• The sense of smell
• Essential oils
• some herbs
• Spice trade
• cloves, nutmeg, mace
• Saffron, ginger
• New World spices
• Chap 17
• Box 5.3, pp. 84-85
The Sense of Smell
• Herbs, spices, incense, and perfume all work on the
sense of smell.
• More precisely, the sense of smell is
chemoreception: the ability to detect specific
– We do it with volatile compounds, which must be
small and uncharged to move through the air.
– The human tongue can only distinguish 5 basic
flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory). The
rest of taste perception in based on the sense of smell.
• We detect smells because the chemical compounds
stimulate olfactory receptor neurons, which are
special nerve cells in the olfactory bulb, located in
the nasal passages.
– The olfactory bulb is part of the brain, and the signals from
here go to many other parts of the brain.
• Some dogs can smell odors that are 100 million
times more dilute than humans can smell.
• Odor molecules bind to receptor proteins on the surface of the
receptor neurons and stimulate them to send signals into the
• Each receptor neuron has only one type of receptor protein, so
each cell responds to only a single compound or class of
– There are about 1000 different receptor types in mammals,
but humans have only about 400 active receptor types.
The rest of our genes have become inactivated.
• The olfactory signals are highly processed, not just due to
specific olfactory receptors. Individual receptors respond to
many different compounds: it’s pattern of overlap between
receptors that distinguishes different odors. We can
distinguish between about 10,000 different odors.
• Various theories as to why a given compound stimulates a
particular receptor: overall shape of the molecule, some
specific feature of the molecules, the frequency of vibration,
etc. There is no theory that explains olfactory perception
completely as yet. It’s hotly debated!
• Before refrigeration (invented around 1900), food was
often a bit spoiled when people ate it. Herbs and spices
were a way of covering up off-tastes and generally making
food taste better and more interesting.
• Similarly, before modern times, bad smells were
everywhere: sewage in the streets, dead animals lying
around, unwashed bodies and clothes. Incense hid these
odors behind something much more pleasant.
• Many plants produce essential oils, which can attract
animals to help with pollination and seed dispersal, and
also to inhibit bacterial, fungal, and insect pathogens.
• Essential oils are volatile compounds that are secondary
metabolites. They are usually terpenes, constructed from
isoprene, the same 5-carbon compound that is the subunit
• Essential oils are not soluble in water, but are soluble in
alcohol or other organic solvents, including olive oil.
– Other than the nice scents, other terpenes include carotene
• Muslim alchemists invented the first still, the alembic,
and used it to produce concentrated alcohol that would
extract the scents of various flowers. Attar of roses (attar
= extract), jasmine, patchouli, violet, and many others.
• Essential oils used to be common in medicine, but
scientific studies have not found them to be particularly
valuable. However, they are used in aromatherapy, a
type of alternative medicine.
• The sense of smell triggers deep memories and
emotions that aren’t always connected with the
conscious mind. Thus, scents are useful in romantic
situations and in religious ceremonies.
Techniques for Extracting Essential Oils
• Expression. Just squeezing citrus rinds brings out the essential
• Solvent extraction. Different essential oils are soluble in
different liquids. Concentrated alcohol was first used by
Muslims, but before this, many essences were extracted with
olive or coconut oil. Today the solvents are petroleum products
like petroleum ether. The solvents can then be evaporated
away. What makes this useful is that some essential oils break
down with heating, and solvent extraction can be done at room
• Fractional distillation. This technique is basic to organic
chemistry: different compounds vaporize at different
temperatures. If you set up a column above a boiling mixture,
there is a temperature gradient between the top and the bottom.
Some careful manipulation allows different compounds to be
separated from each other. Essences of mint, cloves, cinnamon
and vanilla are obtained by fractional distillation.
– Same technique is used in the petroleum industry to separate out
different components of crude oil.
More on Scent Extraction
• Enfleurage (cold fat extraction). For very
delicate oils that break down with heat. They
are extracted by being covered with cold
animal fat. Takes several weeks. New flowers
are added periodically. Then the oils are
extracted out with alcohol, which can be
removed by evaporation.
– The fat can be reused. It retains some odors and is
eventually made into soap.
