A spice is a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavoring, coloring or preserving food. Spices are distinguished from herbs, which are the leaves, flowers, or stems of plants used for flavoring or as a garnish. Many spices have antimicrobial properties, which may explain why spices are more prominent in cuisines originating in warmer climates, where food spoilage is more likely, and why the use of spices is more common with meat, which is particularly susceptible to spoiling. Spices are sometimes used in medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics or perfume production.[example needed]
The spice trade developed throughout the Indian subcontinent and Middle East by at earliest 2000 BCE with cinnamon and black pepper, and in East Asia with herbs and pepper. The Egyptians used herbs for mummification and their demand for exotic spices and herbs helped stimulate world trade. The word spice comes from the Old French word espice, which became epice, and which came from the Latin root spec, the noun referring to "appearance, sort, kind": species has the same root. By 1000 BCE, medical systems based upon herbs could be found in China, Korea, and India. Early uses were connected with magic, medicine, religion, tradition, and preservation.
The earliest written records of spices come from ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures. The Ebers Papyrus from Early Egyptians that dates from 1550 B.C.E. describes some eight hundred different medicinal remedies and numerous medicinal procedures.
Indonesian merchants traveled around China, India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa. Arab merchants facilitated the routes through the Middle East and India. This resulted in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria being the main trading center for spices. The most important discovery prior to the European spice trade were the monsoon winds (40 CE). Sailing from Eastern spice cultivators to Western European consumers gradually replaced the land-locked spice routes once facilitated by the Middle East Arab caravans.
Spices were among the most demanded and expensive products available in Europe in the Middle Ages, the most common being black pepper, cinnamon (and the cheaper alternative cassia), cumin, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. Given medieval medicine's main theory of humorism, spices and herbs were indispensable to balance "humors" in food, a daily basis for good health at a time of recurrent pandemics. In addition to being desired by those using medieval medicine, the European elite also craved spices in the Middle Ages. An example of the European aristocracy's demand for spice comes from the King of Aragon, who invested substantial resources into bringing back spices to Spain in the 12th century. He was specifically looking for spices to put in wine, and was not alone among European monarchs at the time to have such a desire for spice.
Spices were all imported from plantations in Asia and Africa, which made them expensive. From the 8th until the 15th century, the Republic of Venice had the monopoly on spice trade with the Middle East, and along with it the neighboring Italian maritime republics and city-states. The trade made the region rich. It has been estimated that around 1,000 tons of pepper and 1,000 tons of the other common spices were imported into Western Europe each year during the Late Middle Ages. The value of these goods was the equivalent of a yearly supply of grain for 1.5 million people. The most exclusive was saffron, used as much for its vivid yellow-red color as for its flavor. Spices that have now fallen into obscurity in European cuisine include grains of paradise, a relative of cardamom which mostly replaced pepper in late medieval north French cooking, long pepper, mace, spikenard, galangal and cubeb.
Spain and Portugal were interested in seeking new routes to trade in spices and other valuable products from Asia. The control of trade routes and the spice-producing regions were the main reasons that Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama sailed to India in 1499. When da Gama discovered the pepper market in India, he was able to secure peppers for a much cheaper price than the ones demanded by Venice. At around the same time, Christopher Columbus returned from the New World. He described to investors new spices available there.
The military prowess of Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515) allowed the Portuguese to take control of the sea routes to India. In 1506, he took the island of Socotra in the mouth of the Red Sea and, in 1507, Ormuz in the Persian Gulf. Since becoming the viceroy of the Indies, he took Goa in India in 1510, and Malacca on the Malay peninsula in 1511. The Portuguese could now trade directly with Siam, China, and the Maluku Islands.
With the discovery of the New World came new spices, including allspice, chili peppers, vanilla, and chocolate. This development kept the spice trade, with America as a late comer with its new seasonings, profitable well into the 19th century.
A spice may be available in several forms: fresh, whole dried, or pre-ground dried. Generally, spices are dried. Spices may be ground into a powder for convenience. A whole dried spice has the longest shelf life, so it can be purchased and stored in larger amounts, making it cheaper on a per-serving basis. A fresh spice, such as ginger, is usually more flavorful than its dried form, but fresh spices are more expensive and have a much shorter shelf life. Some spices are not always available either fresh or whole, for example turmeric, and often must be purchased in ground form. Small seeds, such as fennel and mustard seeds, are often used both whole and in powder form.
To grind a whole spice, the classic tool is mortar and pestle. Less labor-intensive tools are more common now: a microplane or fine grater can be used to grind small amounts; a coffee grinder[note 2] is useful for larger amounts. A frequently used spice such as black pepper may merit storage in its own hand grinder or mill.
The flavor of a spice is derived in part from compounds (volatile oils) that oxidize or evaporate when exposed to air. Grinding a spice greatly increases its surface area and so increases the rates of oxidation and evaporation. Thus, flavor is maximized by storing a spice whole and grinding when needed. The shelf life of a whole dry spice is roughly two years; of a ground spice roughly six months. The "flavor life" of a ground spice can be much shorter.[note 3] Ground spices are better stored away from light.[note 4]
Some flavor elements in spices are soluble in water; many are soluble in oil or fat. As a general rule, the flavors from a spice take time to infuse into the food so spices are added early in preparation. This contrasts to herbs which are usually added late in preparation.
A study by the Food and Drug Administration of shipments of spices to the United States during fiscal years 2007-2009 showed about 7% of the shipments were contaminated by Salmonella bacteria, some of it antibiotic-resistant. As most spices are cooked before being served salmonella contamination often has no effect, but some spices, particularly pepper, are often eaten raw and present at table for convenient use. Shipments from Mexico and India, a major producer, were the most frequently contaminated. However, with newly developed radiation sterilization methods, the risk of Salmonella contamination is now lower.
Because they tend to have strong flavors and are used in small quantities, spices tend to add few calories to food, even though many spices, especially those made from seeds, contain high portions of fat, protein, and carbohydrate by weight. However, when used in larger quantity, spices can also contribute a substantial amount of minerals and other micronutrients, including iron, magnesium, calcium, and many others, to the diet. For example, a teaspoon of paprika contains about 1133 IU of Vitamin A, which is over 20% of the recommended daily allowance specified by the US FDA.
Most herbs and spices have substantial antioxidant activity, owing primarily to phenolic compounds, especially flavonoids, which influence nutrition through many pathways, including affecting the absorption of other nutrients. One study found cumin and fresh ginger to be highest in antioxidant activity. These antioxidants can also act as natural preservatives, preventing or slowing the spoilage of food, leading to a higher nutritional content in stored food.
The Indian Institute of Spices Research in Kozhikode, Kerala, is devoted exclusively to conducting research for ten spice crops: black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, garcinia, ginger, nutmeg, paprika, turmeric, and vanilla.