Spices were once worth more than gold. The spice trade inspired incredible journeys over land and sea, was the foundation of empires, and a cause for war. Although the majority of spices are cheap these days, it's no wonder they were considered so valuable. Spices make food taste delicious! Below you'll find information on some of the most sought after gourmet spices:
Cinnamon is a spice derived from the bark of the Ceylon Cinnamon Tree. The tree is native to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), but also grows wild in southern India and in Burma. Cinnamon has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for millennia and to this day is still an integral part of many cuisines around the globe. In Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, cinnamon is often used in savory dishes, particularly in curries and rice dishes, whereas in Western cooking it is almost exclusively used in sweet dishes.
Learn more about Cinnamon
Anise is native to the eastern Mediterranean and its“seeds” (which are really the fruit of the anise plant) have an intense sweet flavor strongly reminiscent of liquorice. The use of anise dates back to antiquity where it flavored wine, cookies, cakes, and even perfumes. The essential oils contained in anise have antibacterial properties and can aid in breaking up mucus, which is why anise tea is often fprescribed as a natural remedy against coughs. Anise also has a stimulating effect on the gastrointestinal tract.
Learn more about Anise
Caraway is one of the oldest and most popular spices in central Europe. Remnants have been found in archaeological sites dating back to 3000 B.C., and the earliest known references for culinary purposes are from Roman times. It is thought to have originated either in western parts of Asia or in central Europe. Today, it is grown commercially in Europe and Egypt.
Learn more about Caraway
Cardamom is a ginger plant native to southern India and Sri Lanka. Its seed pods are dried and either sold whole or ground, with the seeds constituting the actual spice. They contain an essential oil that is responsible for the spicy-sweet aroma of cardamom. The use of cardamom dates back to antiquity and was known to ancient Greeks and Romans. Today, cardamom is mainly grown in India, Sri Lanka, and Guatemala. While it is a common ingredient in the cuisines of India and Sri Lanka, the majority of cardamom is used in Arabic countries.
Learn more about Cardamom
Cloves, one of the oldest spices in the world, are the dried flower buds of the clove tree, which is native to the Indonesian islands of Ternate, Halmahera, Tidore, and Bacan, part of the Moluccas (Spice Islands). The earliest known trade dates back 2,500 years to Han Dynasty China, where cloves were used for cooking. Cloves reached Europe via Arabic traders in late antiquity, but it was not until the 17th century that the Dutch finally secured a monopoly over the Spice Islands clove trade. Today, the main producers of cloves are Indonesia's Spice Islands, the Tanzanian island of Pemba, and Madagascar.
Learn more about Cloves
Coriander seeds are the dried fruit of the coriander plant, which is native to the eastern Mediterranean and has been used for culinary purposes for thousands of years dating all the way back to ancient Egypt, Israel, Babylon, and Rome. Today, coriander is an important spice in Asia, Northern Africa, and many European countries. It is cultivated in Europe, Northern Africa, Asia, and Mexico.
Learn more about Coriander
Cumin is a spice made from the dried fruit of a plant native to western Asia. It has been used since ancient times in Asia, Egypt, and Rome. Today, it plays an important role in the cuisines of India, Latin America, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. It is commercially grown in the southern regions of the Mediterranean, in Iran, India, China, and Indonesia.
Learn more about Cumin
Curcuma, a member of the ginger family native to Southeast Asia, is also referred to as yellow ginger, Indian saffron, and yellow root. The rhizome of the plant looks almost identical to ginger except for its bright yellow-orange flesh. In India, where curcuma has been used for 4000 years it is one of the most important spices and considered holy. Its yellow color represents the sun in Hinduism, and it plays an important role in traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda, which regards it as one of the “hot” spices with cleansing and energy storing properties. Today, India is the largest producer of curcuma as well as the largest end user with over 80% of the world's production of the spice being used there.
Learn more about Curcuma
Fennel seeds are the dried fruit of the fennel plant, which is native to the Mediterranean. The seeds have a very intense sweet aroma, and their use for cooking and medicinal purposes dates back 3000 years to ancient Greece. Form the Mediterranean, the seeds spread across Europe (particularly to northern Europe), and to the Middle East and Asia. Today, fennel seeds are widely used either by themselves, as ingredients of spice mixes, or in combination with herbs in a range of different cuisines across the globe.
