The unusual origins of our favorite spices

As we cook, we bring the world into our kitchens with the different spices that we use. Though we use spices regularly and think about how they change the flavor of our dishes, we don’t typically considered their origins. Many commonly used spices, such as thyme, basil, and oregano, come from plant leaves, but there are more exotic spices that have become commonplace in our kitchens that are grown in pretty interesting ways.

Image credits: pikrepo.

Here are some commonly used spices with interesting background stories:

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a warming spice that we often associate with wintertime and holiday baking. It comes from the inner bark of cinnamon trees (genus Cinnamomum). Cinnamon trees are evergreen and have oval leaves, thick bark, and produce little round berries. The tree looks unsuspecting from the outside, but under the layers of outer bark lies the cinnamon layer. Although there are multiple species of cinnamon tree, only five are grown commercially, and they each have slightly different textures and aromas. Your cinnamon likely comes from China or Indonesia: they produced 75% of cinnamon sold globally in 2016. Cinnamon gets its distinctive smell and taste from its main essential oil, cinnamaldehyde, as well as other components.

A cinnamon tree. Image credits: Afifa Afrin.

The harvesting of cinnamon is a lengthy process. After the seed is planted, a cinnamon tree grows for about two years before it is »coppiced«, a fancy word meaning it is chopped to a stump. This coerces the plant to grow more as a bush. The following year about a dozen new shoots will grow out of the side of the stump. These shoots are then cut and they need to be processed quickly while the inner bark is still wet. The outer bark is scraped off and then the inner bark is loosened with a hammer and then detached in meter-long strips. These strips are dried out over a period of four to six hours. While drying they curl up. They are then cut into small pieces to become the cinnamon sticks that we recognize and enjoy using to flavor hot drinks, or later ground to be used in baking.

Black pepper

Where would we be without salt and pepper? Although pepper is now a basic spice in many cuisines, it has an exotic origin. It is native to southern and southeastern Asia but grows well in tropical regions. Vietnam is the largest pepper producer, growing 34%of pepper sold worldwide in 2013. Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine that produces round, red fruit called peppercorns. Most common pepper types come from the same plant but are prepared differently: black pepper comes from the cooked and dried unripe fruit, green pepper comes from the dried unripe fruit, and white pepper comes from the ripe fruit seeds. Pepper’s spiciness comes from the chemical compound piperine, making it different from chili peppers, which are spicy due to capsaicin.

Black pepper growing on a vine. Image credits: Royjose.

The woody vines grow up to 4 meters (13 feet) long so they are grown on supports. It takes the plant about four or five years to start producing fruit, and typically continues to do so for about seven years. One stem grows twenty to thirty fruit clusters. The harvesters know that it is time to harvest when one or two fruits at the base of the cluster start to turn red. If the harvesters are too late and the fruit ripens, they lose their pungency and fall off the plant. The clusters are cut and sun-dried before the individual peppercorns are removed. Black pepper is processed by briefly cooking the unripe peppercorns in water. The heat from cooking causes cell walls to burst and speeds up the browning process in the subsequent drying stage. After a few days of drying, the peppercorns have their characteristic appearance with thin, wrinkly, black skin.

Vanilla

Vanilla ice-cream, cakes, frosting, sugar… the subtle aroma of vanilla is extremely popular in baking and prepared food. Surely, you have seen pictures of vanilla flowers on food packaging, but did you know that it is an orchid? The plant originates from mesoamerica, but it is now grown globally. Vanilla pods are the fruit of the flower and are filled with an oily liquid and small seeds. Madagascar and Indonesia produce two-thirds of the world’s vanilla. The Mexican species Vanilla planifolia, otherwise known as flat-leaved vanilla, is predominantly grown for this beloved flavoring. There are two other vanilla species that are also commercially grown: V. Pompona and V. Tahitensis. The typical smell and taste of natural vanilla is very complex and comprised of hundreds of different compounds, including vanillin, acetaldehyde, and acetic acid. Synthetic vanilla is usually made from synthetically produced vanillin in ethanol.

Fresh vanilla flowers. Image credits: Malcolm Manners.

