Welcome to Spice Club!
The first rule of Spice Club is that we will give you a different spice kit starting on the first Monday of every month.
The second rule of Spice Club is that this is a take-and-make kit. Each kit contains a sample of the spice, four recipe cards that include the spice of the month, and a history of the spice.
THE SPICE OF THE MONTH IS GARLIC!
Allspice, (Pimenta dioica), also called Jamaican pepper or pimento, tropical evergreen tree of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) and its berries, the source of a highly aromatic spice. The plant is native to the West Indies and Central America. Allspice was so named because the flavour of the dried berry resembles a combination of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It is widely used in baking and is usually present in mincemeat and mixed pickling spice. Early Spanish explorers, mistaking it for a type of pepper, called it pimenta, hence its botanical name and some of its common names. The first record of its import to Europe is from 1601.
The allspice tree attains a height of about 9 meters (30 feet). The fruits are picked before they are fully ripe and are then dried in the sun. During drying, the berries turn from green to a dull reddish brown. The nearly globular fruit, about 5 mm (0.2 inch) in diameter, contains two kidney-shaped dark brown seeds.
The flavour of allspice is aromatic and pungent. The essential oil content is about 4.5 percent for Jamaica allspice and about 2.5 percent for that of Central America; its principal component is eugenol.
The name allspice is applied to several other aromatic shrubs as well, especially to one of the sweet shrubs, the Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), a handsome flowering shrub native to the southeastern United States and often cultivated in England. Other allspices include the Japanese allspice (Chimonanthus praecox), native to eastern Asia and planted as an ornamental in England and the United States, and the wild allspice, or spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a shrub of eastern North America with aromatic berries reputed to have been used as a substitute for true allspice.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Petruzzello.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “allspice”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 Dec. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/plant/allspice. Accessed 30 June 2022.
Caraway, the dried fruit, commonly called seed, of Carum carvi, a biennial herb of the parsley family (Apiaceae, or Umbelliferae), native to Europe and western Asia and cultivated since ancient times. Caraway has a distinctive aroma reminiscent of anise and a warm, slightly sharp taste. It is used as a seasoning in meat dishes, breads, and cheese and in such vegetable dishes as sauerkraut and coleslaw. Caraway of the Netherlands has traditionally had a reputation for high quality.
The plant has finely cut leaves and compound umbels of small white flowers. The fruit, or seed, light to dark brown in colour, is a crescent about 0.2 inch (5 mm) long with five prominent longitudinal dorsal ridges.
The essential oil content is about 5 percent; d-carvone and d-limonene are the principal components. The oil is used to flavour alcoholic beverages, notably aquavit and kümmel, and in medicine as an aromatic stimulant and carminative.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Albert.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “caraway”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Apr. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/plant/caraway. Accessed 27 July 2022.
CAYENNE PEPPER HISTORY
CAYENNE PEPPER, (Capsicum annuum), small-fruited pepper in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), the source of a very pungent spice of the same name. The cayenne pepper is a cultivar of Capsicum annuum and is said to have originated in Cayenne, French Guiana. The spice is produced by drying and grinding the orange to deep-red fruits and derives its piquant flavour from the chemical capsaicin.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “cayenne pepper”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 Jul. 2015, https://www.britannica.com/plant/cayenne-pepper. Accessed 7 November 2022.
PEPPER (genus Capsicum), genus of more than 30 species of flowering plants in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), several of which are extensively cultivated for their edible, often pungent fruits. The genus comprises all the varied forms of fleshy-fruited peppers, including the mild bell peppers that are used as a vegetable and the hot peppers, such as habanero and tabasco, that are used as relishes, pickled, or ground into a fine powder for use as a spice. Some peppers are grown as ornamentals.
Pepper plants are perennials but are grown as tender summer annuals in most areas outside their native habitat. They are propagated by seeding directly in the soil or by transplanting seedlings started in greenhouses or hotbeds after 6 to 10 weeks. The plants become woody as the growing season progresses and bear simple, alternately arranged leaves with smooth margins. The paired or solitary flowers are typically small with five white petals. The fruit is a berry. Pepper fruits come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from the small and nearly circular ají charapita to the long and thin tabasco pepper and to the large, furrowed fruits of the bell pepper.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “pepper”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Jul. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/plant/pepper-plant-Capsicum-genus. Accessed 7 November 2022.
