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Spices! I love spices! Any time I learn of a new spice, or combination spice mixtures (Garam Masala, Chaat Masala, Ras el Hanout), I absolutely must find out what all the spices are, find them (preferably whole) and make up my own mixtures. Long ago, I bought a jar of "Beef and Pork Seasoning." The jar listed the spices on the label, so when I used up the flavorful mixture, knowing that usually a label lists items in order of how much of each thing is used in the combination, I created a recipe of the ingredients with what I thought should be the amounts. I grind all the spices fresh and the mixture just fills my jar!

I was reading a cookbook a few years ago and came upon a recipe calling for "Ras el Hanout". I had no clue what this was, so I went searching. Turn out it is a middle eastern spice mixture meaning, "Best of the Shop". Different spice sellers would mix up their own combinations. It was defined as having anywhere from 7 to 30 ingredients! I had to try it!

Spices are generally defined as fragrant, aromatic plant products like cinnamon (bark), cloves (flower buds) and pepper (berries/seed). Spices generally do not include the leafy parts of the plant; therefore some plants fall into both categories; herb and spice. The coriander plant has edible leaves used in Southwest and Asian cooking and yet also has edible seeds (coriander seed, classified as a spice) more often used in Indian cooking or in baking, as they have a mildly lemony flavor. This same is true for a variety of plants; dill, fenugreek, anise and mustard, to name but a few.

Spices often come from exotic places; cinnamon from Ceylon, pepper from India, nutmeg from Grenada. The flavors can be so exotic, and some are so homey. Cinnamon. Everyone knows cinnamon. Or so we think. Read more on this subject below.

Here begins a list of spices, where they come from, how they might be used.


Cardamom Pods and Seeds 

Cardamom is an ancient spice, existing in India more than a thousand years before the birth of Christ. It is the third most expensive spice, after saffron and vanilla. The spice eventually reached Europe along the caravan routes. Ancient Greece and Rome valued cardamom as an ingredient in perfumes, as well as breath fresheners and digestive aids. These days, outside of the Eastern and Middle-Eastern countries where it is most known, the Scandinavian countries are the biggest importers of cardamom, using it to flavor their spiced cakes, pastries and breads.

Green cardamom pods come from a perennial bush of the ginger family that can grow to up to 12 feet tall. It is native to India, and grows wild in rainforests of southern India and Sri Lanka, at relatively low altitudes. The plant will only flower and fruit in tropical climates. Guatemala is now the largest exporter of cardamom, even moreso than India. The plant needs wet soil and heat to grow and bear the little fruits, harvested just before fully ripe and dried, either in the sun, similarly to coffee, or in special drying rooms. The very best dried cardamom pods are pale greenish in color. Each half-inch paperlike pod holds approximately 12 to 20 dark brown or black highly aromatic seeds. It is best to buy either whole pods or whole seeds that have been removed from the pod. The pods themselves have little flavor and commercially it is too easy to grind the whole pod together, thus lowering the price and the quality of the ground spice.

Grinding the seeds is simple in a mortar and pestle or a small spice grinder, and one is assured of the quality of the product. Many dishes in India call for whole, unbroken or only slightly crushed pods to be used. Anyone who has eaten Indian cuisine, or cooked Indian dishes, knows well how often cardamom is an ingredient. It is almost always used in a Garam Masala mixture, often seen as an ingredient in Northern Indian dishes such as rice biryani, creamed spinach and dhal. In addition to its use in savory dishes, cardamom is used extensively in breads and sweets. 

Cardamom has a lovely flavor and aroma, quite penetrating and strongly aromatic.  While it is one of the most expensive spices, very little is needed to impart flavor. An Indian dessert called Gulab Jamun uses the seeds ground in either the little balls of dough before frying, or in their syrup, or both. In northern European countries it is used in Stollen breads as well as many other cakes, pastries and cookies.  In some places in the Middle East, cardamom is mixed with green coffee beans and roasted together and ground.  Some of these mixtures may have as much as 40 percent cardamom. There are also white cardamom pods commercially available, and some feel these are superior. In reality, these are no more than bleached pods of the green cardamom. If cardamom is not yet known in your lexicon of spices, search it out in a good quality spice shop and try it out.


Cardamom Pods and Seeds
Closeup of
Cardamom Pods and Seeds

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Poppy Seeds 

With nearly one million in a pound, poppy seeds are found in foods from cultures all around the world. Poppy seeds come from the opium poppy, papaver somniferum.  They are harvested from the fully ripe seed pods; opium comes from milking the unripe seed pods.  All parts of the plant carry some of the opium alkaloids, the seeds contain only an extremely low level and are safe for consumption.  In fact, the seeds are high in oleic and linoleic acids.

The opium poppy is native to the Middle Eastern lands and has been known to be in use for nearly 5,000 years. Long known as a sleep aid, the seeds are high in oil content, and some cultures mash them into a paste for used as a skin moisturizer. Poppy seeds are also pressed to extract oil for culinary, industrial and medicinal uses. 

