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A Unique Chefs Spice Reference

Aug 17, 2007
This guide is a quick look-up table for the commonly-used spices.

Fenugreek - This is native to India and southern Europe. The part used is the hard, yellow-brown seeds that come from the plant's pods. Widely used in Indian and Mediterranean cooking, this plant has a confusing array of characteristics. By itself, it has a bitter taste, but ground and diluted it is found in everything from curry powders to Bengali five-spice mixture. The toasted seeds taste like a nut. The oil is touted by alternative medicine practitioners as a treatment for various ailments, and doctors have discovered some medical applications as a supplement.

Galangal - Is it a spice, or is it a drug? Galangal is known as "blue ginger" and is in fact a member of the ginger family, but has a taste differing from that of ginger, with a flavor closer to pine and citrus than ginger. Galangal is native to the Orient and shows up in various dishes of South-East Asia as a spice or herbal root. However, mixing it in olive oil with myrrh and cinnamon and wiping it on your nose will (a) make you feel like your nose is on fire, and (b) generate a mental state of euphoric calm as you inhale the vapors. It has wide popularity in aromatherapy and voodoo rituals.

Ginger - The root of this ubiquitous herb is used throughout the world in Asian, European, and American cuisine. A hot and spicy distinct to its own, it can even be pickled and eaten alone, as it is so served as a candy in some parts of the world.

Huacatay - A South American plant known as Peruvian black mint. Used in various Central and South American dishes, it is considered essential to authentic Peruvian cooking.

Hyssop - Native to mainly to Greece, but cultivated through the Mediterranean region. Hyssop leaves have a slightly bitter, but minty flavor and are added to Greek regional soups, salads or meat dishes, where they are used sparingly because the flavor is very strong. Its oil also has some medicinal uses as a therapeutic stimulant.

Juniper Berry - Actually a pine cone rather than a berry. Juniper berries have one very specific application, which is giving the alcoholic drink gin its distinctive flavor. The flavor is described as sharp and clear, unlike any other taste in the world. They are also used in Europe to flavor wild game birds, pork, cabbage, and sauerkraut. Some sweeter varieties have recently been cultivated in the Western United States.

Kaffir Lime - Don't go looking to use the fruit of this bush as a regular lime; these are inedible. But the leaf of this plant is a spice, native to Indonesia and used in various vegetable dishes there. The flavor is sour, sharp, and citrus-like, much more sour than what we commonly call limes. Also used in Creole cuisine and flavored rums.

Lemongrass - A light, tangy herb widely used in Asian and Caribbean dishes, especially soups, teas, and curries. (Seriously, what isn't used in curries?) Unlike some herbs, this plant tastes exactly like it sounds, with a mild flavor between grass and lemon. Also used in the perfume industry and other uses such as for citronella candles.

Liquorice - also spelled 'licorice' - A famous member of the legume family whose oil extract is used widely in many kinds of candy and in some niche recipes. More strikingly, the root is simply dug up and chewed as a breath freshener or sold as candy all by itself. It also has stong properties in medicaine, where it's used as an expectorant. The flavor of licorice American candy is actually more anise than liquorice.

Marjoram - A mild herb with a sweet taste between pine and citrus. It is actually only used mostly as a component in other herbal blends, as its flavor is not very strong by itself.

Mint - Probably the most famous of all herbs, it needs no introduction here. Most commonly used in candies, gums, teas, and mint sauce for meats such as roast lamb. It's variations include peppermint, spearmint, Pennyroyal, Corsican, and pineapple. Yes, pineapple mint is a species of mint also used as an herb. Vietnamese mint, however, is not a member of the mint family.

Mustard seeds - Another famous herb, grind the seeds up into a flour and mix with vinegar and water to make the various forms of the mustard condiment. Also used in a wide scattering of European dishes. Perhaps mustard has the most elaborate history, it having been used in both Christian and Buddhist parables.

Nigella - Native in a wide circle around the Mediterranean Sea, including North Africa. Also called "black cumin", the black seeds have a taste between oregano and pepper, yet confusingly their aroma is faintly reminiscent of strawberries! Used widely as a pepper-like seasoning in salad and vegetable dishes in the regions of Southern Europe, Africa, and Western Asia. Also one of the five spices in Bengali spice mix.

Nutmeg - This actually comes in two forms: 'Mace' is the skin of the nutmeg seed and is a spice in its own right. Nutmeg is actually the 'meat' of the nutmeg seed itself. Nutmeg and mace differ slightly in flavor; mace tastes lighter and more delicate and has an orange tint, nutmeg tastes sweeter and stronger. Nutmeg trees are evergreens indigenous to the tropical South Seas of Asia and Australia. Nutmeg and mace are used throughout the world, in beverages including cider, wine, and eggnog, in sauces and baked goods, and its oil flavors more beverages such as cola.

It is also known that nutmeg oil in high quantities is toxic, and can produce hallucinations, nausea, dehydration, and 'generalized body pain'. Extremely powerful dosages can even lead to permanent psychiatric damage. We're talking a dosage of five grams to thirty grams, here; it is quite safe to sprinkle some shaved nutmeg on top of your eggnog.
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