Spices have always been used to flavor food and drinks, even before recorded history. Herbs usually come from the green, leafy part of plants, while spices can be obtained from seeds, bark, roots, or fruit.
The United States is the largest spice buyer of the world. Consider how drab a world without vanilla, chocolate, and chili would be. Luckily, these are all native to the Americas. Chilies are thought to be as old as 7000 BC and cultivated in Mexico from 3500 BC. Chilies (Capsicum genus) became a popular spice in many cuisines of the world—100 of the 200 varieties of chiles are indigenous to Mexico, ranging in size from 12 inches to ¼-inch.
Today, some of the hottest chilies are grown in India. The heat of chilies has long been a mystery. I was always told that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. In 1912, a pharmacist named Wilbur L. Scoville created a method to measure the pungency of chilies. The Scoville Organoleptic Test is said to be subjective and accurate.
Among the most popular spices today are allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cumin, ginger, mace, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, saffron, and turmeric. Curry powder is a blend of five or more spices as is one of my personal favorites, Beau Monde. If you know what your family likes, you can try some of your own blends. When my kids were small, they liked a cinnamon/maple sugar/nutmeg blend for cereals and puddings.
Aside from culinary uses, many substances found in spices have health benefits. Recent studies have found that turmeric has properties that help prevent cancer. Turmeric is a rich source of antioxidants, including the compound curcumin. Many spices are now being looked at for their healing powers at the American Institute for Cancer Research. Some spices even appear to be able to kill cancer cells outright. Since this research is still new, which spices and how much of them you need is unclear. The best advice for now is to use a variety of spices to replace salt and fat in our food.
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons each white and black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon mace
1 tablespoon bay leaf powder
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl, then transfer to a glass jar. Cover tightly, store in a cool place.
This seasoning can be used on eggs, poultry, fish, breads, among other things.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: “New Native American Cooking,” “Native New England Cooking” and “A Dreamcatcher Book.” She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.