Happy National Herbs & Spices Day!

National Herbs and Spices Day is an annual even held on June 10 to celebrate the diversity of flavors that herbs and spices bring to our daily dishes. This event is relatively new, with the first official celebration beginning in 2015.

Since then, flavors and aromas are celebrated in households worldwide as these additions are recognized as essential parts of enhancing the complexity of flavorful dishes. Spices improve the visual, flavor, texture aspects of dishes that further improve the experience of the dish, making each dish unique to each culture and individual.

What Are Herbs and Spices Anyway?

Spices come from different parts of plants, including roots, stems, seeds, fruits, and even the flowers. Spices usually come from dried plants that are then grinded and powdered. Common spices include: cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, and cloves.

Black pepper is even argued to be the “king of all spices”. At one point, black pepper even served as a currency to pay salaries and bribes. Meanwhile, herbs are usually considered as non-woody plants that come from the softer stems or leaves of plants. Herbs can be whole, ground, fresh, or dried. Many culinary herbs are actually in the mint and carrot families. Herbs such as wild mint, tarragon, and juniper are actually from Native North American plants.

Have you ever wondered why saffron is the most expensive of all herbs and spices? Well, it’s because saffron comes from the stigmas of a crocus and no other part of the plant is used! Compared to other spices and herbs, where all parts of a plant are used, saffron sure stands out.

How many herbs and spices are there anyway? It is difficult to say how many spices exist globally. There are thousands of plants that can be used as an herb or a spice, although some have greater global importance than others. Part of the complexity is in the ability to take individual spices and combine them in varying proportions with other spices to create spice blends and mixtures. This creates further diversity in spice flavor profiles and create unique dish experiences. Even if all ingredients are the same, changing just the spice will result in a new dish! The possibilities are endless!

Image: Herbs and Spices Guide Webstarauntstore.com

A Spicy History & New World Spices

While it is difficult to trace the earliest use of herbs and spices as flavoring agents, garlic and onions were documented to being used over 4,000 years ago! However, herbs and spices were used not just for flavoring dishes, but also to preserve foods (especially prior to refrigeration), and for medicinal and religious purposes.

Historically, herbs and spices were so precious that they represented power and wealth! In fact, the Silk Roads, which were established as a route to trade spices between countries, spanned from the west cost of Japan, traveled through the islands of Indonesia, went around India into the Middle East, and then went across the Mediterranean where it introduced Asian spices to Europe.

What do the following events have in common: Massacre for nutmeg, Vasco da Gama’s campaign of terror, the Dutch-Portuguese War, and the War of Chioggia? They are all wars over spices and they’re not the only ones.

The new world has only introduced three important spices: allspice, capsicum peppers, and vanilla. Allspice was one of the few spices introduced by Columbus. Meanwhile, vanilla is meticulously extracted from the fruit of the plant through filtration to bring out vanillin- that vanilla flavor that is so familiar.

Recently, home-cooks and chefs have become increasingly interested in experimenting with new and exotic spices which has resulted in the discovery of lesser-known spices that introduce even more unique flavors to cuisines.

Every year, American households celebrate by planting some herbs in their kitchen gardens, cooking extra spicy and flavor-dense dishes, and remembering just how much more delicious their dishes become thanks to the major contribution of herbs and spices. How does your culture use herbs and spices? Are there any spices that you love that you think should be a staple in every kitchen?