Spices enhance the colour, fragrance and flavour of food. In addition many of them also have many health benefits. Used in the right combination, spices can turn the simplest food into an aromatic and rich experience in the world of cooking. Of course, used incorrectly, if the wrong spices are combined, they will make food taste terrible and bitter. Hence care and knowledge is important for the successful use of spices. Here are a few interesting things to know when cooking with spices:
5 Things to know when you Cook with Spices:
- A combination of spices when used properly depending on the food will mix to create a complex aroma and spicy flavour.
- The maximum number of spices that can be combined safely is said to be around 20.
- Sometimes taking away (not using) too much flavour, can enhance the remaining aroma and spiciness.
- Heating spices in oils or fats enhance their fragrance and flavour.
- Fresh spices smell and taste better than dry or processed ones.
Spices in Sri Lanka
Asia, most specifically Southeast Asia, has always been quite famous for its spicy foods. The region’s cooks have dabbled with the science of spices for millenia and are very experienced and used to cooking using spices. The fact that most spices are grown around the tropical regions of Southeast Asia played a large part in this. Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean, has been the centre of the spice trade throughout history.
5 Spice-related Historical Facts about Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka, historically renowned under names such as Tabrobane, Serendib and Ceylon, was famous for its high quality spices throughout history.
- In ancient times it maintained relations with the Greeks, Romans and Arabs through its spice trade.
- Old 14th century trade route maps of the world have proved that almost all trade routes passed through Sri Lanka. The main reasons for this popularity were the spices and ivory found in the tropical island.
- The Portugese, Dutch and English found the country attractive, when they conquered Asia, mainly due its spice and ivory trade.
- Tropical Sri Lanka with its diverse micro climates and soil types has many spices grown in the island, some of them endemic, which has been the cause for their lucrative spice trade throughout the ages.
The spice trade of Sri Lanka namely consists of:
Curry Leaves (Karapincha)
The Curry Tree (binomial name: Murraya koenigii) is a tropical tree native to India and Sri Lanka. Its fragrant leaves are called curry leaves as they are popular for spicing up curries. They are mostly used as seasoning in the cooking of Sri Lanka, India and their neighbouring countries. Curry leaves have many medicinal properties including being anti-diabetic.
Turmeric (binomial name: Circuma longa), once processed from the rhizomes, is a deep orangish yellow powder. It is used mainly to impart colour or in other words dye foods. When it comes to flavour, the spice tastes slightly bitter and peppery with undertones of earthy flavour. Though used mainly as a powder, turmeric is also used fresh in its rhizome form in certain regions of the world. Turmeric is grown in Southeast Asian countries due to their tropical climes but is native to southwest India.
Cloves, which are the flower buds of a form of evergreen tree, originate from the Maluku Islands, Indonesia. They are primarily used as a spice, but are also used for medicine, fragrance (pomander) and clove cigars. Cloves are harvested and traded mainly in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Pakistan, Tanzania and Zanzibar. When it comes to culinary purposes cloves are used in Asian, African, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine. They are most often used to add depth to meats, curries and marinades.
Cinnamon refers to Cinnamomum Verum or ‘true cinnamon,’which is a plant endemic to Sri Lanka. Most other cinnamon (from other countries) is from related species of plants and is called ‘cassia’. It is a spice obtained by making shavings (also known as quills) of the inner bark of the cinnamon plant. Cinnamon trade has a very long history and records show cinnamon in the spice trade of Egypt as early as 2000BC. Cinnamon is often used to spice up chocolates, deserts and beverages but also for alcohol flavouring and medicine. 90% of the true cinnamon traded around the world comes from Sri Lanka.
Pepper (Gam Miris)
Pepper generally refers to black, white and green pepper. Black pepper is the unripe fruit of the pepper plant, piper nigrum, cooked and dried. Green pepper refers to the dried, but uncooked, unripe fruit of the pepper plant. White pepper, on the other hand, is the seeds from ripe pepper fruits. Pepper is the spice that is most commonly traded in the world.It is used for its strong aroma and for its spiciness as a chilli replacement. In addition to its use as a spice it has medical purposes and is also used for massages (pepper oil). Pepper is native to South and Southeast Asia.
