Herbs and spices, common in modern kitchens, have a history that dates back thousands of years. More than 7,000 years ago, the kitchens of Egypt, Arabia and Mesopotamia were kept well stocked by spice-laden ships from India. The introduction of spices and herbs to Europe reconfigured the geopolitical map of the world. For example, Christopher Columbus was searching for a new sea route to the spice plantations of India when he landed in the Americas. Today, despite the worldwide availability of most herbs and spices, several remain rare and expensive.
Saffron, the top part of the dried stigma of the crocus sativus flower, is the world's most expensive spice. This is largely due to the painstaking harvesting and processing it requires. The flowers, cultivated in Kashmir, Iran, Spain and Morocco, each have only three stigma (female parts) and two stamen (male parts). According to Saffron USA, 50,000 flowers are needed to produce one pound of this precious spice, which retails for $500 to $5,000, depending on quality. Saffron, also prized for its medicinal properties, imparts a unique flavor and a distinctive reddish-yellow color to food.
Vanilla, derived from the seedpods of several species of Vanilla orchid, is second only to saffron in market value. In pre-Columbian times, the Maya cultivated these flowers in the tropical forests of Central America, using the pods to add flavor to the product of another crop, chocolate. Today, most vanilla comes from Madagascar and Indonesia. Half of the world's production, more than 2 million pounds, is consumed in the U.S.
Green cardamom, known as the "Queen of Spices," is related to ginger and is used to enhance the flavor of many types of foods, including tea, coffee, pastries and a wide range of Asian and African dishes. Native to India, it has a strong yet delicate flavor and is often chewed after meals by people on the subcontinent as a breath-freshener. India is the largest producer of the world's third most valuable spice but domestic demand ensures that relatively little is exported. Most cardamom pods thus come from Guatemala, where the crop was introduced around a century ago.
Despite the popularity of sushi in the West, authentic wasabi is very different from what is served with sushi outside of Japan. According to Elizabeth Andoh, a Tokyo-based American food journalist, "Western wasabi" is mostly horseradish tinted with food coloring that contains little or no wasabia Japonica, an aquatic plant native to the cool mountain stream regions of northern Japan. The plant is difficult to cultivate because it needs a constant supply of cold, clear water with the right balance of minerals. While the wasabi root is very expensive, Andoh writes that the difference between Western-style wasabi and the real herb is enormous.
- Photo Credit Valueline/Valueline/Getty Images vanilla beans image by joanna wnuk from Fotolia.com
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