• There are a few completely artificial scents:
calone is a “fresh, ozone-like, metallic, marine”
scent used in many contemporary perfumes for
both men and women.
• Incense is material that smells good when burned or
• It has been used in religious ceremonies in many
cultures since ancient times, to spiritually purify the
air, or as an offering to the gods, or as an aid to prayer.
– Native Americans use burning sage for this purpose.
• Incense can be used to mask unpleasant odors. In
American society today we are more inclined to use
scents vaporized by other means.
– We are less tolerant of releasing potential carcinogens and
particles into the air than in previous times.
• The scent comes from essential oils that vaporize
when heated. Some incense can be burned directly,
and other types are heated by smoldering charcoal .
Coating a stick with incense gives a support as well as
a source of heat to the incense.
• Frankincense and myrrh are the solidified oils of trees
growing in southern Arabia. They are produced in
very small amounts and had to be shipped across the
Arabian desert on the Incense Road, so they were very
• Sandalwood is the wood of a group of trees growing
India, Southeast Asia, and Australia. The essential oil
is used in the perfume industry as well as for incense.
• Citronella is an Old World perennial grass, often
called lemongrass. When vaporized, it repels
mosquitoes and other annoying insects. In the US,
this is often done with candles, but it can be burned as
incense as well.
• Perfume making is an ancient art. A perfume factory from 2000
BC with 40,000 square feet of floor space has been discovered on
the island of Cyprus. A perfume maker is mentioned on a clay
tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, and they are mentioned in
ancient Indian texts as well.
• Chemists in the Islamic world starting about 800 AD significantly
advanced the art. They had good access to many fragrant
substances through trade, plus they developed basic chemical
processes far beyond previous work. Abu Yusaf al-Kindi did
scientific work in several fields, and wrote a book on perfume
manufacture which fits modern methods very well.
• Perfume manufacture entered Europe through the Crusades.
European perfumer’s guilds started in the 1100’s or so. France
became the center of the industry.
– At one time there was a law saying that a woman who lured a man
into marriage by using perfume was guilty of procuring (that is,
promoting the practice of prostitution), and the marriage was
• The court of Louis XIV of France used huge amounts of perfume:
he demanded a different scent every day.
• Perfumes are blended by a master perfumer (called a
“nose”). Some perfumes use up to 800 ingredients! Blending
perfume is an art that requires an excellent memory for
• Perfumes consist of several “notes”:
– a top note (tangy and citrus fragrances), These are scents that are
perceived immediately: they are very volatile molecules: small
– a central note or heart note (provides body: flowery scents such
as rose and jasmine), The main body of the perfume, perceived
as the top notes dissipate
– base note (woody scents). The base note provides a rich, deep,
enduring fragrance and is generally not perceived for about 30
minutes. Perfume fixatives usually act as base notes.
• Fragrances are classified into several groups and sub-groups,
which can be described with a fragrance wheel.
• After blending they are diluted with alcohol.
– Perfume: 10-20% oils; cologne: 3-5% oil; toilet water: 2% oils.
• Some successful perfumes have been around a long time:
Chanel #5 was developed in 1924, and Arpège in 1927.
• Many essential oils evaporate too quickly for our taste:
we expect a scent to last several hours at least.
• Another issue: essential oils tend to turn rancid or be
degraded by microorganisms over time.
• Fixing agents are used to slow evaporation and to
• The first fixative in common use was musk, extracted
from a gland near the penis of Asian deer. It has its
own odor and has been associated with sex since
• Another fixing agent is ambergris, isolated from
sperm whales. Also, oils from beavers, civet cats.
Many are animal products, often from endangered
• These days, synthetic fixing agents are mostly used.
Herbs and Spices
• Herbs and spices have been used to flavor
food as long as we have been cooking. They
are among the earliest trade items. They have
also been used as parts of incense and
perfumes, as medicine, and as aphrodisiacs.
• There is no great difference between herbs
and spices. Herbs are usually leaves or seeds
from temperate climates, and spices are other
plant parts (flowers, bark, roots, etc.) from
tropical climates. There is clearly some
overlap in the definition. Both are used to
• Before trade with Asia was widespread, food in Europe
was flavored primarily with members of four plant
families. These represent the majority of the herbs used in
cooking. All are native to Europe.
