Now that fall has most certainly arrived, cuisine has already moved toward grilled steaks at the tailgate party, pies baking for family gatherings and starting the day with hot bowls of oatmeal. Three common spices can kick up the flavor of those foods and add a few nutritional kicks, too.
One spice was once so valued as a commodity-and even a currency-that it was called "black gold." Another is one of the world's first cultivated crops. The exact origin of the third is still a mystery due to tall tales invented by competitive merchants.
Evidence of trading spices goes back at least 3600 years ago according to Egyptian hieroglyphics. The first routes were over land, then sea, but all went to India, where spices became the main import to the West from the fifth century BC into the 18th century. They were the most wanted and expensive goods during the Middle Ages when used in medicines. The Italians gained control of the trade as merchants in large seaports like Venice and Genoa imported then distributed spices throughout the rest of Europe. This prompted Portugal to launch its own exploration program, and in 1498 Vasco de Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and on to India, escalating the spice trade. Spain had taken a different direction (west) toward India a few years earlier, and Christopher Columbus discovered North America instead. Today India is still the leading producer of spices with 86 percent of the world market, 1.6 million tons. China and Bangladesh lag a far second and third at four and three percent, respectively.
Chili pepper powder and seeds are known to add a little heat to plain flavors like beans. Warm weather areas prefer the hot style spice because it caused the body to perspire, cooling the skin.
Black pepper, from the fruit-peppercorns-of a flowering vine, was once "the King of Spices." Experts speculate that black pepper was discovered and used by prehistoric society. It is native to India, and the word "pepper" is derived from the Sanskrit "pippali," then Latin "piper" and Old English "pipor." The spice on everyone's kitchen table is the same spice known as "black gold" because it was so desirable and is still the world's most traded spice. It was mentioned in a third century Roman cookbook and is what de Gama sought and found, sparking the "Age of Discovery." Vietnam is today's largest producer of the world's black pepper.
The flavor comes from the substance piperine. That's also what causes sneezing. It's an irritant to the nasal passages but has been found to increase the body's absorption of selenium, B vitamins and beta-carotene. Traditional Indian medicine uses black pepper for throat-related ills: sore throat, throat congestion and cough. Black pepper extracts have both antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties, but pepper also has a mild carcinogen, safrole. Studies show that it can increase metabolism, but people with ulcers or recent abdominal surgery are cautioned against using black pepper because it may irritate the intestines.
This spice was used in ancient mummification rituals, but today is used in Coca-Cola and beauty treatments. In cooking, black pepper is best with savory food, red meat, game and eggs. It's compatible with the flavors of allspice, basil, caraway, chicory, cloves, fennel, garlic, ginger and sage among other herbs and spices. It also gives a little zing to fresh fruits like honeydew, cantaloupe and strawberries.
Artifacts from 7000 BC in Mexico substantiate the cultivation of the antecedents of today's chili pepper, making it one of the original cultivated food crops. Columbus brought chili peppers back to Spain, at first thinking it might be black pepper. By 1650, Europe, Asia and Africa were all familiar with the new plant and were even growing it, considering it an alternative for the more expensive black pepper. The Europeans cultivated the milder versions while tropical areas became partial to the hot. Chili pepper is found in various forms: whole fresh or dried peppers, dried seeds, pickled peppers or ground to a powder.
Capsaicin is the irritant and "hot" substance in chili peppers measured by the Scoville index. It's also an analgesic, relieving pain of, most commonly, arthritis in topical lotions or creams. In the body, capsaicin hits the mouth's pain receptors which signal the brain to begin the "hot" response. The brain signals the rest of the body to raise the heart rate, start perspiring to cool the body and release endorphins to ease any pain. Japanese warriors ate hot peppers to test their determination. Should the heat be too much, sweetness counteracts the heat. Try eating a spoonful of sugar to ease the effects. Dairy products like milk or sour cream may also be helpful, but do not try to put the heat out with water. It will wash the substance further into the body rather than coat the linings or capsaicin molecules.
Avoid contact with the skin by using disposable gloves when handling whole chilies, but wash any pepper oils off with warm, soapy water or nail polish remover. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in "pepper spray," used for protection. The hottest pepper know today is the Butch T Trinidad Scorpion at 1,463,700 Scoville heat units. Bell peppers are 0 SHU; Tabasco is rated 120,000 SHU.
Chili pepper is a staple in Mexican sauces, Asian cuisine and curry dishes and a good source of Vitamins A, B6 and C, carotene, potassium and calcium. It blends well with allspice, bay leaves, cloves, coriander, mustard, paprika and star anise. Start with small amounts, especially of the hotter versions, but if there is too much add a little sugar or cream, or add a chopped potato for 30 minutes, then remove.
Cinnamon is the bark of a tree related to the bay laurel, sassafras and the avocado. The qualifier is that most "cinnamon" is probably not cinnamon but cassia, from a similar tree native to Indonesia and the very northeast area of India. Cassia and cinnamon are used interchangeably even today, but are two different spices. The best cinnamon has always been from Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. Cassia is produced in China, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Confusing the issue of origin are the legends and tales told about where and how cinnamon was obtained. The spice trade was competitive, and traders became secretive about their sources. Arabian traders regaled customers with the story of "cinnamon birds." These large birds are said to have built nests high on cliffs along the ocean using cinnamon tree trunks and sticks. Traders cut up donkeys and oxen, luring the birds. When the birds took the meat back, the nests buckled under the extra weight, falling down the cliffs and to shore below. The heroic traders climbed across the dangerous rocks to gather the cinnamon trees. No doubt customers were willing to pay a bit extra for those efforts, also.
In any case, the Egyptians used it, also, in embalming processes. A grieving Emperor Nero burned one year's worth of cinnamon at his wife Poppaea Sabina's funeral, a gesture of love and honor.
In cooking, most western cultures use the powder rather than "quill" (rolled bark) form of spice. Cinnamon quills are identifiable from cassia in that the strips are layers of paper thin bark, while cassia bark is a rolled thicker strip. The flavors are also different, cinnamon being more delicate and complementing fresh ingredients and flavors better: apples, bananas, pears. Cassia is heavier and is generally used in baking or cooking, even by commercial bakeries. Cinnamon is a dusty brown color; cassia has a reddish tinge. Either mixes well with chili pepper, cloves, ginger, licorice, nutmeg and star of anise.
There has been some buzz about health benefits of cinnamon, but checking to make sure it is cinnamon, not cassia, could be important. Cinnamon is said to lower LDL cholesterol, help regulate blood sugar, act as an anti-clotting agent for blood, treat yeast infections and reduce leukemia and lymphoma cells. However, side effects could be serious, especially for those who may be sensitive to cassia: skin irritations, stomach irritations for those with ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome, uterine contractions, increased heart rate or kidney or liver problems stemming from the coumarin in the spice. Check with a doctor if taking blood thinners, diabetes medication or antibiotics. Cinnamon and cassia have elements of all of these and could affect how the body reacts to those medications.
Once spices were a sign of social status, but today nearly everyone has access to any number of them. Adding as little as half a teaspoon of black pepper, chili pepper or even cinnamon to that pot of chili can rev up the flavor and your metabolism for the coming winter.