Learn more about Fennel Seeds
One of the most popular spices in Asian cuisines, ginger grows in tropical and subtropical climates. Its geographical origin is unknown, but today it is cultivated for commercial purposes in India, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Japan, Latin America, and Nigeria. The “roots” of the ginger plant, which are really rhizomes, are used both for cooking and for medicinal purposes. Ginger has anti-inflammatory and antiemetic properties, as well as a stimulating effect on the gastrointestinal tract and the production of saliva, and is often used to treat arthritis, muscle pain, and colds in traditional Asian medicine.
Learn more about Ginger
Nutmeg and Mace
Nutmeg trees are native to the east Indonesian Banda Islands, an archipelago that belongs to the Moluccas or Spice Islands, as they are also referred to. The trees produce yellow fruit with a seed covered with a red lace-like material, called mace. The seed is the actual spice that we call nutmeg, while mace is also used as a spice.
Learn more about Nutmeg and Mace
Pepper corns are the fruit of the pepper bush (piper nigrum), a plant native to India. The plant was eventually introduced to other South-East Asian countries, with Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia being some of today’s biggest producers of pepper. Pepper played an important part in the European spice trade. It did not make its way to Europe until the late 15th century where it remained a luxury item for quite some time.
The fruit of the pepper bush can be harvested and processed at different ripening stages, producing three different types of pepper corns. Green pepper is the unripe fruit of the plant. It is either preserved in brine or dried to retain its vibrant green color. Black pepper is also derived from the unripe fruit, which is then left to dry and eventually turns black. White pepper is made from ripe pepper fruit, which is peeled and dried. Pink pepper and Sichuan pepper are not related to pepper.
Pepper is one of the most widely used spices in the world, and can be added to dishes both whole or ground. Although pepper has a long shelf life, its aroma is at its fullest when fresh. It is always preferable to buy whole pepper corns rather than ground pepper, as they retain the flavor much better. Pepper from Sarawak (Borneo) and Vietnam’s Central Highlands is especially aromatic.
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is the name for the dried red stigmas (or threads) of a specific type of crocus flower. The plant flowers only once a year in the fall for about two weeks, and the flowers are harvested entirely by hand. It takes about 80,000 to 150,000 flowers to produce 1kg of saffron. One person can harvest between 60 to 80g of saffron per day. Saffron is mainly grown in Iran, Kashmir, and Mediterranean countries, including Italy, Turkey, Morocco, Spain, and others.
The sweet and slightly bitter aroma of saffron is widely used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, such as in Risotto Milanese, Bouillabaisse, and Paella. It is commonly used to enhance the flavor of rice dishes in Persian cooking. For maximum flavor, saffron threads should be dissolved in a small amount of warm water and then added to the dish. When purchasing saffron, it is always preferable to buy saffron threads as most saffron powders are actually cheap imitations made from curcuma. Saffron needs to be stored in a dark, tightly closed container.
Vanilla is derived from the fermented pods of a tropical orchid native to Central and South America. Its use dates back to Aztec and Mayan times when it was added to a drink made from water, cocoa beans, and chili peppers. It was first introduced to Europe in the 16th century when Spanish conquistadores brought it back from the New World. Efforts to cultivate vanilla orchids proved unsuccessful until the mid-19th century when it was discovered that hand pollination was the secret to mass production.
Today, three types of vanilla orchids are used for culinary and cosmetic purposes, with Bourbon vanilla grown on Madagascar, La Reunion (formerly known as Ile Bourbon, hence the name), and Mauritius being the vanilla of choice for high end culinary purposes due to its true vanilla flavor, which is sweet and intense. The use of whole vanilla pods is always preferable to vanilla extracts, sugars, or synthetic vanilla. It contains a whole range of aromas that cannot be captured in extracts or in synthetic flavoring. Both the scraped out seeds and the pod can be used for cooking to add the most flavor to dishes.
Learn more about Vanilla