Celery, (Apium graveolens) is an herbaceous plant of the parsley family (Apiaceae). Celery is usually eaten cooked as a vegetable or as a delicate flavouring in a variety of stocks, casseroles, and soups. In the United States raw celery is served by itself or with spreads or dips as an appetizer and in salads.
The tiny seed like fruits, known as celery seed, resemble the plant itself in taste and aroma and are used as a seasoning, particularly in soups and pickles. Native to the Mediterranean areas and the Middle East, celery was used as a flavouring by the ancient Greeks and Romans and as a medicine by the ancient Chinese. The ancient forms resembled smallage, or wild celery. Celery with large, fleshy, succulent, upright leafstalks, or petioles, was developed in the late 18th century. The stringiness that characterizes most celery has been eliminated from some varieties.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “celery”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Dec. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/plant/celery. Accessed 1 September 2022.
Cinnamon, (Cinnamomum verum), also called Ceylon cinnamon, bushy evergreen tree of the laurel family (Lauraceae) and the spice derived from its bark. Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the neighbouring Malabar Coast of India, and Myanmar (Burma) and is also cultivated in South America and the West Indies. The spice, consisting of the dried inner bark, is brown in colour and has a delicately fragrant aroma and a warm sweet flavour. Cinnamon is used to flavour a variety of foods, from confections to curries to beverages, and is popular in bakery goods in many places. Essential oil is distilled from the bark fragments for use in food, liqueur, perfume, and drugs.
Cinnamon was once more valuable than gold. In Egypt it was sought for embalming and religious practices. In medieval Europe it was used for religious rites and as a flavouring. Later it was the most profitable spice in the Dutch East India Company trade. Various related species are also cultivated as a source of cinnamon spice, including Chinese cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), Vietnamese, or Saigon, cinnamon (C. loureiroi), Indonesian cinnamon (C. burmannii), and Malabar cinnamon (C. citriodorum).
The cinnamon tree grows in moist well-drained soils and rarely reaches more than 15 metres (49 feet) in height. The thick simple leaves have smooth margins and are usually oval; the veins are roughly parallel to each other. Young leaves are red and mature to a deep green. The small bisexual flowers are greenish to yellow and are borne in clusters. The fruit is a dark drupe.
The grower harvests the main crop in the wet season, cutting the shoots close to the ground. In processing, the shoots are first scraped with a semicircular blade and then rubbed with a brass rod to loosen the bark, which is split with a knife and peeled. The peels are telescoped one into another, forming a quill about 107 cm (42 inches) long and filled with trimmings of the same quality bark to maintain a cylindrical shape. After four or five days of drying, the quills are rolled on a board to tighten the filling and then placed in subdued sunlight for further drying. Finally, they are bleached with sulfur dioxide and sorted into grades.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “cinnamon”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Aug. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/plant/cinnamon. Accessed 12 September 2021.
Clove, (Syzygium aromaticum), tropical evergreen tree of the family Myrtaceae and its small reddish brown flower buds used as a spice. Cloves were important in the earliest spice trade and are believed to be indigenous to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, of Indonesia. Strong of aroma and hot and pungent in taste, cloves are used to flavour many foods, particularly meats and bakery products; in Europe and the United States the spice is a characteristic flavouring in Christmas holiday fare, such as wassail and mincemeat.
As early as 200 BCE, envoys from Java to the Han-dynasty court of China brought cloves that were customarily held in the mouth to perfume the breath during audiences with the emperor. During the late Middle Ages, cloves were used in Europe to preserve, flavour, and garnish food. Clove cultivation was almost entirely confined to Indonesia, and in the early 17th century the Dutch eradicated cloves on all islands except Amboina and Ternate in order to create scarcity and sustain high prices. In the latter half of the 18th century the French smuggled cloves from the East Indies to Indian Ocean islands and the New World, breaking the Dutch monopoly.
In the early 21st century, Indonesia was the world’s largest producer of cloves, followed by Madagascar, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka.
The clove tree is an evergeen that grows to about 8 to 12 meters (25 to 40 feet) in height. Its gland-dotted leaves are small, simple, and opposite. The trees are usually propagated from seeds that are planted in shaded areas. Flowering begins about the fifth year; a tree may annually yield up to 34 kg (75 pounds) of dried buds. The buds are hand-picked in late summer and again in winter and are then sun-dried. Cloves vary in length from about 13 to 19 mm (0.5 to 0.75 inch).
