In Summer, Treat Spices Like the Tropical Flavors They Are
“What’s the difference between an herb and a spice?”
Pop quiz: Name the countries associated with the following sauces, condiments, or spice blends. The answers are at the bottom of this column, but no cheating:
Pesto. Romesco. Harissa. Ras el hanout. Mole verde. Chimichurri. Five-spice powder. Seven-spice powder. Garam masala. Dukka. Sabzi polo. Quatre épices. Berbere. Sambal oelek.
No matter whether you aced it or decided you need to get out more, the point I’m trying to make is that the world’s cuisines can be identified in large part by how spices and herbs are used. We’re all becoming increasingly familiar with these traditional seasonings as they become more available. Much of the interest is fueled by immigrant communities and restaurants, but the wider public is keenly interested in authentic regional ingredients too, and we incorporate a growing array of international seasonings into our recipes without really thinking about it.
A personal example of this is brisket chez Lear. My husband’s recipe came straight from his mother, and an excellent one it was—classic Jewish American, and what was not to love? But then I cowrote a cookbook with the innovative South Indian chef Floyd Cardoz, and once those spices found a place in our pantry, that brisket started to evolve. A dried red chile made its way into the pot, as did some chopped, peeled fresh ginger, a cinnamon stick, and dry-toasted cumin, coriander, and mustard seeds. The cooked brisket didn’t taste especially Indian—although serving it with turmeric-spiked mashed potatoes will push it in that direction—just absolutely delicious. July is not brisket weather, but that same basic spice mix, dry-toasted and whizzed up in an electric coffee grinder or a spice grinder, is the basis for our standard grilling rub or marinade. Turmeric, by the way, is wonderful in potato salad.
OK, so what’s the difference between an herb and a spice? “The word herb comes from the Latin herba, meaning grass or, by extension, green crop,” wrote Jill Norman in Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference. “It was originally applied to a wide range of leaf vegetables in addition to the plants we now call herbs. Most of the culinary herbs we use grow in temperate climates. Spices, on the other hand, are products of tropical plants: aromatic roots, bark, seeds, buds, and fruits, usually used in dried forms, whether whole or ground.” The term derives from the Latin word species, meaning “sort” or “kind,” Norman added, explaining that the definition subsequently expanded to include goods or merchandise. The spice route, after all, is almost as old as trade itself.
So Why Should You Care? Well, herbs and spices are an easy path to complexity in food. They stimulate all the senses and, not incidentally, have been used for their medicinal properties since ancient times. In some parts of the world—India and Asia spring to mind—nutrition and medicine have been seamlessly integrated in the kitchen. In Western kitchens, people have come to realize that herbs and spices, which are rich in antioxidants, add flavor and zest to low-fat or low-sodium diets. They are an age-old connection to regional foods around the world.
Although I find that Norman’s usage makes the most practical sense in the kitchen, all manner of distinctions can complicate matters. The Herb Society of America’s New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses, by Deni Bown, for instance, encompasses a far wider range of plants than you may expect. In addition to herbaceous perennials, it includes trees, shrubs, annuals, vines, and more primitive plants such as ferns, mosses, algae, lichens, and fungi. But the range of uses referred to are as broad as the definition: “[Herbs] are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials (dyes),” Bown wrote.
When it comes to the word spice, the American Spice Trade Association’s definition is based on the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations for specific labeling requirements and includes chiles (today’s largest and spiciest spice crop) as well as dried herbs that are used for seasoning. In Southeast Asia, any aromatic plant used fresh is considered an herb; the same plant, when dried, is considered a spice. In Britain, the word coriander is applied to both plant and seeds. The same held true in the United States until a few decades ago, when we began to refer to the fresh leaves by the herb’s Spanish name, cilantro; the citrusy seeds are still called coriander and are considered a spice.
The spices below are among what many of us think of as cold-weather spices, suitable only for holiday cookies, mulled drinks, and hearty winter dishes. But they’re from the tropics, remember? You can get lots of mileage out of them during the summer months.