– onion family (Allium)
– parsley (carrot) family
– mint family
– mustard family
• Important onion family members include onions,
garlic, and chives (and also leeks, shallots, and
• They are monocots that form bulbs (underground
stem bases with fleshy leaves).
• The flavor comes from sulfur-containing
compounds. Some of these compounds pass
undigested from the digestive tract into the blood,
and then get excreted through the lungs and skin:
– Eating fresh parsley helps with garlic breath.
• Most onion family members are cultivated for the
bulbs, but the leaves of chives are used as an
• Alliumphobia is the irrational fear of garlic.
• Garlic is also considered to be protective against
werewolves and vampires, in Central European
folklore. “Alliumphobia” by Ambera Wellman
• Many familiar herbs are in the mint family: (Lamiaceae)
basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, thyme.
• Mint family plants have a characteristic square stem.
• Many of these go well with tomatoes and Italian food.
American soldiers in World War 2 developed as taste for
Italian food and contributed greatly to the popularity of pizza
• Mint itself is important as a flavoring for candy, toothpaste,
tea, and cigarettes.
– For an intense experience: the Celestial Seasonings factory in Boulder
Colorado has a mint room that will overwhelm your sense of smell.
– In mythology, Menthe was a Greek nymph who got involved with
Hades, god of the Underworld. Unfortunately, his wife Persephone
found out, and she turned Menthe into the sweet-smelling mint plant.
• Salvia divinorum, Diviner’s sage, is a Mexican plant used to induce
visions. Possession is illegal in Illinois.
– Catnip is also a mint. Cats love it, but it just smells bad to
Carrot Family Herbs
• The carrot family (Apiaceae) has characteristic umbel-
shaped flowers. We discussed the family members
used as vegetables: carrots, celery and parsnips.
• Carrot family herbs include coriander, cilantro, cumin,
dill, and fennel.
• Parsley is said to be the world’s most widely used
herb. In this country it is widely used as a garnish, a
decoration on the plate that is mostly just pushed aside.
The custom of using parsley as a food decoration
started in butcher shops: it was a spot of green that
contrasted nicely with all that red and white of the
– Parsley is actually used as a breath freshener.
• Anise contains a licorice flavor, but real licorice is
extracted from the root of another plant, a legume.
• The mustard family is Brassicaceae, which we
discussed earlier under Fruits and Vegetables.
– The flowers are yellow of white, with 4 petals.
• Two related species are used as a condiment, often
mixed together: black mustard and white mustard
(which is milder than black mustard).
• Mustard seeds are ground up to make the spice.
• Horseradish is also in this family. Grated horseradish
roots also produce a hot taste.
• Mustard gas, used as poison gas in World War 1, is
not related to the mustard plant or the compounds it
contains, although the color and smell are similar.
The Spice Trade
• Spices such as pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and turmeric were used
in the Eastern world since ancient times. Some spices from Southeast Asia got to
Egypt before 1000 BC.
– Cinnamon (from India and Sri Lanka) was used to embalm ancient Egyptian
mummies, as well as for incense and as medicine.
– Also worth noting: cotton from India was used to wrap mummies, more evidence
of trade between India and Egypt 3000 years ago.
• India is the source of many important spices. They were originally brought overland
by caravans. Spices were very expensive, having passed through many hands.
• One major caravan route was the southern part of the Silk Road from China: ship the
spices up from southwest India to the Indus River in modern Pakistan. Then up the
Indus River to the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan and over the Hindu Kush mountains
into Persia (modern Iran). Through northeastern Persia to Baghdad on the Tigris
River. Then cross to the Euphrates River and follow it across the Syrian desert to
either Damascus and then south into Egypt, or to Antioch and north to
– An overland caravan trip from India took two years, and there were lots of
unpleasant adventures on the way. Lots of mountains, deserts, and people
Indian Ocean Routes
• The Indian Ocean is calmer than the Atlantic or Pacific and so was used for trade
from earlier times.
