The Alchemy of Food: Herbs & Spices

The Alchemy of Food: Herbs & Spices

This blog post has been written by Kumud Gandhi who has been crown the Spice Queen by BBC Broadcaster Nick Coffer. She is a food scientist, published author, food writer and broadcaster based in Hertfordshire, UK which is home to The Cooking Academy.

Kumud is running a Friends of Jekka's Master Class on the Alchemy of Food on the 19th June 2021.

The importance of Herbs & Spices

"The idea that eating certain types of food can have a positive effect on our wellbeing is not a new one…..but where did it all start?"

Thousands of years ago the great Greek Philosopher and physician Hippocrates  - The father of medicine said “let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food” and this is the abiding principle by which I cook and I teach others to cook.  

Food has specific chemical values and when we eat, it creates a chemical reaction with our biology and so together it can have a positive or negative effect on our physiology.  Hippocrates, documented the link between food, our diet and our health. Furthermore, Theophrastus, the Greek scholar and botanists, wrote many ‘treaties’ on medicinal plants including spices. More recently, in ‘our’ time, doctors have been looking at our diet to find the answers to ailments and diseases such as diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s.   Not a day goes by without the national press reporting on another food group documenting scientific studies and bodies of evidence of exactly the same notion; that food has healing properties.

In the Indian system of natural medicine, ‘ayurveda’, food plays a pivotal role in our wellbeing and practitioners suggest that the most appropriate diet should be tailored to suit ones individual bio-chemistry, rather than the ‘one-size fits all’ approach.  Similarities can be found in traditional Chinese medicine as well as the Aztecs of South America.  Cultures all over the world have relied upon the naturally occurring chemical properties of herbs, spices and natural foods for their well-being long before the invention of modern science as we know it today. 

The history of Herbs & Spices

Herbs and spices are the very essence of nature and they create delicate flavours that become the building block of a tasty dish.  As well as exciting the palate, they are made up of an impressive list of essential oils, phyto-nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that are essential for overall health.  Spices have been an integral part of our food for centuries.  Today, with our busy, somewhat stressful lifestyles; it’s never been more relevant to harness the goodness of nature to improve our wellbeing.

Humans have probably used spices in one form or another since we first began to cook with fire. After all, spices are just the seeds of naturally occurring trees, shrubs and plants.  Such plants were wild and abundant, commonly available to all.  

The use of spices is so ubiquitous; it is difficult to tell exactly where spices originate.  The most commonly used spices, originate from the East, India and South-East Asia, the most notable exceptions to this are chillies, allspice and vanilla that come from the New World, Mexico and the Caribbean.  A number of common culinary herbs are imports from the Mediterranean and North Africa, discovered by the ancient Romans, Greeks and Persians; Thyme, Rosemary, Sage and Coriander are some examples.  The movement of spices began over 5000 years ago, long before the expeditions of Marco Polo and Columbus, where the travellers of the Middle East and Egypt were fascinated by the medicinal and culinary value of spices and were keen to take these from India back to their own lands.  Ancient scripture has traced this practise back to 3000 BC.  

The ancient Egyptians and Syrians were using spices for embalming and preservation and this technique spread throughout the Middle East.   Conquerors like Alexander the Great were well known for their interest in spices and the commercial enterprises they brought to Central and Northern Europe.  There is early evidence of pepper being used to aid the preservation of meats and to combat stomach pain.  Right from the early days of travellers and tradesmen, the original Arab spice route from Northern and Southern India through the Khyber Pass into Persia (what is now the Middle East) and on to Europe and the rest of the world, we have been exchanging spices and learning about their valuable contributions to our civilization.  

One most fascinating fact is that the Americas may not have been discovered by the Europeans until much later, were it not for the European desire (Columbus) to break the Arab traders' monopoly on spices- an interesting thought!  

The traders of the Middle East were the brokers for spices, essentially a gateway between the East and West.  One could argue that the Arabs were the first truly global traders and power brokers. The key players were the Northern Arabians, who sent caravans and ships to India, China and Indonesia.

Meanwhile, here in Europe, demand for spices grew significantly; the very wealthy bought spices like nutmeg and even paid a ransom or salaries in spices.   This increasing demand enabled prices to remain high and spices to be considered very rare and a premium commodity. 

