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Why Are Spices Important

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These days certain spices have become so ubiquitous at our tables that we hardly think of them as spices at all… Black pepper is the obvious example here, but I’d include chillies in the form of sauces and pastes as well. Just think of the salt and pepper cellars on just about each and every table and the chilli-based condiments that are everywhere. Also, look at any recipe on the web and if they’re for a savoury dish I guarantee you that well over 90% will have ‘season with salt and pepper’ somewhere in the cooking instructions.

Today black pepper is both cheap and plentiful and it’s hard for us to even consider a time when pepper was an incredibly rare and expensive commodity. However, until very recently (and even during the Second World War in Europe) black pepper was both expensive and rare. It was only produced in India and found its way to Europe by strange and mysterious means.

The first recorded use of black pepper in Europe and North Africa was in the tomb of the pharaoh Rameses II who had two peppercorns stuck in this nostrils when he was mummified (and that was 4000 years ago). But the first Western peoples to use black pepper extensively were the Greeks and they introduced the love of this spice to the Romans. As a result the Romans were the first Europeans to travel to India in search of this magical substance (of course, Indian traders had been going the other way for centuries!).

In many ways black pepper is the perfect spice in that it has the ‘heat’ and ‘pungency’ that lift the flavours of a dish but brings with it no hint of bitterness. It therefore gives any and all foods an ‘oomph’ in terms of flavour without making them unpalatable (this is why Romans even put pepper in their desserts!).

But what actually is a spice? In terms of a modern definition, a spice is typically obtained from the dried fruiting body of a plant. Thus it can be the whole fruit (as in cubeb pepper or allspice berries or cumin) or it is the kernel or seed of the fruit (as in nutmeg and fenugreek seeds or nigella seeds). In contrast, herbs are the vegetative parts of a plant (the stems and leaves) and include lemongrass (stems), thyme (leaves), oregano (leaves). Spices are also obtained from the roots, rhizomes or tubers of plants. Thus ginger (and its relatives, galangal, zedoary etc) are spices, as is the Medieval spice, Galingale (the root of a sedge, a grass-like plant).

Humans are odd amongst animals in that we like pungency in our foods and many, many spices we do or have employed tend to have this note in their flavour. This, in turn, has led us as a species to use a whole range of spices in our cookery and many of these spices, in some way, echo the distinctive nature of black pepper.

This is why the chilli, when introduced to Europe from the Americas was called the ‘chilli pepper’ (to associate it with black pepper). Indeed, the vast majority of spices impart ‘heat’ on a dish and only very few are purely used for their flavouring properties. Chilli is widely used because it imparts pure ‘heat’ to a dish but it does not have the pungency of black pepper and this is why chilli, though very widely used today, still hasn’t displaced black pepper as the King of Spices.

Most of our common and not so common spices have a heat and pungency that mimics black pepper in some way or other. But all of them also impart a bitterness to the foods they flavour. Good examples are cubeb pepper (common in the Middle Ages) and Sngal Pepper (which was used as a black pepper substitute during the Second World War). They impart both heat and pungency to dishes, but if used to excess they also impart an unpleasant bitterness and this is why they never truly rivalled black pepper as food flavourings.

In our craving for adding that extra ‘pep’ to our foods humans have scoured all corners of the world and we have tasted and added some very strange things to our dishes (Sichuan pepper, beloved of Chinese cookery is a relative of the orange!). But nothing has rivalled the pre-eminence of black pepper in cookery. The only spice to come close is chilli.

This does mean that our love of black pepper has displaced many local spices that we used to use in the past and it also means that we are ignoring many taste sensations that could usefully be put back in our cookery. Maybe it’s time to re-discover some of these lost spices from all over the globe an to re-gain some of our lost culinary heritage.

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