Spices generally add a more pungent taste to foods. Wherever possible, it is best to buy the whole spice and grind or crush it yourself. This way the aroma will be stronger and you will benefit from more of the active ingredients.
As food activist Vandana Shiva has pointed out, unlike buying pineapple chunks from impoverished Ghanaian farmers or green beans from rain-starved Kenya, buying herbs and spices that are legitimate indigenous agricultural products is a good way to invest in developing countries and to give them access to the world market without destroying their food cultures in the process.
Our appreciation of the taste and smell of food actually begins in the womb. Not only does what you eat provide the building blocks for your baby’s growth, it also provides, quite literally, a taste of the environment it will be born into, since amniotic fluid becomes flavoured according to what the mother eats. In this way it is thought that babies become acclimatised to the food preferences of their culture.
While herbs are the leaves of herbaceous plants, spices come from the other parts of the plant, such as the bark, root, bud or berry. Unlike fresh herbs, spices are generally used in their dried form. This means their essential oils content is highly concentrated, and if stored properly - in airtight containers, away from light - they can keep their pungent odours for a very long time.
There are a wealth of spices you can use to make meals more appealing and many of these are also commonly used for their healing properties in traditional medicine.
Caraway has traditionally been used to aid digestion and relieve wind. Sprinkle fresh leaves over cabbage, potato and beetroot dishes. If you bake your own bread, particularly rye bread, add this to the mixture. Add also to soft cheeses to make an unusual sandwich spread. If you grow your own, you can also eat the tap roots as you would parsnip.
Cardamom is a good digestive stimulant and diuretic. It is effective against H. Pylori, the bacterium that causes ulcers, and may help to prevent atherosclerosis. Buy the whole green or bleached white seeds to use, lightly crushed, in rice dishes, curries and meat stews. Freshly ground cardamom can give a surprisingly tangy lift to an everyday fruit salad. It can also be infused in milk to make a spicy custard or rice pudding.
Cinnamon is a first-class antiseptic and digestive aid. It is rich in antioxidants, which may be why one of its traditional uses is to aid recovery from colds and flu. There is some evidence that cinnamon is useful in helping to normalise blood glucose levels. It is equally nice in savoury dishes, such as stews, stuffings, pickles and relishes, as it is in sweet dishes, such as stewed fruits and pies. It’s lovely mixed with sugar on hot buttered toast and can be used to spice up rice or milk puddings. Try using a cinnamon stick to stir hot chocolate or milky coffee.
Coriander can stimulate appetite, help increase secretion of gastric juices and aid digestion. It is traditionally used as a diuretic and is a strong antibacterial shown to be effective against salmonella. The seeds can be used in curries, chutneys, stews and soups. They blend well with smoked meats and game and even fish. Ground coriander seeds also add a nice dimension to breads, desserts and sweet pastries.
Cumin is a good general tonic. It is antiseptic, antibacterial and is reputed to help improve circulation. It has antioxidant properties and studies show it can inhibit the growth of cancer cells, at least in the lab. It can be delicious added to a marinade for barbecues or kebabs. You can make a spicy eastern-style salad with tomatoes, green peppers, courgettes and/or aubergines, with a little powdered cumin sprinkled on top. Use the whole seeds in pickles or preserves.
Ginger can be used to combat nausea, vomiting and morning sickness. It can be as twice as effective as Dramamine in preventing motion sickness. It is antiseptic and also full of antioxidants. Its anti-inflammatory effects make it useful in treating arthritis and post-exercise stiffness. It is a digestive aid and can relieve symptoms of sore throats, colds and flu. Ginger is as good on ice cream as it is in a casserole. It is also tasty in pickles and cheese dishes, and can be used effectively in all forms of baking, particularly cakes and breads.
Juniper berries are detoxifying and effective in combating rheumatic conditions such as arthritis. Juniper is traditionally used to aid digestion. It is an effective diuretic and can treat urinary tract infections. The fresh berries are best lightly crushed and cooked with meat and game. Used with garlic and sea salt they are a wonderful accompaniment to cabbage and other green vegetables. Juniper can also be used in a variety of stuffings, sauces, marinades and pâtés.
Nutmeg acts as a stimulant, tonic and digestive. It can be beneficial for convalescents and those who are over-tired, can ease wind and is reportedly good for the heart. It is also reputed to be an aphrodisiac. Use in milk and rice puddings, and in white or cheese sauces. Nutmeg can transform mashed potatoes and other vegetable dishes. Sprinkle over hot chocolate or warm milk for a quick pick-me-up.
Peppercorns come in green, black, white and pink, and are actually a fruit. Pepper aids digestion and stimulates appetite. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and is traditionally used to aid detoxification, to ease lung and bronchial infections, and relieve shock and stress. Use in savoury stocks and marinades, and liberally over salads and hot vegetable dishes. Coat meats thoroughly before grilling, and add crushed peppercorns to vinegars and oils to make spicy dressings. Always buy whole peppercorns and grind as required. Pre-ground spice quickly loses its active properties.
Star anise is traditionally used to ease wind, hiccups and fluid retention. It may also have antiviral properties that make it useful against flu (in fact, it is the starting material for the drug Tamiflu). Star anise has a spicy, liquorice-like taste. The seeds go particularly well with figs. Add a bit of ground star anise to ground coffee before brewing or to some vanilla-flavoured yogurt. Use the whole spice or the seeds with fish and in vegetable dishes, soups, rice dishes and curries.
Pat Thomas is a freelance journalist, author and broadcaster. She is also a former editor of the Ecologist
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