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Around the world in spices and herbs

On supermarket shelves, we are given a mind-numbing array of choices to select from. Shall we have some peppercorns on our macaroni, some cinnamon for baking, or a sprig of rosemary with roast pork? Five hundred years ago, however, cooking with herbs and spices was a much simpler choice. Many of the spices we use nowadays still flourished only in their native habitats, and were not as widely enjoyed as they are today. In fact, Christopher Columbus made it his quest to collect spices from around the world, deeming it as worthy as gold. “In truth,” he said, “should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them.”

Thanks to these early explorers, cultures around the world have created delectable dishes based on spices and herbs both homegrown and imported, and it is fascinating how often these additions can change the essence of an entire meal. Indeed, many spices have been so commonly used they have come to represent entire cuisines. We cannot imagine Indian food without curry, for instance, nor conceive of any sashimi platter without that indispensable wad of wasabi.

In addition to spicing up dishes, studies have also shown that adding seasoning to your diet leads to copious health and other physical benefits. This is not a recent discovery. In ancient Roman times, the philosopher Pliny advised his students to wear a “crown of mint” upon their heads while studying, as it “exhilarates the mind.” Modern studies reveal that his advice was spot-on. Other than headaches, mint also alleviates asthma, nausea, and digestion problems. Other herbs and spices, such as the nutmeg, similarly helps prevent infection and ageing due to their antibacterial properties.

If you possess a green thumb, cultivating your own herbs is also a peaceful activity that calms the nerves. Thomas More, who kept his garden alongside the Thames, said of rosemary “I let it run alle over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship.” Likewise, many other herbs also convey their own “flower language,” or floriography. Basil channels good wishes, sage pronounces wisdom, while tarragon, curiously enough, expresses “lasting interest.”

For all our familiarity with seasoning, not all of us can claim to know the origins of the condiments we use so frequently. The markers on the world map below introduce the native land and properties of some select spices (the fiery red markers) and herbs (the green ones) that bring a magic touch to our everyday fare.

Featured image credit: ‘Indian Spices’ by Maulpatel. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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