– Also, the entire coast of the Indian Ocean as settled, with overland routes through the
region in existence before sea routes existed.
• Originally, ships sailed along the coasts, staying within sight of the land.
• Cities on the south coast of Arabia (Aden, chiefly) were the destinations for ships
from India. From there, spices were shipped up the Red Sea to the cities of Egypt
and on into the Mediterranean region.
• The Romans learned to navigate directly across the ocean to India. They used the
monsoon winds: blow towards India in the spring, and then back towards Africa
in the fall. There was a great deal of trade in spices and other goods between the
Roman Empire and India.
– They probably learned this from the Ethiopians (called Axum in those days), who had
been doing it since about 300 BC or so.
• The Periplus of the Erythraeaen Sea is a navigation guide to the Red Sea and the
parts of the Indian Ocean known to ancient Romans, written about 60 AD. It is
accurate and practical, not philosophical, and is our best source of knowledge of
this trade route.
– Written by a Greek living in Egypt, who was a Roman citizen. Name unknown.
After the Roman Empire
• In 303 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital from
Rome to Constantinople. Rome and the Western Roman Empire
declined, and the barbarians took over.
– Rome itself was sacked by Alaric and his Visigoths in 410 AD.
– this is the end of the Greco-Roman world, that was centered on the
Mediterranean Sea: southern Europe, northern Africa, Egypt, the Levant,
Greece, Asia Minor (Turkey), and into the Black Sea basin. They were
citizens of Rome, who spoke Greek for intellectual and cultural purposes,
and Latin for government purposes.
• Europe moves out of Classical times into the early Medieval period
(the Dark Ages). Trade and economic activity slow in Europe, and
only small amounts of spices make it into Europe.
Islamic Golden Age
• However, Muslim civilization spreads and flowers during this time. In the 100
years following the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD, the Arabs
conquered and converted much territory in North Africa and up into Spain. And, eastward
through Asia Minor, Persia, and central Asia up to the Indus River (modern
– Mohammed married the widow of a spice trader.
• The Arab empire was the Caliphate, whose ruler was the Caliph. The capital was
in the newly founded city of Baghdad.
• Many scholars gathered there to translate all known books into Arabic.
– Most of our knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome comes from this.
– It was helped by the Arabs taking the knowledge of papermaking from the Chinese, in a
battle in central Asia. Arabs used starch to size the paper, making it easier to write on.
• Many scientific and medical advances. All those words starting with "al" came
from here: algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol. It means "the".
• Arabs had long been the main traders on much of the spice shipment routes, and
they took over the sea routes from the Romans. Also, much of the overland
trading route (Silk Road) lay within the Caliphate, allowing relatively easy travel.
• Caliphate ends with the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 AD.
• Starting in 1095 AD and continuing for the next 200 years, Western
Europeans invaded the Levant (eastern Mediterranean region) in an attempt to
win Jerusalem back from the Muslims.
– Partially successful: the Europeans ruled parts of the region for the next 200 years.
• Big effects: Europeans get introduced to many new ideas and goods from the
Muslim world. For our purposes, they get a real taste for spices.
– Trade between Europe and the East picked up. Also, Europeans get into the habit
of travelling around.
• Venice, Genoa, and other Italian city-states supplied much of the sea
transportation used by the Crusaders.
• Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire,
was captured and sacked by the Crusaders (in 1204 AD). After this, it was
largely run by the Venetians. The Byzantine civilization wound down.
Venice and the Maritime Republics
• The Italian city-states, the "Maritime Republics", were originally part of the
Byzantine Empire. They developed strong navies to deal with pirates and for
trade; this led to independence from Byzantium. By the time of the Crusades,
they controlled much of the transportation between the Black Sea and the
eastern Mediterranean, and they traded with the Arabs in the Levant.
• Spices and other goods coming overland went through Constantinople.
• The water routes in the Indian Ocean, to India and Southeast Asia, were
controlled by the Arabs, who carried spices up the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea,
then overland to the Mediterranean. Then Italian merchants shipped them to
Venice and other Italian city-states.
– The Arabs traded all the way to the Spice Islands, in eastern Indonesia.
