Herbs and spices have a traditional history of use around the world, with strong roles in cultural heritage, and in the appreciation of food and its links to health.  Spices are the seeds, fruits, roots, bark, berries or vegetables that for centuries have been used for flavouring, colouring or preserving foods. They have long been used along with ingredients which are particularly susceptible to spoiling in warmer climates due to their antimicrobial properties. Spices have also been used historically for uses such as medicinal and religious ritual and in beautifying cosmetics or perfumery.

Spices and aromatics fall into specific groups, consisting of, flowers (capers or cloves), berries (allspice, juniper, pepper, sansho or Sichuan pepper, sumac), seeds (anise, caraway, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel… this list is very long), fruits (cardamom, cayenne, chillies, citrus peel, star anise, tamarind, vanilla beans), kernels (nutmeg), roots (horseradish, liquorice, wasabi), rhizomes (galangal, ginger, turmeric), leaves (basil, bay, coriander, curry, kaffir), arils (mace, saffron), bark (cinnamon, cassia), and sap (asafoetida).

Historically, spices have played an important role in health, adding healing or comforting properties to medicine. Even today, the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-clotting, anti-carcinogenic properties of herbs and spices are of particular interest; however, studies show that improvements are often modest when compared to pharmacological medicines. Furthermore, researchers identify and extract bioactive constituents from herbs and spices then administer these as medicines and any health benefits do not necessarily translate over to adding spices or herbs to our dietary cuisine. Foods are eaten in combinations in unmeasured quantities under social, not medical conditions; therefore, it is a real challenge to prove whether herbs or spices really do have specific health benefits.

My colleagues and I are all food and health development workers at Edinburgh Community Food. We feel that giving explicit recommendations of any single food group or culinary ingredients would be remiss unless discussing its place within a healthy balanced diet. However, we do all feel that herbs and spices can be used in recipes to partially or wholly replace less desirable ingredients such as salt, sugar and added saturated fats, for example, marinades and dressings, stir-fry dishes, soups, casseroles and curries and, ever-more-popular (and healthy) Mediterranean-style cooking.

All spices are more aromatic when crushed or ground and to release their fragrance and full flavour, it is best to do this as you use them. Some spices may be used whole, or you can grind by hand with a mortar and pestle, use an electric spice mill or coffee grinder. However, if you don’t have the equipment to grind yourself, don’t be put off, just purchase ground in small quantities (for freshness) replacing them as you use them.  Whether whole or ground, keep them in airtight glass, plastic or tin containers in a dark, cool place, away from light, heat or moisture to prolong their aroma and flavour.

All of the staff at Edinburgh Community Food are pretty keen on cooking with spices and a quick office poll reveals that a ‘basic spice collection would probably include cumin, coriander, chilli, Chinese 5 spices, fennel, ginger, paprika, and turmeric. Nonetheless, remember our tastes are individual and spice is a personal journey of the discovery of flavour. We suggest starting off with buying specific spices for selected dishes, then slowly increasing  your collection while simultaneously deciding what you like and how to marry them with other ingredients. Cooking and eating must be about enjoyment and gastronomic pleasure as well as health: spices, herbs and aromatics can play a central role in all of these.

This article was written for The Speaker Paper, Edinburgh. June 2016.