There are two main types of poppy seeds.  Black poppy seeds, actually a slate blue in color, are commonly known as "European" because they are the kind most used in western breads and pastries. White poppy seeds, actually a light tan in color, are more commonly known as Indian, Middle Eastern or Asian, as they are more often used in these cultures and cuisines. Both black and white poppy seeds come from the same plant, though the white seeds are harvested from a white flowering cultivar.

In the western parts of the world, black poppy seeds are used mainly in pastries and confections, although they are also added to noodles or pasta and vegetable dishes. They are best known sprinkled on breads or buns, in poppy seed cakes and Danish pastries.  Lemon poppy seed cakes and miffins are very well known.  Hamantash, made with black poppy seed, are a well known Jewish pastry traditional during Purim.

White poppy seeds in eastern cultures are used more in savory foods, though the flavor is purportedly the same.  The color lends better to the use of grinding the seeds to thicken sauces, such as Indian curries. White poppy seeds are a part of some curry powder mixtures.  From personal experience I know that there are a cookie like confection made in India using white poppy seeds.  I ate these little crescents at an Indian friend's house near Christmas time, and they were delicious. Alas, I have no idea what they were called.  If anyone knows or has a recipe, I would be most grateful!

My personal knowledge and use of black poppy seeds started at the cradle, as my central European grandmothers both used poppy seeds in their pastries, such as fine, flaky poppy seed strudel, thick, rich Kolach with poppy seed filling, and Bobalky.


Black Poppy Seed, slate blue in color
Black Poppy Seeds, actually slate blue in color

Closeup of Black Poppy Seeds
closeup of Black Poppy Seeds,
about 1 mm. in size, kidney shaped

Ground Black Poppy Seed
Black Poppy Seed, ground

White Poppy Seed
White Poppy Seeds, actually pale tan in color



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Cinnamon & Cassia 

What we commonly know in the U.S. as “cinnamon” is actually Cassia (cinnamomum aromaticum).  It is a relative of true cinnamon, but not the real thing.  The rest of the world uses true cinnamon (cinnamomum verum), in their cooking or baking, yet here we use something completely different.

As background, I first found out how much difference there was between these two spices when I lived in Guatemala.  The cinnamon there tasted very different from what I knew growing up in Ohio; making things like an apple pie or apple crisp just tasted different.  They were very good, but didn’t taste like what had known.  I chalked it up to differences in quality of product, or maybe my baking skill was inadequate.  Any typical Guatemalan foods I ate or made with cinnamon tasted just fine of course, with nothing to compare. 

Cinnamon and Cassia Quills

It wasn’t until much later, when once again living in the U.S., I tried making a Guatemalan dish, Platanos en Mole (Plantains in Mole Sauce), using the cassia available. The dish just tasted wrong. I couldn’t understand it. I had made this dish many times in Guatemala. I had a lot more cooking and baking skill by this time. What was wrong? I started checking into spices in general, with an eye to those things I knew were different, and discovered that we in the U.S. are being marketed a completely different product.

Cassia cinnamon is a very good spice. I do not for a second propose we do away with it! What would our apple pies taste like without it? It is a wonderful spice, worthy of the space in our cupboards. However, I propose that true cinnamon have an equal place.

Cinnamon of either kind is the bark of the tree. The bark is peeled off and dried, curling into what are known as “quills” or ground into powder. This is where the similarity ends. Cassia quills are very thick curls, strong and sometimes even hard to break. It has a stronger taste, warmer and more potent. There is some very good quality cassia to be found these days, such as “Korintje AA”. A lovely spice to perk up anything you commonly make with “cinnamon” here.

For my cooking classes I always take both types of cinnamon: a high quality cassia quill and ground Korintje AA cassia, alongside true cinnamon quills and ground cinnamon. True cinnamon quills are curled and layered together in a tight roll, are very thin and easily crushed. The flavor is lighter and more delicate, with a somewhat lemony quality. I set the quills side by side and demonstrate the differences, first breaking a cassia quill, with the ensuing loud “snap” when it breaks. Then I show the cinnamon quill, layered together, and how very easily it breaks and crumbles. With the ground version of each side by side, I ask the class members to smell the two; first the cassia that is the most familiar, and then the cinnamon. The startled reactions when they realize exactly how big a difference exists between these two spices, is quite rewarding.

True cinnamon is found in most any Mexican grocery section these days. Good quality spice shops carry excellent quality cinnamon and also excellent quality cassia. If you want to make any ethnic food from anywhere else in the world, or just become familiar with a new flavor – go for true cinnamon. It’s worth the effort.


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Star Anise 

Star anise is possibly little used outside of its native Southern China and Vietnam.  It has spread to wherever these cultures have gone, being taken along both to use and where possible, to grow.  The shape of star anise is that of an irregular eight-pointed (sometimes up to 12-pointed) star; the Chinese name means "8-points."  It is a very pretty and decorative spice, often used in crafts or floated in tea.

