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Sugar and Spice - Aromatic Spices

[Do Not Use]DK Publishing logo[Do Not Use]DK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
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Aromatic Spices

The potent alchemy of spices of the East conjure up images of ancient trade routes, riches, intrigue, and mystery. Wars have been waged and conquests made over these bounteous aromatics. Spices were Asia’s best and most valuable export long before people in the West knew what the people of these lands looked like or what other foods they ate.

Spices became popular for their flavor and the sense of grandeur they gave to food. They were also widely used in pickling and preserving, and to mask the intense flavor of putrid and spoiled food. At one time, salt for preserving was expensive; cold weather was the only other main food preservation method. In Elizabethan times, spices were more widely used in a kitchen than today for this reason. For some, the aromas of these spices often create an image of Christmas and other holidays. Cured hams are often studded with cloves. Fruit pies including apple and pumpkin, gingerbread cakes and figures, and festive cookies all contain spices once considered rare and precious.

Another important factor in the use of spices in preserving is the antiseptic qualities found in a number of them. The oils in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, white mustard seeds, aniseed, juniper, and pepper are all powerful preservatives.

These spices were Asia’s best and most valuable export long before people in the West knew what the people of these lands looked like or what other foods they ate.


Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) has a distinctive smell that is warm, sweet, and comforting. The cinnamon sticks, or quills, come from the inner bark of an evergreen camphor laurel that is related to the bay tree. Originally native to Sri Lanka, but now grown in China and all over Asia, as well as on the Caribbean spice island of Grenada, cinnamon is widely used in the cuisines of India, Vietnam, Morocco, Iran, and Malaysia, in both savory and sweet dishes. The powdered form, though convenient, is inferior to the cinnamon sticks because it goes stale and loses its flavor. The best way to use any spice is whole; if you need ground spice, grind it yourself.


Although cassia (Cinnamomum burmannii) is similar to cinnamon and has a similar fragrance, the two should not be confused. Cassia is the bark of a related tree native to the northeast Indian state of Assam and to Burma; the part used as a spice is the outer bark. It has a much more robust and pronounced aroma than cinnamon. Preferred in Indian, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisines, its toughness makes it harder to grind, so either leave whole or use some that has already been ground.


The English name for this small, highly aromatic spice is derived from the Latin word clavus, which means “nail”. In India, cloves are sometimes used for exactly that – to fasten small paper packets. The dried unopened flower buds of a tree that comes from the myrtle family (Syzygium aromaticum), cloves have a very powerful flavor and should be used sparingly; their pungent taste creates a numbing sensation, which is why they are used the world over for toothache. Used in sweet and savory dishes, cloves appear in spice mixes such as Chinese five-spice and are used for pickling and preserving, and for their antiseptic properties. They are commonly found in Middle Eastern sweet pastries.


The common or fragrant nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) is indigenous to the Moluccas, and yields two different spices from the same fruit: nutmeg and mace. A warm, sweet spice, nutmeg should not be overused for two reasons: it has a strong flavor and is a potent hallucinogen. In India, nutmeg is used almost exclusively in sweet dishes and sometimes in garam masala. In the Middle East, nutmeg is often used for savory dishes, while Japanese varieties of curry powder include nutmeg.

Star anise

Star anise (Illicium verum) is a star-shaped seed pod; its intrigue lies in its beauty and also its incredibly intense taste. It has much more robust aniseed and licorice-like flavors than regular anise seeds, and works well with braises and slow-cooked dishes. Star anise, one of the main ingredients of Chinese five-spice powder, often scents the very air that you breathe in any Chinatown or Chinese community around the world. In Europe, the popularity of this jewel of a spice dates back to the 16th century. The famous Vietnamese soup called pho, a name which comes from the French pot-au-feu (pot on the fire), has an intense stock perfumed with star anise, cinnamon, and ginger.

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