• All this trade made Venice very rich, and the Italian Renaissance got started
about 1200 AD.
• However, the Ottoman Turks (Muslims) conquered Asia Minor, and eventually
conquered Constantinople in 1453 AD. The Ottomans were in completely
control of the overland routes, and they started charging high tolls and
interfering with trade.
• Also, the Europeans were tired of the Venetian monopoly.
• Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant who traveled to China
in 1271 with his uncles. He spent 24 years in China, in the
service of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan. When he returned
to Italy, he wrote a book about his travels during a brief stay
in Genoa as a prisoner of war.
• He described spice plantations in Indonesia and India, and
lots of other details about the riches of East Asia. The impact
on European audiences was to reinforce the desire to trade
directly with the Indians and Chinese, bypassing the Arabs.
Prince Henry the Navigator
• Portugal is on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, barely part of the
• Prince Henry was the son and brother of the king, born in 1394.
He got interested in finding a way around the Sahara Desert.
There were trade routes (dominated by the Arabs) across the
desert that brought gold from west Africa, and he wanted it.
• The Portuguese developed a new ship capable of sailing on the
Atlantic Ocean: the caravel. It could sail upwind better than
• Prince Henry sponsored a series of expeditions along the coast of
Africa, starting in 1416.
• Getting around the bulge of Africa proved very difficult: the
winds blow in the wrong direction very steadily and underwater
reefs in inconvenient places. The land was desert for a long
• Eventually, the Portuguese worked their way around Africa,
which was much bigger than expected. In 1488 the Portuguese
got around the Cape of Good Hope, which seemed like (and was)
the southern end of Africa, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama went all
the way to India, returning with a load of spices.
Portuguese Expeditions Around Africa
• In 1400, it wasn’t even
known that there was a
sea route around
Africa. It might have
been all land, a view
widely held in
• Another popular idea:
the lands near the
Equator were too hot
for human habitation.
• Yet another: Prester
John, a mythical
character, had a large
and powerful Christian
empire somewhere in
Asia or Africa.
The Age of Discovery
• European exploration of the world, during which time all continents and most
islands were mapped and brought into direct contact. Contemporary with the
Renaissance in Europe.
• Starting with Prince Henry and the Portuguese trying to get around Africa.
The Portuguese continued past India, and in the early 1500's became the first
Europeans in Indonesia and China, including the Spice Islands.
• Christopher Columbus sailed for the Spanish, trying to find a western route to
China, India, and the Spice islands. Accidentally discovers the New World in
1492, one of the most significant events in the world of plants, since many
plants were moved between the Old and New Worlds after this.
• Magellan (his crew, actually) made the first voyage around the world in 1522.
• After 1600, the Portuguese and Spanish faded as powers, and the English and
Dutch took over explorations. The Dutch found Australia in 1603.
Systematic sailing up and down the Pacific by the English in the 1700's
showed that there were no other unknown continents there.
• Discovering that there was no northerly route between the Atlantic and the
Pacific was important. The Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage do
exist, but they are usually ice-bound.
• Pepper was the most important spice in Europe for a long
time: we consider it an essential part of a dinner table
setting: salt and pepper. Getting pepper from India was the
initial driving force behind European exploration starting
with Prince Henry the Navigator (from Portugal) in the
• Pepper comes from the berries of the pepper vine Piper
nigrum, which is native to India.
• Black pepper is made from the unripe berries, which
become black when dried in the sun. The process is quite
similar to the fermentation process used with cacao and
coffee. The whole fruit plus the seed (one seed per fruit)
• White pepper is made from ripe berries (which are red).
The red fruit is removed by allowing it to rot away, and the
seeds are dried to become white pepper.
• Red pepper gets its color from the ripe berries, which is
preserved by soaking them in brine and vinegar (pickling).
• Currently, Vietnam is the largest producer of pepper.
• Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun both demanded a
ton of pepper from Rome when they besieged the city in
the 400’s. Eventually, Alaric sacked the city anyway.
• It was also imported to China at about this time.
