Herbs and Spices as Food:
“… Herbs are the plants whose basis of delight connects us to the past, present and future…” Holly Shimizu, herbalist, botanist, lecturer and writer, in Herbs by Leslie Bremness, published in 1994.
Noticing, paying attention to, the herbaceous plants in our environments leads people to grow and tend gardens, sometimes for the simple pleasures of seed-planting, watering and harvesting. Herbs especially make the connection Holly speaks of. We carry forward from one generation to the next and collect, now and from the past, knowledge about herbs that keeps us fascinated: that wild rosehips have vitamin C for us, that artichoke leaves have a bitter taste that works on our liver, that tarragon makes a crisp salad a little spicier, and a thousand and one more tales about herbs. Holly’s point is that with herbs there’s a continuum, and not only in the activity of the garden, its seasons and its flavors; the thread of life flows from the plant to us. And if we are receptive, we curate a response to the natural life around us.
“Generally, herbs are used to add fragrance and flavor rather than to provide the dominant taste…” Jill Norman, author of Herbs and Spices, the Cook’s Reference. Published in 2015.
“Most of the important spice plants—cinnamon, cloves, galangal, ginger, nutmeg, pepper—are native to the Asian tropics…” Jill Norman, as above.
The highly skilled use of herbs and spices for cooking is age-old. Herbs and spices as we know them are rich with the histories of trade, economics, politics, fashion, trends in dining, and more. Before chilis from the New World made their way to India and Southeast Asia, the herb Cilantro and its roots were used to flavor curries: so says Carol Selvah Rajah, in her book “Heavenly Fragrance: Cooking with Aromatic Asian Herbs, Fruits, spices and Seasonings”. Spices that require heat to extract the most flavor–all except ginger are dried–Cinnamon, cloves, galangal, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper. Can you imagine what an explosion of taste was created—sometime after 1500AD in South Asia–between these native spices and fresh chilis imported from the New World!
Whole books are written on the story of one spice or herb, and its effect on populations and markets.
Herbs and Spices in Beverages:
“An early dictionary of Chinese herbs dating from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) classified tea as a bitter herb.”– Master Lam Kam Chuen, The Way of Tea. Published in 2002.
Until late 900 AD, when tea became part of the mainstream social life of China, tea brewed from the leaves of the plant Camilla sinensis was used in medicinal preparations. It was vigorously pursued, researched and improved as a product inside China for several centuries before being exported to Europe. Now as a social drink or a drink available to be drunk at any time of the day, traditional tea production in the world reached 5 million tons in 2013.
No wonder that traditional tea drinkers would have you believe that “real tea” is only that beverage derived from the tea plant, Camilla sinensis.
When asked in a social situation if we would like tea or coffee, we expect tea to mean the caffeinated kind of drink. Under an herbalist’s care, tea is usually a medicinal preparation. And whether from the tea plant or herb, tea is the product of infusion or decoction of leaves in boiling (or near-boiling) water. By association, tea can be made from medicinal or culinary herbs of the leaves, stems, barks, fruits, berries, or flowers of an herb.
“Gin is nothing but an alcohol extraction of all these crazy plants from around the world—tree bark and leaves and seeds and flowers and fruit.”—Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist. Published in 2013.
Author Stewart is no stranger to detail, and not the least to cultivated drinks and beverages. Beverages like gin, beer, wine, mead–the fermented beverages–taste like they do because of the plant matter in their recipes. In fact, these beverages taste better to some drinkers with the addition of fresh herbs and fruits, as in mulled wine.
“The history of many of the herbs, spices and fruits … is the very history of medicine.”—Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist, as above.
Herbs (and spices) as Food and Medicine:
“‘Herb’ is a cultural rather than a botanical definition.” –Leslie Bremness. Herbs. Published in 1994.
Although what’s meant by the word “herbs” is similar, culture to culture, their presence in people’s lives varies greatly. Bremness calls herbs “useful” (as opposed to not useful) because humans have found specific application for plants called herbs, some principally in the kitchen and on your plate, others are valuable medicinally, and some have both functions making them important and vital for life.
Lest you believe that herbs are all herbaceous, perennial or annual flowering types of plants, or even relatives of vegetables, Bremness’ Herbs finds a compilation of the kinds of herbs used in the world shows trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, vines, ferns horsetails, and fungi like mushrooms. These herbs yield the specific constituents we find add flavor to food or help us heal from dis-ease. Bremness list of ingredients in herbs includes alkaloids, bitters, enzymes, essential oils, gums, glycosides, mucilage, saponins, tannins and vitamins and minerals. Lists from other authors include about six additional ingredients, mostly noted recently such as antioxidants, flavenols, phenols, etc. An herb having one or more of these ingredients makes it valuable to human beings as the body’s functions can respond favorably to them.
Herbs (and spices) as Medicines:
“…The most readily available and successful medicines have proved to be, since time immemorial, the herbs, grasses, trees, fungi and living plants that surround us…” Asa Herschoff, Andrea Rotelli, in Herbal Remedies, published in 2001.
“Herbs have proved themselves effective in treating every conceivable type of health problem in tens of millions of patients… There are food plants, medicinal plants and poisonous plants…” Asa Herschoff, Andrea Rotelli, as above.
Herbs, unlike conventional medicines, have an affinity to bodily functions, organs and requirements for homeostasis. There are numerous herbs that fulfill functions such as antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, immunity, or are adaptogenic or tonic in nature. Herbs have special therapeutic actions recognized by systems of the body: the nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, respiratory, urinary, musculoskeletal, reproductive systems, or the skin. Therapeutic actions are not limited to single plant constituents, but, it is thought, are the result of ingesting the plant itself, the prepared plant, or plant part, as we would food. Isolated chemicals conjured up to represent the required action are not good replacements for herbs because they simply do not work as well in the body. It’s not thoroughly understood or agreed why this is so.