Star anise is the fruit of a small evergreen tree, Illicium verum.  The tree bears shiny leaves and small yellow, multi-petaled flowers.  The fruits are picked while still unripe and then sun dried.  Its flavor is anise-like, though much more potent and with a heavier licorice flavor component than common anise seed, and has a distinctly sweet note.  If using as a substitution for anise seed in a recipe, it is best to cut down the amount by ½ to 2/3.

Star anise is a key ingredient in Chinese 5-Spice Powder, along with cinnamon or cassia; other possible mixtures may include cloves, fennel, anise seed or ginger.  It is often used in pickling, generally using the broken points.  Whole fruits are best ground in a mortar or an electric spice grinder.  The Chinese use the spice in poultry and pork dishes.  The Vietnamese use it in their beef soup.  It goes well with braised fish or scallops and clear soups.  It is an excellent flavoring for pumpkin or leeks.

I have used it both as decoration and mixed in my own 5-Spice mixture, as well as Masala Chai.

Star Anise whole | broken | seed
Star Anise; whole, broken, seed

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Salt  

Table salt is subjected to a heating process of up to 1,200 degrees or more, refined to remove all trace minerals, iodine is added and compounds to prevent clumping. What we are left with has no resemblance to real sea salt. Salt generally comes from the sea. Most people these days have heard of “sea salt.” But what is sea salt?  It is salt that occurs naturally in the sea and some other bodies of water. Sometimes the body of water has evaporated and large salt deposits have been left in dry state, such as in the salt mines in Utah. To obtain sea salt, the salty deposits are gathered and allowed to dry naturally, and left with all their trace minerals.  These trace minerals, sometimes up to almost 90, can vary from place to place, but are all naturally occurring, and if one consumes salt, these trace minerals are helpful with its digestion and use in the body.

Like anything that has been altered drastically from its original state, it becomes a substance unrecognized by the body.  If the body cannot recognize an element, it tries to isolate that element by surrounding it with water.  If the body pulls water from one place to try and neutralize salt in another, this is where the problem comes in, resulting in swelling. 

These days so many varieties of good quality sea salts are available.  We have orange colored Palm Island sea salt, black Hawaiian sea salt, and pink Himalayan sea salt, to name a few.  Then there are multitudes of countries that produce sea salt naturally, and many of these have
differing crystal structures.  Some are flat crystals, some are rounder and some more conical. Some are meant more as a finishing salt, to be added just before consumption, although if food is properly seasoned it needs nothing more to finish it off.  I once purchased a box of a dozen or more tiny containers of sea salts from around the world; Israel, Great Britain, France, Australia and many other countries.  In the last few years flavored salts have become available.  Smoked salts, such as alder smoked or hickory smoked, have their distinct place.  Others such as lemon, balsamic or chardonnay flavored salts can be used in specific dishes. 


Salt Tower
A salt tower: Three colors of salts, and four different smoked salts


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Pepper - Black, White, Green

Black pepper comes from the plant “Piper nigrum”.  The highest quality black pepper is Tellicherry.  Because the berries have been allowed to ripen on the plant before picking, it ensures the most flavor and the largest berries.  The berries ferment in the sun for a few days as they dry.  “Malabar” peppercorns are just slightly less ripe when picked, have very full flavor also, and are just slightly smaller. 

White and green peppercorns are also the same berries.  Green peppercorns obviously, are picked green and dried.  Sometimes they are packed in brine, and when added to a dish, give a delicious burst of peppery goodness and gentle heat.  These are lovely in creamed sauces.  Green peppercorns have a distinct flavor, but lighter.  White peppercorns are just black peppercorns, soaked in water until their outer shell can be rubbed off, and then allowed to dry.  The flavor of pepper is obvious, but more delicately subtle.  As it is white, it is the perfect addition to dishes like Chicken and Dumplings, where the black pepper would mar the look of the finished product. It is also good for dishes where the flavor of pepper is desirable, but could easily overpower if using the black peppercorns.  In recent years another method for processing white peppercorns has arisen.  “Sarawak” white peppercorns are kept under running water until the skins peel off and the final product is a cleaner, whiter peppercorn
.  
Other species of pepper, such as Long Pepper (piper longum) and Cubeb Pepper (piper cubeba), have differing nuances of flavor.  Long pepper is hotter than black peppercorns, with a tiny hint of cinnamon; it is wonderful left whole in stews for long cooking.  Cubeb pepper, also called Tailed Pepper, is almost a cross between pepper and allspice in flavor.

Tellicherry | Malabar | comparison
Left:Tellicherry    Middle: Malabar     Right: Tellicherry, Malabar and grocery black pepper
Note the rightmost column from the grocery has multiple sizes of peppercorn.

Sarawak White | Regular White |comparison
Left: Sarawak White     Middle: Regular White Peppercorns     Right: comparison
Sarawak White are larger and cleaner.  Photo at right shows Sarawak and regular white.

Green Peppercorns | Cubeb Pepper | Long Pepper
Left: Green Peppercorns     Middle: Cubeb Pepper     Right: Long Pepper

 
 
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