Kitchen Apothecary: Spices

March 20th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

The spice rack is a wonderful place to explore the world of herbal medicine. Each has a story – some have made it into ancient mythology, other causing wars, yet more promoting travels to far away lands and cross-cultural trading.

Keep in mind that spices are medicinal herbs that have made it into the culinary pursuits of humans because of flavors, smells, and medicinal actions that improve digestion or some how benefit the body. Spices are simply plants that have captivated our taste buds and liven our diets.

Most, but not all spices are carminatives. I have written a post about carminatives, but they certainly warrant another mention. Carminatives could be generalized as herbs that act on easing uncomfortable digestion, especially gas and bloating. David Hoffmann describes:

“…the mode of action of carminative herbs appears to be related to the complex of volatile oils they contain. These terpene oils have local anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects upon the mucous lining and the muscle coats of the the alimentary canal.” (502).

As with action categories, an herb that is a carminative is not that and only that. They have most certainly have secondary actions on other parts of the body, due to their unique composition. Let’s take chamomile, for example. Matricaria recutita contains a number of volatile oils, some of which have “quite specific effects on other parts of the body”(503). Chamomile is also included in the following action categories: anticatarrhal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antispasmodic, bitter, nervine, tonic and vulnerary (503). Pay attention to action categories when learning about and using herbs; they are extremely helpful in finding a good herbal match for individual needs.

Here are three spices that caught my attention. Scattered around this blog are posts about other spices like mustard, thyme, mint, sage, dill, anise, fennel, cardamom, fenugreek, coriander and ginger.

Asafoetida Ferula asafoetida

Actions: Digestant, aromatic, carminative, expectorant
Contains: Essential oils, ole0-gum resin

Ferula is Latin for carrier, as a related plant was mentioned in Greek mythology as a plant that helped Prometheus carry stolen fire to the earth from the sun. It has been suggested that stone-age nomad tribes might have indeed used the hollow stems to transport fire between their camps. Assa means resin, foetidus smelling, fetid.

It is in the Apiacea family, and looks a bit like fennel, dill, and cows parsnip to me. The powder that we use as a spice is the powdered resin from the root. Resins are quite antiseptic, which is why they make such good mouthwashes. Simon Mills says they “provoke a local release in white blood cell counts (leucocytosis). It is likely that a similar affect occurs further down the digestive tract at least as far as the stomach and duodenum”(305). Other oleo-gum resins include myrrh (Commiphora molmol) and frankincense (Boswellia spp.).

As a new employee in the Co-op kitchen, the other staff “initiated” me by making me smell and then taste the asafoetida. I had to prove myself so I tasted it; it was pretty rank. It was a mystery to me that it dishes it was cooked were actually edible, in fact they were good. Upon research, I read that asafoetida tastes much better when it is cooked, and smells much better when sautéed with ghee. It is used as an onion and garlic replacer among Brahmins who abstain from eating onions and garlic, which are considered too grounding for those of a spiritual disposition (among other reasons).

Asafoetida is of course, a digestive aid which reduces flatulence. It has been used as a folk remedy for childhood colds as it has antiseptic qualities. Other sources say it is useful for asthma and bronchitis and calming hysteria. Michael Tierra says it is “very helpful for damp cold spleen conditions associated with Candida albicans overgrowth”(216).

I do not use this spice often, only when making dal or cooking a big batch of beans. Here is a yummy recipe with asafoetida on Happy Burp. While you’re there, check some good info on her entry about asafoetida.

Lamb's quarters - epazote's cousin
Lamb’s quarters – Epazote’s cousin

Epazote Dysphania ambroioides

Actions: Antibacterial, antimalarial, vermifuge, insecticidal, (Rain tree Tropical Plant Database), antihelminthic, antispasmodic, abortifacient (US Pharmacopeia via Gernot Ketzer’s Spice pages) Contains: essential oils such as monoterpenes, asacaridole

Epazote is a a member of the Chenopodiacea family (beet, spinach, quinoa). I think it looks a lot like it’s relative that likes to grow in my garden, lamb’s quarters (or pig’s weed; are these the same thing?). This year I would like to get start some seeds of epazote, because it seems everyone loves it. Do plants ever remind you of a place? For some reason, epazote and Minneapolis are synonymous for me; I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. Even when I was a kid I had a similar association of lamb’s quarters and and city, seeing it grow in empty lots, alleys, in cracks in the sidewalks. In 2006 a friend made some chilled epazote tea; it was so delicious on a very hot June evening. I commented that it tasted “culinary”, with hints of sage, oregano, tarragon,and licorice.

Epazote is native to the Americas, and used throughout Mexico and Central America. It is well known to be prepared with black and other beans, as it is carminative and reduces gas. traditional usage also includes it for amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea and lessen the symptoms of malaria (Rain Tree). Try this recipe for Epazote Vegetable Pancakes with Black bean Tropical Fruit Sauce; all sounds delicious to me.
Black Pepper Piper nigrum

Contains: Essential oils with 80% monotrepenes, acrid resins
Actions: Stimulant, digestive

Pepper is native to the west coast of southern India but is now produced around the tropics in the old and new world alike. This common table spice was once more expensive than gold and the reason for expansive European sea exploration in the 1400’s. Pepper sure was one hot commodity, hehe… It looks like the word pepper is quite literal, simply coming from the word piper, latin for pepper. Again being quite literal, it represents the Piperaceae, or pepper family.

The use of peppercorns are vast; everyone uses it. What it does for food it does for the body, it warms it up! Yes, pepper is a wonderful stimulant for warming up cold, weak, sluggish digestion, coldness in general due to poor circulation, and it dries up mucus. It is part of a classic Ayurvedic formula Trikatu: pepper, pippli pepper and ginger ground then mixed with a bit of honey to form a paste. Three-fourths to 1 tablespoon of the mixture is taken with a bit of hot water three times a day to counteract cold, damp symptoms and to stimulate digestion and warmth. Tierra adds that it is said to “recirculate” nutrients, and is used when fasting to boost energy. It is a stimulant to gastric mucosa, use when a less irritating then cayenne is desired (242).

This is an interseting account of the history, production and stories about pepper. Also check out the Spice Pages photos of pepper.

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