schisandra family (Schisandraceae, formerly part of the Magnolia family)
Star anise are the dried fruits of an aromatic, evergreen tree which starts to bear fruit when it is about six years old and carries on producing for up to a hundred years. The tree is native to southwest China and northeast Vietnam. Star anise has a sweetly pungent, slightly bitter, liquorice flavour, stronger than aniseed (to which it is not related). It contains anethole, shikimic acid, flavonoids, sesquiterpenes, lignans and caryophyllene. The shikimic acid is a strong antiviral agent, and a primary ingredient certain antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu. Star anise is a warming, stimulating herb used relieve pain and balance the flow of Qi. It is a traditional remedy for arthritis and digestive problems, and has potent antimicrobial properties against bacteria, fungi and some yeasts. Its immune-stimulating, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, together with its gentle painkilling and sedative effects and lovely taste, makes star anise a perfect remedy for young children to relieve colic, coughs, bronchitis and asthma.
Where there is Plant Life there is Medicine
It is humbling and reassuring to think that, no matter where we are on Earth, as long as there is plant life, there is medicine – if we know how to use it.