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HERBS AND SPICES

rosemary, sage, and bay can be cooked for much longer. In parts of the Mediterranean and in some Asian coun- tries, it is usual to serve a bowl of assorted fresh herbs or a salad made predominantly of herbs with the meal. This serves the twofold purpose of stimulating and revitaliz- ing the palate and aiding digestion.

Green sauces are also popular in many cultures and can be used to add piquancy to an otherwise bland meal. These sauces are made by pounding fresh green herbs with a pestle in a mortar or a food processor. They can be as simple as a single abundant herb, a clove of garlic, and drizzle of olive oil all pounded together. They can be as complex as Italian pesto (pine nuts and basil), North African chermoula (coriander, mint, and parsley leaves), French sauce verte (parsley, tarragon, chervil, and chives leaves), and Yemeni zhoug (coriander and parsley leaves), all of which also require a range of spices and other in- gredients. These sauces are spread on bread, spooned into pasta or rice, added to soup, used as a marinade, spread over cooked meat, or used as a dip.

Much Southeast Asian cooking, especially in Viet- nam and Thailand, demands fresh rather than dried herbs to obtain their distinctive flavors. Cilantro leaves and roots, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and chili are used fresh in traditional dishes from these countries. In contrast, Middle Eastern dishes use mainly dried and ground ginger and turmeric.

Using Spices

Spices are an essential component of cuisines from all over the world. Spicy food is not necessarily hot. The heat in spicy food usually comes from pepper or chili. If these are not added to a spice mix, the dish will not have any heat. Nearly all spices are dried before use. They are best purchased whole and ground just before needed. If this is not possible, then one can buy ground individual spices or mixtures a little at a time and use them within twelve months. Many spices, whether used whole or ground, need to be lightly cooked before use. This en- hances and in some cases changes the flavor of the spice. Whole spices can be spread over a tray and dry roasted for a few minutes in a hot oven. They can then be ground or left whole and added straight to a dish. Ground spices are best gently fried, without oil, in a frying pan for up to sixty seconds.

Mixtures

Spice mixtures, which vary from country to country, are judicious combinations of spices that give a balance of flavors, often with surprising highlights. The various tastes of spices are usually categorized into five taste groups, sweet, pungent, tangy, hot, and amalgamating. Curry, for example, is a spice mixture that involves the selective use of pungent and aromatic spices. Some of these spices, like coriander, are added to almost every mixture; others, like star anise, are only rarely added to achieve a specific flavor.

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Seed spices are an important component of many dif- ferent breads, where they complement the carbohydrates and contain oils that aid digestion. Poppy and sesame seeds are used on bread rolls, nigella and black sesame seeds on Turkish breads, and caraway and dill seeds in and on many European breads. This use dates from an- tiquity, when different seed spices were used in cakes, bis- cuits, and breads to improve flavor and to help digestion.

Traditional Uses

Hundreds of herbs and spices have been used in cultures all over the world for thousands of years. During this time countless traditions, myths, and rituals have evolved. The following gives just a taste of some of these.

In times past foul or nasty odors were often associ- ated with evil, while sweet, fragrant scents indicated goodness and purity. Herbs and spices with strong or un- pleasant scents were avoided, while the sweetly scented ones masked bad odors and protected against evil. Spices in particular were in demand to improve preservation and to disguise the flavor of rotten or foul-tasting food. The Romans used ginger to counteract rancidity. Ginger is also associated with the rites and passages of life. It is given to new mothers all over Asia to restore strength and vigor, while the Chinese see ginger as a warming (yang) and stimulating food, believing it calms and puri- fies. Closely related turmeric is used in Indian ceremonies to anoint brides, while in Thailand it is used to anoint novice monks before ordination.

Dill is an herb and a seed spice with a long history. Romans fed it to their gladiators to confer vitality, and in medieval times it was added to love potions. Some Americans know it as “meeting house seed” because at one time dill seeds were chewed to dull the pangs of hunger during long religious services. Parsley grew wild on remote Grecian hillsides, but the ancient Greeks did not usually eat it. They used it in funerals and as a sym- bol of death; to be “in need of parsley” meant that one was seriously ill. In early medieval England the slow and patchy germination of parsley was explained by the sug- gestion that, once sown, parsley went nine times to the devil and back before sprouting. Those with worries about hair loss were advised to sprinkle their heads with parsley seeds three times a year. Rosemary is another herb with connections to funerary rights. In France rosemary was customarily placed in the hands of the deceased be- fore burial, and in England sprigs of rosemary were thrown into the open grave. Rosemary was also believed to aid memory. Greek students twined rosemary in their hair, believing the scent would stimulate memory. Tra- dition has it that where rosemary flourishes the women are in charge, while according to an Arabic proverb a per- son whose sage grows well will live forever.

The statuesque herb angelica has been used in pa- gan and Christian festivals for centuries. It is indigenous to cold northern Europe, and its name is derived from a legend in which an angel appears to a monk in a dream

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