• The flavor comes from piperine, an alkaloid. When
purified, it is about 1% as hot as capsaicin, the active
ingredient in chili peppers. Other terpene compounds in
the peppercorns add other flavors. The flavors are lost
through evaporation, so grinding whole peppercorns
immediately before use gives the best flavor.
• Pepper is the world’s most traded spice, and has been for
a very long time.
• There is a related species, the long pepper Piper longum,
which was an important spice in Roman times. It comes
from Northwest India, and so it was more accessible to
the overland trade routes. Not used much today.
• Cinnamon is the inner bark of the
Cinnamomum zeylanicum tree, usually from
young twigs. Originally from Sri Lanka and
the southwester coast of India (the Malabar
• Closely related is cassia, the bark of
Cinnamomum cassia and some related trees.
It is native to Burma and was mostly
imported through China. We don’t usually
distinguish between these, calling both
• Cinnamon was uses for embalming in ancient
Egypt, and the Romans used huge amounts
– After Nero killed his wife Poppaea (or
perhaps she died as a consequence of
miscarriage), he burned a year’s supply of
cinnamon as a tribute. He also had her
elevated to the status of godhood.
Nutmeg and Mace
• These two spices both come from the same plant,
Myristica fragrans. Nutmeg is the seed, and mace is
the red seed covering. The fruits grow on the nutmeg
tree, which has male and female flowers on different
plants. Since the males are unproductive and there is no
way to tell males from females before they mature (8
years), most nutmeg trees are grown from cuttings.
• Connecticut is called the Nutmeg State, because sailors
from there used to carve fake nutmegs from wood and
sell them as the real thing.
• The Caribbean island of Grenada is a major source for
• Nutmeg has been used for hallucinogenic purposes, but
it has variable and often unpleasant effects.
On left: a stylized
The Spice Islands
• Before modern times, the nutmeg tree was found exclusively in the
Banda Islands, a small group in eastern Indonesia. They are part
of the Moluccas, the Spice Islands.
– Arab traders knew of the islands but kept their location secret.
– In 1511, the Portuguese captured the Strait of Malacca, the main sea
route between China and India. From this they learned to location of
the Spice Islands.
– The Dutch captured the islands from the Portuguese in the 1600’s, and
killed or enslaved the entire native population. The nutmeg trees were
then confined to plantations to better control the supply. All other
nutmeg trees were removed. The Dutch ruled for the next 200 years.
– To end a war in 1667, the Dutch traded with the British: exclusive
rights to the Spice Islands vs. New Amsterdam (Manhattan).
– A lapse in Dutch rule during the time of Napoleon (1800) allowed the
British to transplant some trees to Zanzibar (island of the east coast of
Africa) and Grenada (Caribbean), breaking the Dutch monopoly.
• Cloves are the dried flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum, a tree in the
same family as nutmeg.
– The name “clove” is derived from clavus, which means “nail” in Latin,
because cloves looks vaguely like nails.
• Cloves originally came from two small volcanic islands, Ternate and
Tidore, a few hundred miles north of the Banda Islands (source of
nutmeg). The volcanoes are active, and the soil is regularly fertilized by
– This is a bit north of the Equator: the North Molucca Islands. The Banda
Islands are the South Molucca Islands.
– The two islands were separate kingdoms that spent a lot of time warring with
– The Portuguese found these islands on the same voyage that led them to the
– A few years later, Magellan’s crew visited these islands during the first
voyage around the world (Magellan himself had been killed earlier).
– Also, the Dutch eventually controlled the islands, forced all clove growing to
be done on plantations while killing all other clove trees, and generally treated
– The French managed to steal some trees and transplanted them to the
Caribbean and east Africa. The island of Zanzibar is the main source today.
• As with nutmeg, the location of islands was known to
Arab and Chinese traders, but most of the crop was
shipped through the port of Malacca. And then on to
India and eventually to Europe. Both nutmeg and cloves
were used in ancient Rome: very expensive.
– The Chinese also used them: when addressing the Emperor,
a courtier would keep a clove or two in his mouth to
sweeten his breath. This was in Han Dynasty times, 200
• Most cloves are used for cooking. However, they are
sometimes stuck into an orange and used as a pomander
ball, to improve the smell of a room or closet. Another
important use in Indonesia is as a flavoring for tobacco:
clove cigarettes. They were outlawed in the US in 2009,
and are now sold as clove cigars.
