“But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them.” - Christopher Columbus
Spices are nature’s pantry and pharmacy in one. Since 3000 BC, spices have been used to flavor food and as medicine in civilizations spanning Egypt, Rome and India. The history of spices is essentially the history of modern man - our quest for spices influenced our wars, our trade, our food and our health. It was spices that Christopher Columbus was after when he accidentally discovered America and when the Portuguese conqueror Vasco De Gama landed in southern India, his men leapt off the ship chanting “For Christ and spices”! Spices were so valuable that they even replaced currency – in 14th century Germany, a pound of nutmeg could buy seven large oxen and a pound of pepper the freedom of a serf in medieval France!! Needless to say, spices have shaped human geography and destiny in a major way.
Despite greater access and affordability worldwide, the routine use of spices remains restricted to cultures that have a history of cooking with them. Their mention evokes an association with ethnic food and incorporating them into mainstream Western cooking can feel challenging. Questions abound: does nutmeg go well with savory dishes or sweet? How can one use cumin and turmeric outside of Indian cuisine? What fruits, vegetables or meats combine well with cardamom and clove? And most importantly, can I really give my BABY spices?! Aren’t they too spicy?!!
Such doubts have led many Western households to shy away from spices unless an occasional, often ethnic recipe calls for them. Babies and kids are exposed to spices much later, if at all, at which point they may find the tastes too unfamiliar for easy acceptance. I believe we can enrich our babies', kids' and families’ plates with more flavor and nutrition by embracing spices in our day-to-day cooking, regardless of our ethnic background and heritage.
WHY BOTHER WITH SPICES?
While the routine use of spices has yet to become commonplace in Western kitchens, Western Medical Laboratories are busy obtaining scientific evidence for their purported medicinal benefits. From the active ingredient piperine in black pepper that stimulates the production of digestive enzymes in the gut to eugenol in cloves that prevents oxidative stress in the body to curcumin in turmeric that has anti-cancer effects, spices and their key bioactive components are of great interest in the medical and pharmaceutical sectors. Many of these research studies are helping separate fact from fiction and providing evidence for the health benefits of these ancient and endlessly sought after miracle ingredients.