The buds contain 14 to 20 percent essential oil, the principal component of which is the aromatic oil eugenol. Cloves are strongly pungent owing to eugenol, which is extracted by distillation to yield oil of cloves. This oil is used to prepare microscopic slides for viewing and is also a local anesthetic for toothaches. Eugenol is used in germicides, perfumes, and mouthwashes, in the synthesis of vanillin, and as a sweetener or intensifier.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Petruzzello, Associate Editor.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Clove”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Apr. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/plant/clove. Accessed 13 October 2021.
Alternate titles: Allium sativum
By The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica Last Updated: Nov 23, 2022
garlic, (Allium sativum), perennial plant of the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), grown for its flavourful bulbs. The plant is native to central Asia but grows wild in Italy and southern France and is a classic ingredient in many national cuisines. The bulbs have a powerful onionlike aroma and pungent taste and are not usually eaten raw.
Garlic plants grow about 60 cm (2 feet) tall. Depending on the variety, the long leaves typically arise from a short hard stem above the bulb or emerge from a softer pseudostem made up of overlapping leaf sheaths. The bulb is covered with membranous skin and encloses up to 20 edible bulblets called cloves. The spherical flower cluster is initially enclosed in a pair of papery tapered bracts; the bracts split open when the green-white or pinkish flowers bloom. Flower stalks sometimes arise bearing tiny bulbils (tiny secondary bulbs that form in place of flowers) and sterile blossoms. Garlic is usually grown as an annual crop and is propagated by planting cloves or top bulbils, though seeds can be also be used.
In ancient and medieval times, garlic was prized for its medicinal properties and was carried as a charm against vampires and other evils. The plant is used in traditional and folk medicine in many places, and there is some evidence that it may help prevent heart disease. Garlic contains about 0.1 percent essential oil, the principal components of which are diallyl disulfide, diallyl trisulfide, and allyl propyl disulfide.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Michele Metych.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “garlic”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 Nov. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/plant/garlic. Accessed 22 December 2022.
Ginger, (Zingiber officinale), herbaceous perennial plant of the family Zingiberaceae, probably native to southeastern Asia, or its aromatic, pungent rhizome (underground stem) used as a spice, flavouring, food, and medicine. Its generic name Zingiber is derived from the Greek zingiberis, which comes from the Sanskrit name of the spice, singabera. Its use in India and China has been known from ancient times, and by the 1st century CE traders had taken ginger into the Mediterranean region. By the 11th century it was well known in England. The Spaniards brought it to the West Indies and Mexico soon after the conquest, and by 1547 ginger was being exported from Santiago to Spain.
The spice has a slightly biting taste and is used, usually dried and ground, to flavour breads, sauces, curry dishes, confections, pickles, and ginger ale. The fresh rhizome, green ginger, is used in cooking. The peeled rhizomes may be preserved by boiling in syrup. In Japan and elsewhere, slices of ginger are eaten between dishes or courses to clear the palate. Ginger is used medically to treat flatulence and colic.
The leafy stems of ginger grow about a metre high. The leaves are 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) long, elongate, alternate in two vertical rows, and arise from sheaths enwrapping the stem. The flowers are in dense conelike spikes about 1 inch thick and 2 to 3 inches long that are composed of overlapping green bracts, which may be edged with yellow. Each bract encloses a single, small, yellow-green and purple flower.
Ginger is propagated by planting rootstalk cuttings and has been under this type of cultivation for so long that it no longer goes to seed. Harvesting is done simply by lifting the rhizomes from the soil, cleansing them, and drying them in the sun. The dried ginger rhizomes are irregular in shape, branched or palmate. Their colour varies from dark yellow through light brown to pale buff. Ginger may be unscraped (with all of its cork layer); partly scraped; or scraped or peeled (with all of its cork, epidermis, and hypodermis removed).
Ginger contains about 2 percent essential oil; the principal component is zingiberene and the pungent principle of the spice is zingerone. The oil is distilled from rhizomes for use in the food and perfume industries.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Alison Eldridge, Digital Content Manager.
Eldridge, Alison. “Ginger.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 30 Nov. 2020, www.britannica.com/plant/ginger.
