What are Spices?
Spices are the aromatic parts of tropical plants traditionally used to flavour food, or the dried seeds or fruit of temperate plants used in the same way. Some of the substances we call spices come from the bark or roots of certain plants, but the majority are berries, seeds, or dried fruits.
Some of the most popular spices in New Zealand – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, pepper - are native to the Asian tropics. Some of the aromatic seed spices - coriander, fennel, fenugreek, mustard, poppy – are native to the Mediterranean region. A few spices – allspice, chillies, vanilla – are native to parts of the Carribean and Central America.
How To Use Spices: Complex flavours can be created by using mixtures of spices that complement each other. Some spices are used for their taste while others are used for their aroma. The stage at which spices are added to a dish can make a big difference. Typically they will impart flavour if added at the beginning of the cooking process, but if they are added at the end it is their aromas that will be most noticeable.
The aroma and flavour of spices come from essential oils. The oils in most spices contain a dozen or more constituent chemical compounds. Many of these chemicals are present in more than one spice (which is why cinnamon and cloves have a similar flavour), although typically these chemicals are in different proportions.
To release the essential oils in spices, the cell walls must be ruptured. This can be done by:
The essential oils in spices are volatile and they begin to evaporate once exposed through processing. This is why spices are best (in terms of their aroma and flavour) when they are freshly processed. In their whole form though, some spices can keep for years.
Spices are becoming increasingly popular in modern New Zealand cuisine. We stock the following premium spice products:
Peppercorns come in a rainbow of colours and while most of the colours are used in Indian cooking, black peppercorns are the most common and pack in the most heat. Spicy. Use judiciously.
These come in a pod with tiny, black seeds. Most of the aroma and the flavour are in the seeds and they are used in a variety of dishes. Sweet and savoury, entrees, desserts and beverages. Cardamom’s warm flavour and aroma will immediately take you to a slower, happier place. Not spicy at all but quite overpowering in flavour.
These can add a red, familiar colour to your cooking, along with of course heat. Not all chilli peppers are spicy though. In the Indian variety, Kashmiri red chillies and deggi mirch are used more for colour than heat. Paprika is another example of a sweet and bright red chilli pepper. Look out for Cayenne that will pack a punchSpicy. Use carefully after sampling.
Much like cardamom, cinnamon can serve double duty in both sweet and savoury dishes. It’s also great for cold and hot beverages. Packed full of healthy benefits, cinnamon can be used in stick form and added early in the cooking process, or ground up and added towards the end for aroma. Sweet and mildly spicy. Use as needed. It is easy to over use though in powder form.
Dried seeds of the cilantro (coriander) plant, these are roasted and ground and used most commonly in Indian and Mexican cuisine. The powder gives an earthy, smoky flavour with none of the heat. Works wonderfully in curries, stews and marinades.
These are used roasted whole or ground up in Southwestern U.S., Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine. These have an earthy flavour and are stronger in flavour than the coriander powder.
If I had written this list in order of health benefits this one would have been on the top for sure. Turmeric’s health benefits have been well documented and I use it liberally in dishes that withstand the bright orange colour. It does particularly well in all manners of soups, curries and stews. Not very spicy, though it does add a musty aroma and flavour that some say may be acquired. Start small and build up your family’s tolerance over a period of time.