These dried berries, or fruits, come from a small evergreen tree native to the West Indies and tropical Central America. When Columbus found them growing in the Caribbean, he mistook them for the prized peppercorns he was looking for, which is why the spice’s Spanish name is pimienta (pepper). “That name was later altered to Jamaica pepper because most of the crop, and certainly the best quality, came and still comes from that island,” wrote Norman. The berries are hand-harvested when they are full-size but still green, or unripe; as they dry, they turn reddish brown. In flavor and fragrance, allspice berries are reminiscent of cloves, with back notes of cinnamon and nutmeg and a bit of peppercorn-like heat. Whole berries (which crush easily) are preferable to ground allspice, which loses its potency quickly. Allspice is a key ingredient in jerk seasoning, which makes a great summer embellishment for grilled chicken, pork, or fish. Can you go get me a Red Stripe?
We tend to think of caraway seeds (which are the fruits, botanically speaking, of a plant in the parsley family) as a warm, bittersweet flavoring common to Northern and Central Europe, used in any number of things, including breads, sweets, stews, and aquavit. But they are also an essential ingredient in harissa, the fiery blend of hot chiles, garlic, olive oil, and other spices that is the signature condiment and flavor base in Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa. Harissa is easy enough to buy these days, but nothing beats homemade. It’s delicious mixed into burgers or meat loaf; rubbed on chicken or lamb; or stirred into hummus, a yogurt sauce, a tomato sauce for pasta, or salad dressing. It beats the heck out of Sriracha on an egg sandwich.
Cinnamon and Cassia
True cinnamon (sometimes referred to as “Ceylon cinnamon”) is native to Sri Lanka and is the bark of an evergreen tree in the laurel family; the seedlings grow in clumps, with shoots about the thickness of a thumb. According to Norman and other sources, the shoots are harvested in the rainy season (May–August), then peeled. The paper-thin pieces of bark are hand-rolled into “quills” about three feet long and dried in the shade. Cassia, which is the thicker, coarser bark of a related laurel species, is native to Assam and northern Burma. Today, it’s exported from Southern China and Vietnam; the finest quality comes from northern Vietnam. In the U.S., cassia is sold as cinnamon or cassia-cinnamon and typically preferred to true cinnamon because of its stronger flavor and aroma. Cassia and cinnamon are often paired with winter fruits such as apples and pears, but they are also delicious with the stone fruits of summer—plums, apricots, peaches, and nectarines. As it happens, they’re a terrific vehicle for cinnamon sugar. Put whole peaches, for example, in a baking dish, and roll them around in a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil. Then roll them around in plenty of cinnamon sugar and tuck them in a 350° oven before you sit down to dinner. There’s no need to think about dessert again until the aroma reaches the table. Stone fruit roasted this way has a deep-flavored sweetness and luxurious, almost molten texture—in other words, it needs no embellishment, although a little crème fraîche wouldn’t be amiss.
Not all spices hail from the tropics. Juniper berries (which are modified cones) come from a prickly evergreen shrub that grows throughout the northern hemisphere and are the primary flavoring in gin. In France, Britain, and Northern Europe, juniper berries are a common kitchen seasoning, lightly crushed and used with thyme, rosemary, and bay to add brightness and depth to pâtés, sausages, daubes, poultry dishes, game, and more. In the summertime, a compound butter made with finely ground juniper berries gives finesse to steaks, burgers, or pork chops, but what really brings the house down is a blood orange–juniper granita. First lightly crush 1 teaspoon juniper berries with the flat side of a large knife or a wine bottle. Then, in a small pot, bring 1 cup water, ½ cup sugar, and the juniper berries to a boil; simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Remove the pot from the heat and let the juniper berries steep until the sugar syrup is cool. Strain the syrup into 2 cups blood orange juice; discard the juniper berries. Stir 3 tablespoons gin into the juice mixture and freeze in a shallow pan until slushy, about 1 hour. Stir with a fork, breaking up the lumps, and repeat freezing and stirring until completely frozen, about 4 hours.
Answers: Italy. Spain. Tunisia. Morocco. Mexico. Argentina. China. Japan. India. Egypt. Iran. France. Ethiopia and Eritrea. Indonesia.