Juniper, (genus Juniperus), genus of about 60 to 70 species of aromatic evergreen trees or shrubs of the cypress family (Cupressaceae), distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. A number of species are cultivated as ornamentals and are useful for their timber.
The juvenile leaves of a juniper are needlelike. Mature leaves are awl-shaped, spreading, and arranged in pairs or in whorls of three. Some species have small scalelike leaves, often bearing an oil gland, which are pressed closely to the rounded or four-angled branchlets. Male and female reproductive structures usually are borne on separate plants. The reddish brown or bluish cones are fleshy and berrylike and often have a grayish waxy covering. They mature in one to three seasons and contain 1 to 12 seeds, usually 3.
Galls produced by junipers as a reaction to fungal infection are known as cedar apples. This fungus, cedar apple rust, completes its life cycle on members of the apple subfamily of the flowering plant family Rosaceae, which contains numerous species of trees and shrubs commercially valuable as fruit and ornamental plants. The growth of junipers around apple orchards and plantings of related genera is thus discouraged to avoid disfigurement or loss of these important cultivated plants.
Common juniper (Juniperus communis), a sprawling shrub, is widely distributed on rocky soils throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Many ornamental cultivars have been developed.
The berrylike cones of common juniper are used to flavour foods and alcoholic beverages—particularly gin, which is named after Juniperus through the French genièvre. Juniper “berries” have a fragrant spicy aroma and a slightly bittersweet flavour. Used with venison, they remove the gamey taste. They are also used to season sauces and stuffings, in pickling meats, and to flavour liqueurs and bitters.
Oil of juniper, distilled from the wood and leaves of several species, is used in perfumes and in medicines such as diuretics.
The fragrant wood of some species is made into cabinets, fence posts, and pencils. Eastern red cedar is especially common for the lining of linen closets and for cedar chests, as it repels moths and other pests.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Petruzzello.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “juniper”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 6 Feb. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/plant/juniper. Accessed 16 May 2022.
Nutmeg, (Myristica fragrans), tropical evergreen tree (family Myristicaceae) and the spice made of its seed. The tree is native to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, of Indonesia and is principally cultivated there and in the West Indies. The spice nutmeg has a distinctive pungent fragrance and a warm slightly sweet taste; it is used to flavour many kinds of baked goods, confections, puddings, potatoes, meats, sausages, sauces, vegetables, and such beverages as eggnog. The fleshy arils surrounding the nutmeg seed are the source of the spice mace. Historically, grated nutmeg was used as a sachet, and the Romans used it as incense. Around 1600 it became important as an expensive commercial spice in the Western world and was the subject of Dutch plots to keep prices high and of English and French counterplots to obtain fertile seeds for transplantation. The nutmegs sold whole were dipped in lime to prevent their sprouting.
Nutmeg trees may reach a height of about 20 metres (65 feet). They yield fruit eight years after sowing, reach their prime in 25 years, and bear fruit for 60 years or longer. The fruit is a pendulous drupe, similar in appearance to an apricot. When fully mature it splits in two, exposing a crimson-coloured aril, the mace, surrounding a single shiny brown seed, the nutmeg. The pulp of the fruit is eaten locally. After collection the aril-enveloped nutmegs are conveyed to curing areas where the mace is removed, flattened out, and dried. The nutmegs are dried gradually in the sun and turned twice daily over a period of six to eight weeks. During this time the nutmeg shrinks away from its hard seed coat until the kernels rattle in their shells when shaken. The shell is then broken with a wooden truncheon and the nutmegs are picked out. Dried nutmegs are grayish brown ovals with furrowed surfaces.
Nutmeg and mace contain 7 to 14 percent essential oil, the principal components of which are pinene, camphene, and dipentene. Nutmeg on expression yields about 24 to 30 percent fixed oil called nutmeg butter, or oil of mace, the principal component of which is trimyristin. The oils are used as condiments and carminatives and to scent soaps and perfumes. An ointment of nutmeg butter has been used as a counterirritant and in treatment of rheumatism. When consumed in large amounts, nutmeg has psychoactive effects and is reported to be a deliriant and hallucinogen. Nutmeg poisoning is rarely fatal but can cause convulsions, palpitations, and pain.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “nutmeg”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 May. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/nutmeg. Accessed 23 November 2021.
Paprika, spice made from the pods of Capsicum annuum, an annual shrub belonging to the nightshade family, Solanaceae, and native to tropical areas of the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico, Central America, South America, and the West Indies.
