The use of herbs dates back to early humans. Early civilisations wrapped meat in the leaves of bushes, accidentally discovering that this enhanced the taste of the meat, as did certain nuts, seeds, berries – and even bark. Our chief supplier of herbs & spices – Steenbergs Organics are passionate about them. And so they should be! Spices not only take your meals to the next level, they’re also brilliant for your body.
Arab traders were the first to introduce spices into Europe. Realizing that they controlled a commodity in great demand, the traders kept their sources of supply secret and made up fantastic tales of the dangers involved in obtaining spices. Today, spices are used in almost everything we eat, and costs are relatively low. It is hard to imagine that these fragrant bits of leaves, seeds, and bark were once so coveted and costly. For centuries wars were waged, new lands discovered, and the earth circled, all in the quest of spices. However, many of the spices have properties as well as their culinary uses. For example, research has shown that turmeric is full of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and horseradish contains substances known as phytochemicals, which possess properties that mimic the ability of antioxidants which give a boost to the immune system in our bodies. Herbs and Spices have antibacterial and antiviral properties and many are high in B-vitamins and trace minerals. Most herbs and spices also contain more disease-fighting antioxidants than fruits and vegetables.
Spices are the buds, bark, roots, berries and aromatic seeds that are harvested for use in flavouring cooking. Herbs are the fragrant leaves of plants. Even the tiny filaments of saffron are referred to as a spice. (Saffron is the stigma which is hand plucked from a small mauve crocus native to Kashmir – hence its expense.) Most spices are grown in the tropical regions of the world, with some thriving in the cool misty highlands. Many of the seed spices come from more temperate areas, such as coriander seed, which is grown in Northern India, Africa and Eastern Europe.
The majority of spices are still harvested in the way they have been for centuries, by hand! Most of the developments in the spice industry have been with respect to growing and post-harvest treatment such as grading and cleaning.
Below are a few of our key herbs and the health-benefitting properties that they have:
Cinnamon has the highest antioxidant value of any spice. It has been shown to reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar and blood pressure. Cinnamon has also been used to alleviate nausea. It provides manganese, iron and calcium. It can help extend the life of foods, along with nutmeg and orange.
Whilst cinnamon is most commonly used in baking and we tend to overdose on it at Christmas time, it can also be used in savoury dishes. Try adding it to a white sauce in a lasagna, pumpkin soup or even curry.
Basil is brilliant in everything from salads to soups. It has anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties and can help prevent arthritis. It has been used in digestive disorders and is being studied for its anti-cancer properties. Though commonly used in Italian cooking, Basil is a versatile herb that can be added to practically anything.
Recently, it’s been found that paprika not only helps your body fight inflammation and disease in general, but it may even have specific targeting to prevent and fight autoimmune conditions and certain cancers. Paprika also boosts your daily intake of vitamin E. Each tablespoon provides 2 milligrams of vitamin E, or 13 percent of the recommended daily intake. Vitamin E helps control blood clot formation and promotes healthy blood vessel function, and also serves as an antioxidant. Paprika is also an excellent source of iron.
Turmeric is a common ingredient in Indian foods, and a great addition to soups. It contains Curcumin, a cancer-fighting compound. It is best known for its ability to reduce inflammation and improve joints. If you are struggling with inflammation, you can grate a small amount and eat it raw. You’ll notice the effects fairly quickly. Try adding turmeric to your daily cooking – only a small amount will make a big difference!
In our opinions, garlic is a cupboard essential. Fresh cloves are always best, but powdered, minced and granulated forms provide excellent flavour. Studies show that just 2 fresh cloves a week provide anti-cancer benefits.
Dill has antibacterial properties but is most known for its stomach settling ability (ever wonder why pregnant women crave pickles?). It contains a variety of nutrients but loses most when heated to high temperatures. For this reason, it is best used in uncooked recipes or in foods cooked at low temperatures. It is a great addition to any type of fish, to dips and dressings, to omelettes or to poultry dishes.
Cayenne has many health benefits and can improve the absorption of other nutrients in foods. It has been shown to increase circulation and reduce the risk of heart problems. It is also a great addition to many foods. In small amounts, it can be added to practically any dish, meat, vegetable or sauce. As tolerance to the spicy flavor increases, the amount added can be increased also.
Mint has traditionally been used to calm digestive troubles and to reduce nausea. Many people enjoy a tea made from peppermint or spearmint leaves, and the volatile oils in both have been used in breath fresheners, toothpastes and chewing gum. Externally, the oil or tea can be used to repel mosquitos.
Oregano is a common ingredient in Italian and Greek cuisine. Oregano (and it’s milder cousin, Marjoram) are antiviral, antibacterial, anticancer and antibiotic. It is extremely high in antioxidants and has demonstrated antimicrobial properties against food-borne pathogens like Listeria. Its oil and leaves are used medicinally in treatment of cough, fever, congestion, body ache and illness. Combined with basil, garlic, marjoram, thyme and rosemary, it creates a potent antiviral, anti bacterial, antimicrobial and cancer fighting seasoning blend. It can also be sprinkled on any kind of savory foods. A couple of teaspoons added to a soup will help recovery from illness.
The second most used herb in the world after black pepper, cumin provides a distinct and pleasant taste. Cumin has antimicrobial properties and has been used to reduce flatulence. It is a wonderful addition to curry powder or to flavor Mexican or Middle Eastern dishes.
Curry powder can have a wide variety of ingredients, but often contains turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, mustard powder, cayenne, ginger, garlic, nutmeg, fenugreek and a wide variety of peppers. With all these ingredients it has an amazing range of beneficial properties. Curry is an acquired taste, but can be added to meats, stir frys, soups and stews.
If you’ve had rosemary it was likely on a lamb dish, but its uses are much more varied. It has a high concentration of the antioxidant carnosol and research shows it may have benefits in cancer treatment and healthy digestion and use of cholesterol. It has a pine/lemony scent and it can be used in soap making due to its smell and ability to fight aging by rejuvenating the small blood vessels under the skin. If you aren’t ready to jump into soap-making just yet… try it on meat dishes, in soups or with vegetables. Water boiled with Rosemary can be used as an antiseptic.
Thyme contains thymol, a potent antioxidant (and also the potent ingredient in Listerine mouthwash). Water boiled with thyme can be used in homemade spray cleaners and or can be added to bathwater for treatment of wounds. Thyme water can be swished around the mouth for gum infections or for the healing of wounds from teeth removal. Thyme tea can also be taken internally during illness to speed recovery. In foods, it is often used in French cooking (an ingredient in Herbs de Provence) and Italian. Add to any baked dishes at the beginning of cooking, as it slowly releases its benefits.
Once you have a basic understanding of the various spice flavours and how they complement different foods, you can use your own creativity and taste instincts to experiment with a whole range of combinations. Being adventurous with spices can make cooking fun! To see our full Steenbergs range, visit our website.