True vanilla is the second-most expensive spice because it takes a lot of effort to produce it. It grows as a vine and therefore needs support in order to grow. It needs to be pollinated by specific bee species or hummingbirds to produce a fruit. However, these pollinators only naturally reside in Mexico. Therefore, the flowers need to be pollinated by hand, which is very laborious. The harvest is also labor intensive, as each fruit ripens at its own pace, necessitating harvesters to check the plants daily. It is difficult to judge when the pod is ripe, but the current standard is to pick each pod by hand as it starts to split on one end. Then the vanilla needs to be cured before it can be sold. There are several methods for this process, but all of them involve the same basic steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning the vanilla beans.

Saffron

Saffron is not such a common household spice due to its price. It is, after all, the most expensive spice in the world at 5,000 USD per kg. The red threads are from the stigma and styles (the female part) of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). The saffron that you buy most likely comes from Iran, as it produces 90% of the world’s saffron. Its taste and fragrance come from the phytochemicals picrocrocin and safranal. The carotenoid pigment, crocin, causes food spiced with saffron to have a golden color. You can know if the saffron that you buy is fresh if it is bright crimson, slightly moist, and clear of broken-off threads.

The saffron crocus with its distinctive crimson stigmas and styles. Image credits: Serpico.

The saffron crocus produces vegetatively through underground bulbs. This means that workers need to dig up these bulbs at the end of the season, divide them up, and replant them so they grow into new plants the next season. The plants grow rather late in the year and only flower mid-autumn. It is necessary to be super speedy in harvesting the saffron as the plants blossom at daybreak and wilt within the same day. The stigmas are dried as soon as they are removed. It is not surprising that saffron is so expensive when you think of how much work is involved. For one kilogram of saffron, 200,000 stigmas need to be handpicked from 70,000 flowers.

Cloves

Like cinnamon, cloves come to mind as a wintertime spice, perfect for mulled wine and as a touch of spice in cookies. Cloves are unopened flower buds from a tree, Syzygium aromaticum, that is native to Indonesia. The clove aroma comes from the essential oil eugenol, which is also commercially extracted from cloves. This essential oil is often used for personal hygiene products like toothpaste, soaps, and perfumes due to its antiseptic and anesthetic properties.

When these buds are dried they become the aromatic herb. Image credits: Steenbergs.

The clove tree is a tropic evergreen that grows 8-12 meters (26-39 feet) tall with large leaves and crimson flowers. The tree has to grow for at least six years before flowering to allow cloves to be harvested. The flower buds are pale and turn green and then red over the period of five to six months. When they turn red, they are ready for harvest. 1.5-2 centimeters (0.59-0.79 inches) are carefully snipped off the tip of the branch and dried for 4-5 days until they lose two thirds of their weight. As the buds dry, they turn brown and their main essential oil, eugenol, becomes more concentrated. Then they are ready for sale.

Cumin

Cumin adds an aromatic dimension to savory dishes. It is actually a seed from a flowering plant in the parsley family, Cuminum cyminum. If you’ve planted parsley in your garden, perhaps you’ve noticed the similarity between the seeds. It is native to south western Asia and currently China and India produce 70% of the world’s cumin and eat 90% of it. If you buy commercial birdseed, you will probably find cumin in the mix. It has been used as a spice for thousands of years; ancient Egyptians used it to spice food and preserve the dead and ancient Greeks loved it so much that they kept a »cumin shaker« on their dining tables.

The cumin plant. Image credits: Herbolario Allium.

The cumin plant is pretty hardy and resistant to drought. It likes hot temperatures and can be grown in the tropics or subtropics. The plants grow up to 0.3 m (1 ft) tall with thin and feathery leaves and small white flowers. The flowers don’t last long before developing into clusters of cumin seeds. The seeds are ready for harvest when they turn brown and then they are dried. It takes a long hot summer for a good cumin harvest.

Many of the spices that we enjoy in our cooking and baking are pretty laborious to produce! We can appreciate that more next time we crack some fresh black pepper or enjoy vanilla cake.

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