- Annuum is cultivated throughout most of the world for its pods, often called chili peppers, or chilies. The species includes most of the sweet peppers and many of the pungent, strong-flavoured types. Depending on the variety, the pods may be 0.5 inch to 1 foot (12.5 mm to 0.3 m) in length, with a long, round, or conical shape, and yellow, brown, purple, or red colour. A spongy central column bears the flat, kidney-shaped seeds.
Crops are planted in early spring and harvested in the summer and fall, when the pods are glossy and ripe. The pods are then dried and ground to produce paprika. When mild paprikas are made, the central core is first removed.
Paprika has some sugar content, varying with the variety, and is richer in vitamin C than the citrus fruits. Pungency is imparted by the nitrogen compound capsaicin, which is usually lower in C. annuum than in other plants of the same genus. A colouring agent, oleoresin of paprika, is extracted from the ground pods and used to impart bright red colour to meat and sausage products and to other processed foods.
The rose paprika of Hungary is generally considered the finest variety. It is made from choice dark red pods that have a sweet flavour and aroma. A sharper Hungarian variety, Koenigspaprika, or king’s paprika, is made from the whole pepper.
Paprika is a popular seasoning in many cuisines. Its bright colour makes it an excellent garnish for nonsweet, light-coloured foods. It is frequently used in the cooking of Spain, Mexico, and the countries of the Balkan Peninsula. It is especially associated with Hungarian cuisine and is essential for such hot, spicy, Hungarian stew dishes as gulyás (called goulash in the United States), pörkölt, paprikás, and tokány.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Levy, Executive Editor.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “paprika”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Mar. 2020,
https://www.britannica.com/topic/paprika. Accessed 2 September 2021.
Poppy seed, tiny dried seed of the opium poppy, used as food, food flavoring, and the source of poppy-seed oil. Poppy seeds have no narcotic properties, because the fluid contained in the bud that becomes opium is present only before the seeds are fully formed. The plant, Papaver somniferum, is an herbaceous annual native to Greece and the Orient. Poppy seed is an ancient spice; the seed capsules have been found in Switzerland in the remains of prehistoric lake dwellings.
The seeds are small (about 1 mm [0.04 inch] in length), kidney-shaped, and grayish blue to dark blue in colour. They have a faint nutlike aroma and a mild, nutty taste especially popular in breads and other baked goods. Poppy seed contains from 44 to 50 percent fixed oil, the principal components of which are linoleic and oleic acids.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “poppy seed”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 8 Jan. 2009, https://www.britannica.com/topic/poppy-seed. Accessed 22 February 2022.
Pumpkin pie spice, also known as pumpkin spice, is an American spice mix commonly used as a flavoring for pumpkin pie, but does not include pumpkin as an ingredient. Pumpkin pie spice is similar to the British and Commonwealth mixed spice. It is generally a blend of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and sometimes allspice. It can also be used as a seasoning in general cooking. A “Pompkin” recipe calling for a similar spice mix (mace, nutmeg and ginger) can be found as far back as 1796 in the first known published American cookbook, American Cookery, written by Amelia Simmons. Pumpkin pie spice has been mentioned in cookbooks dating to the 1890s. Blended pumpkin pie spice was introduced commercially by McCormick & Company in 1934. and is now commercialized by many companies. The American coffee chain Starbucks developed a Pumpkin Spice Latte in January 2003, adding it to a range of seasonal winter drinks. Starbucks’ director of espresso Americas, Peter Dukes, said that “developers realized there was something special around the pumpkin flavor, especially since there wasn’t anything around pumpkin at the time”. The company experimented with different combinations and ratios of pumpkin to spice, ultimately deciding on a recipe with no pumpkin in it. It became Starbucks’ most popular seasonal beverage.
Star anise, dry fruits of the star anise tree (Illicium verum), used as a spice and source of pharmaceutical chemicals. The plant is indigenous to the southeastern part of China and to Vietnam. The flavour and uses of the fruit are similar to those of anise (Pimpinella anisum), to which is it is unrelated. The volatile, aromatic essential oil is commonly used for flavouring candies, liqueurs, and perfumes. In the pharmaceutical industry, star anise is a major source of shikimic acid, which is used in the synthesis of the anti-influenza drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu).