Cardamom, also known as Cardamon, is a small spindle shaped seedpod with black seeds inside. The covers are thin and pale green (Elettaria) or dark brown (Amomum). It is the third on the list of the world’s most expensive spices, right behind vanilla and saffron. Cardamom is used as a cooking spice as well as flavouring (mainly for tea and coffee). It is also used in medicine. Cardamom is native to India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangaladesh. A few other countries, like Sri Lanka, have also taken up cultivation.
Lemongrass and Citronella (Sera)
Lemongrass is a culinary herb which as a subtle citrus flavour. It is very popular in Asian cuisine and can be used fresh or dried and powdered. Lemongrass is used as a medical herb, pesticide and preservative as well. When it comes to citronella grass, it is from the same family of plants and is a very close relative to lemongrass. It is used in soaps, candles and insect repellant sprays. East Indian lemongrass is from Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. West Indian lemongrass is native to South Asia and the Southeast Asian islands.
Nutmeg is the seed of a type of evergreen tree (Myristica fragrans), while mace is the reddish netlike covering surrounding the seed. Nutmeg and mace are used as a flavouring for many sweet dishes from the cuisines of various countries, and as a spice in many savoury dishes. Nutmeg is also an essential ingredient in many Christmas favourites such as mulled cider, mulled wine and eggnog. Nutmeg is also used for perfume and medicine. The common nutmeg is native to the Banda islands of Indonesia. The plant was a lucrative trade spice throughout history. Therefore after the Napoleonic war it was transplanted by the British to Sri Lanka, Penang, Bencoolen and Singapore. However records show that the plant existed in Sri Lanka even before this.
Vanilla is a word that has Spanish origins and comes from the word ‘vaina’, literally translating to ‘little pod’. It is a flavouring extracted from orchids of the Vanilla genus, mainly the Mexican flat-leaved Vanilla. Since the only natural pollinator is a Mexican species of bee, hand pollination is required to grow it in any other countries other than Mexico and South America. Due to this labour intensive cultivation, Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world. Vanilla may be sold as whole pods, powder, extract or as vanilla sugar mix. There are many types of vanilla due to the related species of orchids that produce vanilla; Bourbon Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla, Tahitian Vanilla, West Indian Vanilla. Sri Lanka has Bourbon Vanilla.
Ginger is the root of flowering plant. It is used as a spice for food, flavouring for beverages or in folk medicine. Ginger originated in South China and later spread all over Asia followed by the African continent. The spice was introduced to Europe from India in the 1st century AD. Today it is a very commonly used spice globally.
Chives belong to the same family as onion, leeks and garlic. They are a hardy, drought-tolerant perennial growing to about 10-12 inches tall. They grow in clumps from underground bulbs and produce round, hollow leaves that are much finer than onion. In mid-summer, they produce round, pink flowers similar in appearance to clover.
Providing a tangy addition to pickles, salad dressing and fish dishes, fresh dill is available at markets during the summer and early fall while dried dill is available throughout the year.Dill is a unique plant in that both its leaves and seeds are used as a seasoning. Dill's green leaves are wispy and fernlike and have a soft, sweet taste. Dried dill seeds are light brown in color and oval in shape, featuring one flat side and one convex ridged side. The seeds are similar in taste to caraway, featuring a flavor that is aromatic, sweet and citrusy, but also slightly bitter.
Micro Basil is quite similar to full sized basil, with a slightly stronger flavour profile, and a more diverse visual profile. We commonly grow green micro basil, which is slightly sweet compared to that of Thai Basil, Lemon Basil or Holy Basil. Typically grown to 1″-1 1/2″, our micro basil is grown from certified micro greens seeds, in a completely natural and sterile environment. The greens look like a very tiny version of a typical basil plant, and are matured to the point where they have a single set of medium-sized cotyledon leaves, as well as one set of very small true leaves. The entire green is edible, and is more often than not used as an accent or garnish rather than an ingredient included in the cooking process, due to its fragile nature.
