Spices is a broad term used to describe herbal by-products that add flavor and aesthetic, aromatic and therapeutic treatments to food, drink and other items. Taken from the leaf, flower, roots, bark or nuts of a plant, spices are usually dried and ground to be mixed with other ingredients. Spices appeal to the five senses and influence cultures and societies through trade and daily use.
From the mundane to the exotic, the use of spices can be traced back to the Middle Ages with nutmeg and garlic, among others. Trading spices among different cultures and countries over the centuries became a means of acquiring and flaunting power and influence, to the point of launching expeditions to find more spices in other places. As the spices were discovered, so were other continents, such as North and South America, bringing worldwide exploration, trade and commerce into being.
The use of spices in food and drink enhances the flavor and aroma of any dish. Whether salty, sweet, bold or delicate, each spice has its own merits. Individual palates vary as to what tastes good together and what doesn't. Cultures gravitate toward spices native to their homeland or borrow from others. India, for example, relies heavily on its own production of peppercorns, but they are frequently found in British cuisine, as well.
Spices change the physical appearance of food and other products, giving things a sprinkle of color, such as pepper, or changing the hue entirely, as in turmeric or paprika. Some are used in dyeing fabric, like tea. Spices also change the texture of things, such as coarse salt or sugar sprinkled on top of snacks and desserts. They act as preservatives of meat and other foods which would otherwise spoil, as in pickling spices.
Valued for more than just taste and appearance, spices have nutritional and medicinal merits, as well, although they are sometimes better known as home remedies than proven treatments in medicine. Ginger, for example, is well known as a helpful digestive aid. Garlic is touted for preserving memory and keeping a heart healthy. Turmeric has long been used as a home remedy against common colds and influenza. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has suggested that oregano is a powerful antioxidant.
Some spices are so aromatic that they are not only used in food, but they are also used to enhance other products. Cinnamon, for example, is not only a popular flavor in oatmeal, pastries and coffee, but has become a basic scent in candles, air fresheners and hand lotion. Other items, like lavender, are used for their calming effects in incense sticks, bath oils and tea. Pungent odors are also useful tools from spices, like the smells of frankincense and myrrh used in religious ceremonies and burial rituals.
- Photo Credit Photo by enigmachck1: Flickr.com
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