The fruit takes its name from the starlike arrangement of its carpels around a central axis. The dried fruit is about 0.25 to 0.5 cm (0.1 to 0.2 inch) in diameter; individual carpels are usually about 1 cm in length and contain a single seed. Dried carpels are hard, rough, and reddish brown; the seeds are smooth, lustrous, and light brown. The dried fruit’s essential oil content is about 3 percent, and its principal component is anethole.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Petruzzello.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “star anise”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Sep. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/plant/star-anise.
Sesame, (Sesamum indicum), also called benne, erect annual plant of the family Pedaliaceae, grown since antiquity for its seeds, which are used as food and flavouring and from which a prized oil is extracted. Widely cultivated, the sesame plant is found in most of the tropical, subtropical, and southern temperate areas of the world. The aroma and taste of sesame seed are mild and nutlike. The chief constituent of the seed is its fixed oil, which usually amounts to about 44 to 60 percent. Noted for its stability, the oil resists oxidative rancidity. The seeds are also high in protein and are rich in thiamin and vitamin B6.
The sesame plant likely originated in Asia or East Africa, and ancient Egyptians are known to have used the ground seed as grain flour. The seeds were used by the Chinese at least 5,000 years ago, and for centuries they have burned the oil to make soot for the finest Chinese ink blocks. The Romans ground sesame seeds with cumin to make a pasty spread for bread. Once it was thought to have mystical powers, and sesame still retains a magical quality, as shown in the expression “open sesame,” from the Arabian Nights tale of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
Sesame oil is used as a salad oil or cooking oil, in shortening and margarine, and in the manufacture of soaps, pharmaceuticals, and lubricants. Sesame oil is used as an ingredient in cosmetics. The press cake remaining after the oil is expressed is highly nutritious.
The whole seed is used extensively in the cuisines of the Middle East and Asia. Halvah is a confection made of crushed and sweetened sesame seeds. In Europe and North America the seeds are used to flavour and garnish various foods, particularly breads and other baked goods.
Depending on conditions, sesame varieties grow from about 0.5 to 2.5 metres (2 to 9 feet) tall; some have branches, others do not. One to three flowers appear in the leaf axils. The hulled seeds are creamy or pearly white and about 3 mm (0.1 inch) long and have a flattened pear shape. The seed capsules open when dry, allowing the seed to scatter. Considerable hand labour is needed in harvesting to prevent loss of the seeds. With the development of a nonscattering variety of the plant in the mid-20th century, mechanized harvesting of the crop was made possible.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Petruzzello.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “sesame”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Apr. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/plant/sesame-plant. Accessed 29 April 2022.
Sumac (genus Rhus), genus of shrubs and small trees belonging to the cashew family (Anacardiaceae), native to temperate and subtropical zones. Sumacs have been used as a source of dyes, medicines, and beverages, and the dried fruits of some species are used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine. The plants are also grown as soil binders and cover plants. The sumacs grown for landscape use display a graceful habit, spectacular fall colour, or colourful fruit clusters.
Sumac leaves are characteristically arranged in spirals and are usually compound, though some species have simple leaves. The minute flowers have five petals and are borne in dense panicles or spikes. The fruits are red drupes and also are borne in dense upright clusters. All sumacs have a milky or resinous sap. Many species can spread asexually by rhizomes.
The smooth, or scarlet, sumac (Rhus glabra), native to the eastern and central United States, is a common species. It grows to a height of 6 metres (20 feet), with an open, flattened crown and a few stout spreading branches. A cultivated variety has much-dissected fernlike leaves. Somewhat taller is the staghorn, or velvet, sumac (R. typhina), up to 9 metres (29.5 feet), named for the dense or velvety covering on new twigs. Its fall foliage is orange-red to purple. It also has a variety with finely cut leaves.
The smaller sumacs are the shining, winged, or dwarf sumac (R. copallinum) and the lemon, or fragrant, sumac (R. aromatica). The former is often grown for its shiny leaves, the leaflets of which are connected by ribs along the axis, and showy reddish fruits. The fragrant sumac has three-parted leaves, scented when bruised; it forms a dense low shrub useful in landscaping.
The Sicilian sumac (R. coriaria), from the Mediterranean region, is cultivated as a source of tannin in southern Italy.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “sumac”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 Sep. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/plant/sumac. Accessed 17 November 2022.