• Oil of cloves is very useful as a temporary cure for
toothache. Dentists use it today, as both an anaesthetic
and a disinfectant. The active ingredient is eugenol.
– It also works quite well as an anesthetic for aquarium fish.
• Ginger is native to southern China and is made from the
rhizome (horizontal underground stem base) of Zingiber
• The spice is made by harvesting the rhizomes after flowering
is finished, then scalding it to prevent it from sprouting. It is
usually ground up.
• The best ginger comes from Jamaica, where it was
introduced by the Spanish in the 1500’s.
• Turmeric and cardamom come from the same family.
– Turmeric produces a yellow dye, and it gives the yellow color to
– Cardamom is made from the seeds, not the roots.
• The taste come from a volatile essential oil.
• Ginger ale is made from ginger: it is a common folk remedy
for an upset stomach.
• The North American plant “wild ginger” (Asarum
canadense) also has an aromatic root, but it is not related to
the real ginger plant.
– There are also several other “ginger” plants around the world.
• Saffron comes from the autumn crocus, Crocus sativus, native to
Asia Minor (Turkey). It has been cultivated for more than 3000
years, and it was well known in ancient Rome. It was brought to
India and China 2000 years ago at least.
– It is mentioned in Shen Nung’s book of herbal medicine.
• The spice come from the stigmas (the sticky parts at the end of the
carpels that receive pollen grains). Each flower has 3 vividly red
stigmas, and they are picked by hand. This makes saffron the most
expensive of all spices by weight. It takes about 75,000 flowers to
make a pound of saffron.
– This leads to a great deal of adulteration of saffron with cheaper yellow things
like turmeric and marigolds.
• The plant is a sterile triploid, propagated through corms (swollen
stem bases surrounded by fleshy leaves, like onions). It is unknown
in the wild: the triploid form has been the only cultivated form
• It was also used as yellow-red dye. The dye compound is related
to carotene (carrot pigment). The flavor comes from a glucoside: a
sugar attached to the active principle.
• Saffron is used to flavor rice.
• Cleopatra used it in her bath, as an aphrodisiac.
• Chili peppers are a New World crop. They are in the
nightshade family along with potatoes and tomatoes. They
have been cultivated for thousands of years.
• The active principle, which makes peppers hot, is
capsaicin, an alkaloid. It is 100 times as hot as the active
ingredient in black pepper.
– When Columbus tasted chili peppers, he was sure he had
reached India, the source of black pepper.
• There are 5 cultivated Capsicum species, and many
varieties. Some have almost no capsaicin (such as sweet
bell peppers) while others are extremely hot.
• Pepper hotness is measured in Scoville units. A panel of
subjects tastes a series of dilutions of pepper extracts, to
find the dilution where it is just barely detectable.
Habanero peppers can have up to 350,000 Scoville units,
and jalapeños are about 5000 units. Pepper spray is up to
• Capsaicin is used to relieve pain by rubbing it on the skin.
It seems to deplete the supply of Substance P, the body’s
main neurotransmitter for pain and heat.
• Vanilla planifolia is a tropical New World vine, from Central
America. It is a monocot, a member of the orchid family.
• It was introduced into Europe by Hernan Cortes, who also introduced
• Vanilla was a plant that proved hard to move to new locations. The
problem was, it was pollinated by a species of bee that didn’t make
the move. Once this was discovered (after 300 years!), artificial
pollination was developed, and the plant is grown in tropical regions
worldwide now, especially Madagascar and Indonesia.
– The hand pollination method was developed by Edmond Albius, a 12
– This makes vanilla a very expensive spice
• The vanilla spice is produced by the fruit, which is a dry fruit that
contains very tiny black seeds. “Vanilla beans” are dried, fermented
(cured) pods. The flavor develops during the fermentation process.
• The most common form used in cooking in vanilla extract, in which
the vanilla flavor is extracted from the beans by soaking them in
• The main flavor comes from vanillin, which can be synthesized
chemically. But vanilla beans contain other flavors.