Updated: Mar 15, 2021
Spices have been used by people around the world for thousands of years. Spices are belived to have first been used in Egypt, China and India and were used for both cooking and medicine. The Egyptians used spices in food, but also in mummification as they dried bodies and preserved them in preparation for burial. In China and India spices were used to preserve and flavour food and in balms and ointments as well as teas and tinctures to treat ailments. When Europeans started travelling the globe they tried spices, at first it was cinnamon and black pepper, when arriving at these countries and developed a trade in them, the spice trade. This continued for centuries with more spices from more countries being added to the trade making traders from many countries very wealthy.
What Are Spices?
Spices come from plants, they are seeds, fruit, roots, bark, or another part of a plant and are used to used in food as flavouring, colouring or as a preservative, particularly for meat as it helps to slow the spoiling of meat in warmer climates. Spices are used in the same way as herbs, however, herbs are the leaves, flowers, or stems of a plant. Spices can be used either fresh or dried and are often ground into powder before being used. Once dried spices have to be stored in airtight containers at room temperature to stop them degrading, if left in the open air, or in direct sunlight, they can lose their colour and flavour and the chemicals that give them medicinal qualities breakdown and are lost.
Spices Around the World
Thanks to the spice trade the use of spices as flavouring travelled the whole world and diffeerent countries developed their own mixes and blends of spices to use in their cooking leading to flavours that are still associated with those countries today.
In the USA the spice blend that was developed was the cajun mix. Cajun cuisine comes from French cuisine, when the French-speaking Acadian people were deported from Acadia in Canada by the British. They incorporated West African, French and Spanish cooking techniques when they moved to Louisiana. The spices used in the cajun blend include black pepper, cayenne pepper, chili pepper, garlic and cloves.
In China the five spice blend was created. The most common mix for five spice contains star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, sichuan pepper and Fennel seeds, although there are regional variations, such as using tumeric or ginger.
Mixed spice is used in the United Kingdom to flavour cakes and puddings; it is made with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, it is quite common to add cloves and ginger as well.
Jerk seasoning, from Jamiaca is belived to have been created by escaped slaves, but may have been invented by the people that were native to Jamaica, it is a hot spice mixture, it is made with allspice and scotch bonnet peppers. Other spices that are added may include cloves, cinnamon, scallions, thyme, garlic, brown sugar and ginger.
The Health Benefits of Spices
There are many health benefits to using the spices, whether that's in food, as a tea or in beauty products. Spices can be used regularly to keep us healthy or to treat a specific problem. An example is ginger; ginger is anti-inflammatory and helps to ease the pain of illnesses like arthritis, but it also can be used for upset stomachs, calming nausea and sickness. Cinnamon has been shown to lower blood sugar, that's good for diabetics, but also to help treat lung infections. Many spices also contain antioxidants. The chemicals that give spices these benefits are very special, with long special names to match, but spices also contain a list of vitamins and minerals that include vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B9. Vitamins C, E and K and the minerals calcium copper, magnesium, iron and selenium.
Not every vitamin and mineral is in evey spice, like fruits and vegetables they have their own nutritient profiles, but mixing them together boosts the goodness of your meal. Also, some spices work with other foods to help your body absorb more nutrients than you would without them. Spices make enzymes work better, boosting digestion, they can help food move through your bowel more quickly, reducing constipation and improving gut health.
When humans started using spices in their food they problably had no idea how good they were for them, they just knew that they tasted really good and stopped food from spoiling. Since then history, and more recently science has shown that spices are amazing, this has lead to some people using things like tumeric supplements, but there's no need. It works far better for your body, and your bank balance, to use spices in your cooking, plus they taste really, really good.