Mint is grown for its aromatic and flavorful leaves. Oval and serrated, the leaves of mint are indented with veins and come to a point. They impart a fresh clean scent and a strong mint flavor with sweet overtones. Leaves are commonly bright to dark green in color but some varieties can be purple, gray-green or even pale yellow. If allowed to flower mint will produce white and lavender to purple petite blooms. Young leaves will have the best flavor and texture, leaves allowed to mature on the plant for too long will become bitter and woodsy in flavor. The cool taste and sensation mint imparts is a result of the naturally occurring compound, menthol contained in the herb.
Oregano is a shrub-like herb with multiple-branched stems, growing either upright or in a creeping manner, depending on the variety. It can grow as tall as three feet in height. The leaves are narrow and pinnate, or arrow-shaped, and have a soft, fuzzy texture. They grow in pairs, well-spaced out along tender stems. As the plant grows, the more mature stems become woody at the base. In the late summer, small white flowers bloom from the flower spikes (bracts) at the top of the stems. Typically, Oregano is harvested just before the flowers bloom, when the flavor and aroma is at its peak. Oregano is said to have a ‘balsamic’ flavor; a combination of mint (a closely related herb), thyme, and rosemary. The taste is strong and somewhat bitter.
Parsley is a classic herb which appears in many Mediterranean recipes from Greek to French and naturally, Italian. It is very nutritious, if not the most nutritious herb known. This biennial plant lives for two years before its full life cycle is complete.There are two popular varieties of the herb, curly parsley which is what we often see used as garnishes and flat parsley, also called Italian parsley. Although both can be used in Italian meals and recipes, the flat parsley has a slightly more bitter taste.Parsley also makes a good companion plant to tomatoes. Companion planting is when specific plants are purposefully grown near each other for specific reasons. Most reasons are related to the deterrent of harmful insects, or for the attraction of beneficial insects. For example, parsley is recommended to plant near tomato plants because it attracts wasp which like to prey on the harmful tomato hornworm.
Rosemary, (Rosmarinus officinalis), small evergreen plant of the mint family (Lamiaceae), the leaves of which are used to flavour foods. Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary has naturalized throughout much of Europe and is widely grown in gardens in warm climates. The leaves have a pungent, slightly bitter taste and are generally used, dried or fresh, to season foods, particularly lamb, duck, chicken, sausages, seafood, stuffings, stews, soups, potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, other vegetables, and beverages. The taxonomy of rosemary is contentious, and it is sometimes placed in the genus Salvia as S. rosmarinus.
The sweet basil plant probably originated in Asia and Africa and may have been brought to Europe in ancient times by Alexander the Great. Early settlers carried the plant and its seeds to America in the 1600s. Common basil grows throughout the U.S. as a bushy annual plant that reaches a height of 1 to 2 feet, although there are varieties with different habits. The plant has large, shiny green leaves and produces floral spikes covered with tiny white flowers. The powerful aroma of the basil plant is produced by volatile oils found throughout its stems and leaves.
Thyme is an herb. The flowers, leaves, and oil are used as medicine. Thyme is sometimes used in combination with other herbs. Thyme is taken by mouth for bronchitis, whooping cough, sore throat, colic, arthritis, upset stomach, stomach pain (gastritis), diarrhea, bedwetting, a movement disorder in children (dyspraxia), intestinal gas (flatulence), parasitic worm infections, and skin disorders. It is also used to increase urine flow (as a diuretic), to disinfect the urine, and as an appetite stimulant.Some people apply thyme directly to the skin to act as a counterirritant, for hoarseness (laryngitis), swollen tonsils (tonsillitis), sore mouth, and bad breath. Thyme oil is used as a germ-killer in mouthwashes and liniments. It is also applied to the scalp to treat baldness and to the ears to fight bacterial and fungal infections. Thymol, one of the chemicals in thyme, is used with another chemical, chlorhexidine, as a dental varnish to prevent tooth decay. In foods, thyme is used as a flavoring agent. In manufacturing, red thyme oil is used in perfumes. It is also used in soaps, cosmetics, and toothpastes.
There are many other spices in Sri Lanka, but these are the main. If you would need more information on the spices of Sri Lanka and their uses, The Sri Lankan Spice Council website has more information.
Join us from Lakpura as we guide you on the ‘Spiceperience’, a sensual journey you will never forget. Let us guide you into the world of spice so you may understand spices the Sri Lankan way!