The Best Spices

Posted on April 13th, 2010 at 2:46 pm by Akhyari


Much of our overseas trade began with them, and as Natasha Dragun reports, Indonesia’s favorite spices pack a double punch of flavor and goodness.


This pretty spice doesn’t just taste good, it looks good too. The eight-pointed pod bobs to the top of Indian curries and Indonesian desserts alike. But be warned: it’s not exactly the mildest spice, and one star will deliver a powerful licorice-like kick to whatever dish you’re preparing. Some may recognize it as one of the flavorings of Galliano. Or health nuts will probably be more familiar with its use in medicinal teas and cough mixtures — its warming properties thought to calm the stomach.


Three for the price of one? Allspice is named for the fact that it tastes like a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Yet ground allspice is not a mixture of spices, but is derived from the sun-dried fruit of a small plant. Name a dish, and chances are that it has allspice in it: from terrines, pickled herrings and beef jerky, to cakes and ice cream. The tannins in allspice provide a mild anesthetic that, combined with its warming effect, make it a popular additive to a number of liqueurs. Or simply pop a bit in a poultice and rub it over sore limbs instead.


The phrase, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” is especially poignant in relation to Indonesian cuisine. And in most cases, that specific “heat” comes from the humble chili pepper, usually ground with other herbs and spices to create a heady paste known as sambal. Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that chili adds bite to any meal. And as an added bonus, the spice, whether fresh, dry, or powdered, is thought to boost your metabolism by up to 25%, which means you can almost justify eating that extra serving of red heat.


If you are one to believe the hype, then black pepper is almost as good for you as Aspirin – the humble peppercorn is thought to help cure you of everything from insomnia to insect bites. And what of the downside? It has also been known to cause sneezing fits. Still, the world’s most widely traded spice is extremely versatile, and aside from its health benefits, it also tastes good. A pinch or two of ground peppercorns will give an instant zing to just about every dish you can think of, from salads, steaks and seafood to hearty soups and steamy curries.


In food and drink, in medicine, or as a masticatory, cardamom is one popular spice. But it’s one that you will either love or hate, thanks to its rather strong and unique aroma and taste. While it is astringent, but not bitter, it carries a distinctive coolness similar to mint. Black and green cardamom pods and seeds are particularly common in many Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, and are frequently used to flavor traditional breads and cakes, as well as both coffee and tea. After which, we strongly suggest you then try saying it 10 times, as fast as you can.


This spiky little spice (the word clove actually means “nail” in Latin) is also native to Indonesia and is found in a wide range of foods – think pungent marinades and sauces or aromatic desserts, as well as Indonesian cigarettes, or kretek, incense, and medicine. Suffering from a toothache? Just rub some clove oil on your gum. A natural anthelmintic, clove oil is also a good massage lubricant for those with digestive problems. That said, it’s hard to beat the medicinal benefits of a cup of spiced tea or chai, which is where nutmeg steals the show over cloves.


It takes 75,000 individual saffron flower blossoms, or around 225,000 handpicked stigmas, to make a single pound of this spice – so it is little wonder that saffron is the world’s most expensive seasoning. But there is more to this posh spice than its delicate flavor, as it’s also popular for the vivid orange hue it adds to food when cooked. Just a single lone strand of the spice is said to add extra life to fried rice, while others prefer to enjoy saffron’s slightly bitter flavor within their herbal remedies, alcohol, or other medicinal potions.


Literary references to cinnamon date back to ye olden days, when the spice was used in potions to bring lovers together as well as in holy anointing oils. It is obtained from the bark of a small evergreen tree, and in Indonesian it’s known as kayumanis, or “sweet wood.” Sweet indeed – cinnamon powder is most commonly used to give flavor to candies and desserts. Just think of chocolates and apple pie, donuts and bread. A natural antioxidant, it is also used in a wide range of beverages, from jamu health elixirs to tea, hot cocoa, and even liqueurs.


Native to Indonesia and South India, turmeric is like the penicillin of the spice world: it’s currently being investigated as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and arthritis. All this, and it still manages to taste great! Whether dried or fresh, turmeric has a peppery, warm flavor, slightly similar to ginger and orange. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s commonly added to curries, not only to add a tang, but also to add color – turmeric is a much cheaper substitute for saffron, and is regularly used to color cheeses, yogurt, and, in Indonesia, rice known as nasi kuning.


Despite its name, nutmeg is not a nut. Native to the Spice Islands, the nutmeg tree produces two spices: nutmeg and mace – the former is the seed kernel inside the fruit, the latter the layer covering the kernel. Once, traders would sell their soul for the spice: it’s rumored that a gram of nutmeg was worth more than a gram of gold. Thankfully it’s cheaper these days, and can be found in all manner of delicacies. In Indonesia, it’s added to jam and a popular candy called selei buah pala. Westerners use it in everything from cakes to eggnog.

(Mandala inflight magazine)

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