Sunday, 1 December 2013

Solving The Spice Mystery: Where Do Pepper, Turmeric, and Vanilla Come From?

Our global food system does a good job hiding how and where our food is grown. Despite these tricks, we live in an era where we can find out food origins using tools such as smart phone food labels. Still some foods slip through the cracks. Spices are examples of those foods.

A few years ago at a dinner party, we got to chatting about where certain spices are produced. We made a bunch of pizzas from local ingredients (tomato sauce and cheese included) but we did not manage to source our salt and pepper locally. We read that our sea salt was from Israel but we couldn’t find out where our pepper came from (despite asking later at the shop we bought it from). As we chatted further, most of us didn’t know what geographic region black pepper was grown in or, for that mater, what a pepper plant looked like.

To give spices the attention they deserve, I’m going to share some of their interesting facts. I chose to talk about three spices that are not particularly well labeled in the super markets I frequent: pepper, turmeric, and vanilla; if you want me to talk about any others, just shoot me an email. 

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Black pepper is a fruit that grows on a small shrub in bunches and it comes from a family of plants called Piperaceae. Green peppercorns are unripe fruits from the same black pepper plants. This species is native to South India and it is commonly grown in the Kerala state. Major producers of pepper include: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. But, this plant grows in other regions too, such as Costa Rica.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Turmeric is a root or rhizome that grows underneath the ground. And, it looks a lot like ginger root. Many of us living outside of the tropics don’t’ realize the edible part of turmeric grows under soil because we buy it in powdered form. I was first introduced to turmeric root while living on the south Caribbean of Costa Rica and I had a fresh source of this spice growing in my backyard. Turmeric is not native to Costa Rica however, it is native to the Southeast Asia region. Although turmeric’s place of origin of is not identified in my botanical references, some botanists suggest it is native to south India.

Like many spices, turmeric is both a food and a medicine. Most of us know turmeric because it is a staple ingredient in Indian curry. But, turmeric has been used as a medicine since at least 250 B.C. Powder from this root can be mixed with honey to soothe a dry cough, which is a remedy from Ayurvedic medicine. In my family, we boil the fresh turmeric root with other medicinals such as ginger and garlic and take it as medicine for colds. I learned this recipe from a healer in Peru and my dad tweaked it by adding fresh turmeric root to the mix.

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Vanilla is an orchid. I first saw this orchid while wading in a palm swamp in the Peruvian Amazon. These are the same palm swamps where you can spot Anaconda snakes, if you are lucky! Vanilla plants are stunning, especially the one I saw flowering. 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
We don’t eat the flower, however; we eat extracts from vanilla seeds or pods (pictured on right).

Vanilla is native to Mexico and was used by Indigenous people such as the Aztec people to flavour a drink made from chocolate (cacao) beans. The website of Kew, a famous botanical garden, reported that vanilla is also a medicine with anti-microbial and antioxidant properties. Because of the spice trade, vanilla has become a staple in kitchens all over the world. Spanish people took vanilla to Europe in the 1500s. Much later in the 1800s vanilla was taken to Madagascar. Today, most of the vanilla we buy is from Madagascar, Indonesia, or Mexico.

If you have spice queries, feel free to ask them here in comments section of this blog post and I’ll try my best to find the answers. 

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