From turmeric and ginger to cinnamon and cumin, the one thing that spices have in common is their capacity to brighten a dish whether it’s pepping up the colour, giving a zing to its flavour or providing a warming sensation to help you relax.
Did you know?
This beautiful, vibrant yellow ground spice comes from the dried root of a plant belonging to the ginger family and originates from South East Asia. Along with its colourful pigments – the main one is called ‘curcumin’ – comes a pungent and sometimes bitter flavour. Research on turmeric reveals many potential health benefits but as yet, we can’t make claims for healing properties.
Uses: Often added to blends of curry powder, its increasing popularity now sees turmeric being added to everything from lattes, bread and sweet treats. Turmeric is also fantastic for colouring food yellow and orange, a small spoonful in cooking water can brighten up rice, couscous and quinoa, making dishes look more appetising.
Produced from dried chillies, which are then powdered, cayenne pepper has a biting hot flavour and is thought to stimulate secretions in the stomach. Research shows that chilli powder can temporarily raise the speed at which are bodies burn calories, but there is no proof yet that this will lead to automatic weight loss!
Uses: Cayenne pepper’s spicy zing can give much needed lift to any dish however, use with caution as it can be overpowering. Typical uses are in curries and fragrant dishes although it can be seen in a variety of dishes that you may not expect such as Marie Rose and hollandaise sauce.
Warm, sweet and pungent, the essential oils of nutmeg have been traditionally used to help soothe sore gums. Containing plant compounds called myristicin and elemicin, both are poisonous and so nutmeg should only be used in small amounts! Like many spices, nutmeg first came from Indonesia and has been used in Europe since the end of the twelfth century.
Uses: Nutmeg is a brilliant alternative to cinnamon for those who may not like the latter and it is interchangeable in many recipes. Nutmeg was used in many dishes in medieval times, and nowadays it’s a great addition to curries, desserts, mulled wine and cocktails.
Ground cumin comes from the fruit of a herb belonging to the parsley family and is another familiar ingredient of curry powder. With a flavour described as warm, heavy, spicy and bitter, cumin can be used ground or whole.
Uses: Cumin is the cornerstone flavour of any curry and is widely used in cookery around the world. The toasted seeds are also great in salads, marinades or curry pastes.
Cloves are the dried, unopened flowers of an evergreen tree of the myrtle family and have a wonderfully fruity flavour adding warmth to dishes and drinks they flavour. Originally coming from Indonesia, the tincture of cloves has traditionally been used to treat toothache.
Uses: Cloves are synonymous with a ‘Christmas’ flavour and used in just as many sweet as savoury dishes. Cloves can be studded in to gammon, simmered in mulled wine or for firing up a Jamaican jerk chicken.
These small fruits of the Capsicum family of plants, usually 2 – 3cm, can come in many shapes and sizes, and can be mild to incredibly pungent! Grown all over the tropics, hot chilli sauces can be made by pickling chilli fruit pulp in vinegar or brine, while cayenne pepper is made from the fruit once dried and powdered.
Uses: Chillies are now used all over the world more than ever and many cuisines would simply not function without them. They are used now in everything from crisp flavours, chocolate, curries and condiments.
A brown, tropical root, which originally comes from Southeast Asia, ginger has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Warming and stimulating, ginger is often associated with helping to relieve feelings of nausea.
Uses: Used fresh to make ginger tea for example, ground ginger powder is also widely used in traditional English dessert recipes from ginger bread, biscuits and sponge puddings. It is also a staple of many North African tagines marinades and sweets.
One of the oldest recorded spices, cinnamon appears to have first been sourced from Sri Lanka. It comes from the inner bark of a tree of the laurel family and has certainly been used since Roman and Greek times in both cooking and traditional medicine.
Uses: Cinnamon in Europe is mostly associated with cakes, desserts and mulled wine however, in Asia, it is used in just as many savoury dishes as sweet. Cinnamon, similar to vanilla, can be used to help lower the amount of sugar required in a dessert as it appears to have an influence on perceived sweetness.
Originating in India and probably cultivated for over 3,000 years, pepper has been used in Europe from the Middle-Ages. The small fruits known as peppercorns grow on long, climbing vines and when ripe, both white and black peppercorns turn red. White pepper is made by removing the outer husk while black pepper is made by sun-drying unripe corns.
Uses: Pepper is commonly used in most countries throughout the world both in the kitchen and at the table.
Flourishing in the monsoon forests of South India, cardamom comes from the fruits of a plant belonging to the ginger family. It has a has a lovely sweet, pungent and spicy flavour and the whole cardamom pod is often chewed as a way of freshening the breath.
Uses: Cardamom works brilliantly in both sweet and savoury dishes, being a great addition to curries, marinades, sauces, syrups and puddings.