Turmeric, (Curcuma longa), perennial herbaceous plant of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae), the tuberous rhizomes, or underground stems, of which have been used from antiquity as a condiment, a textile dye, and medically as an aromatic stimulant. Native to southern India and Indonesia, turmeric is widely cultivated on the mainland and in the islands of the Indian Ocean. In ancient times it was used as a perfume as well as a spice. The rhizome has a pepperlike aroma and a somewhat bitter warm taste and has a strong staining orange-yellow colour. It is the ingredient that colours and flavours prepared mustard and is used in curry powder, relishes, pickles, and spiced butters for vegetables, in fish and egg dishes, and with poultry, rice, and pork. In parts of Asia turmeric water is applied as a cosmetic to lend a golden glow to the complexion. Reputed to have anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric is sometimes consumed as a tea or in pill form for a variety of ailments, including arthritis and intestinal problems.
Turmeric plants reach about 1 metre (3.3 feet) in height and bear long simple leaves with long petioles (leaf stems). The leaves emerge from the branching rhizomes that lie just below the soil surface. Older rhizomes are somewhat scaly and brown in colour, while young rhizomes are pale yellow to brown-orange. The small yellow-orange flowers are borne in the axils of waxy bracts that are usually pale green or tinged with purple.
Production involves a boiling process, which is followed by exposure of the rhizomes to sunlight for five to seven days to dry. Then they are polished by hand rubbing or by rotation in a mounted drum. Dried rhizomes vary from about 2.5 to 7.5 cm (1 to 3 inches) in length. The spice is usually sold in ground form. Distillation yields 1.3 to 5.5 percent essential oil, the main components of which are turmerone and ar-turmerone. The colouring matter is curcumin, which is also an antioxidant.
Paper tinged with a tincture of turmeric, on addition of alkali, turns from yellow to reddish brown, becoming violet on drying, thus providing a test for alkalinity.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Petruzzello.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “turmeric”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/plant/turmeric. Accessed 4 April 2022.
Vanilla is from the dried, cured beans or fruit pods of the green-stemmed climbing perennial of the Vanilla species, which is a member of the orchid family. The botanical name, Vanilla, derives from the Spanish name for the spice, vanilla, and is a diminutive of vaina meaning “sheath or pod”. Vanilla grows on vines that climb shrubs and trees in tropical forested areas. The vines typically require 3 to 4 years to flower, and afterward flower once a year. In native Mexico, indigenous bees perform the pollination of vanilla orchid flowers but most cultivated vanilla is hand pollinated. After the flowers are pollinated, they mature and develop for 8-10 months into long pods that look like string beans, hence the term “vanilla bean”. Inside the pods are thousands of tiny seeds which contain the main flavor components of vanilla . Unlike most other spices, the process of harvesting vanilla is rather complicated, because fresh (green) vanilla beans do not have much flavor. The flavor of vanilla is typically produced after a 3-6 month long curing process. This, and the practice of manual pollination, makes vanilla one of the most expensive spices (after saffron).
Vanilla was prized as an incense, flavoring, and perfume in ancient Mesoamerica by the Maya, Aztec, and Totonac cultures. The ancient Aztecs flavored a chocolate beverage, called Xoco-lall, with vanilla and to this day vanilla is a common ingredient in chocolate candies and beverages. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortéz sampled this drink and returned to Spain with reports it contained magical powers.
Vanilla may be one of the most popular flavors today but for centuries, vanilla was thought of as nothing more than an additive for chocolate. Vanilla gained its independence from chocolate in the early 17th century when a creative apothecary developed a chocolate-free, vanilla flavored candy for Queen Elizabeth I. In France, vanilla quickly became a favorite flavor for ice cream and Thomas Jefferson brought the recipe home after a stint in Paris as American minister to France. By the late 1800s, demand for vanilla skyrocketed as it became an integral ingredient in soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
For a long time, Mexico was the only exporter of vanilla since only insects native to Mexico were able to pollinate the plant. In fact, the Mexican city of Papantla was known as “the city that perfumed the world”. Then in 1836, the Belgium’s discovered a method to hand pollinate vanilla and Europeans quickly began to grow vanilla across their colonial empires. By the 1870s, the French island colonies of Madagascar and Bourbon (named after the Bourbon kings of France – now called Reunion Island) became the major world producers. To this day vanilla produced in this region is often referred to as “Bourbon” vanilla.