The principle use of Herbs & Spices

In modern day Western Europe and the USA, flavour is the most commonly perceived reason for using spices. 

However, throughout the ages, spices have held three functions in cooking: medicinal, as a preservative and for seasoning.  Each spice has a chemical property, a characteristic, as well as a taste.  By knowing the taste of your spices, you can begin to weave them into your everyday recipes.  For example, ginger is clean and warm in character, medicinally; it is anti-bacterial and a digestive aid, whilst in taste it is hot and citrusy. 

In the days before refrigeration, spices were used as a means of preserving foods. The amazing longevity of Egyptian artefacts were achieved by embalming with spices, these have stood the test of time and lasted several millennia. These traditions were passed from the Egyptians throughout Europe and the Mediterranean to our shores here in Britain.  In middle age Britain, salt was predominantly used as a means of preserving meats, and black pepper was primarily used by wealthy households as it was very expensive.  As the taste of salt is so strong they used spices to balance the flavours in an attempt to disguise the saltiness.  Sauces were made to accompany the meat using spices such as cinnamon, star anise, saffron, garlic and nutmeg; and so began the use of spices in European food. 

Perhaps it is less known to us just how much we have been influenced by our Greek and Roman ancestors.  Our use of common herbs such as Thyme, Bay leaves, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage and mustard all ascend from our colonial past.  Our love of Rosemary and Oregano when cooking lamb is an example of Roman and Greek influences. Rosemary is used as a natural anti-oxidant and preservative, and is still used today by the food industry when processing meats to ensure its colour remains vibrant to appeal to customers.

Of course, as well as their medicinal properties, herbs and spices are used to stimulate the 5 basic tastes; sweet, sour, hot, salty and umami.  When you achieve harmony or ying yang, you excite every part of your palate.  In my Friends of Jekka’s Master Class, I will talk about the use of herbs and spices and how to pair them with ingredients for functional purposes as well as flavour.  There are so many ingredients that are used in this way to enhance a dish to another level, take anchovies, olives or parmesan – just one ingredient can be such a game changer to bring balance.  In tart vegetarian dishes, you might add an element of sweetness, with a spice such as cinnamon, to remove the sharpness of the tart ingredient.  In dishes such as chicken, lamb, or fish the sweetness of the meat could be rounded off with a little fresh coriander or parsley.

Understanding spices and their characteristics is important when cooking.  When we know the broader context of a spice we can begin to place its value and expand our use of them.  We begin to open up the idea of cross fertilisation and can experiment with a greater confidence that the outcome is likely to yield success and therefore worth the risk of using it.

For example; black pepper adds heat, but it is the chemical, piperine, that adds both pungency and intensity to the dish, so elevates the flavour once again.  

For the most part, in modern day life our use of herbs and spices is largely relegated to achieving flavour.  We make dietary choices and select ingredients based on our preference of their flavours rather than their functional or nutritional value.  We can choose foods that are entirely out of season and grown many thousands of miles away simply because we have choice and diversity available at our fingertips.  Post war Britain, refrigeration became accessible to all which means we no longer need the use of spices to preserve our food. Some of our culinary traditions, such as salting or curing meats, are used out of choice rather than necessity.  Furthermore, the rise of the pharmaceutical industry has led us to seek answers to our ailments from the doctor in the form of drugs than the naturally occurring remedies we could find in the kitchen cabinet, larder or garden.  For me that ponders many questions, principally whether we are a healthier society for it? Do we feel better, do we eat well, has the overall quality of life improved with this modern approach to food or not? 

Not only as a food scientist, but as the daughter of generations of chemists and spice merchants I believe in nature and everything that mother earth provides for us. For me it is a realisation that the kitchen cupboard promises to offer more effective solutions to our health problems than the medicine cabinet; after all, prevention is better than cure. The functionality will always be more important, but I have learned to cook in a way where function and flavour can co-exist in harmony to create the best food I could achieve for my mind, body and soul.  This is the principle by which I teach at The Cooking Academy.  As my great ancestors have said:  

“To forget how to dig the soil and tend to the earth is how to forget ourselves” Mahatma Gandhi

So I’ll stick with the spice cupboard for now!

About Kumud

Kumud Gandhi is a food scientist, published author, food writer and broadcaster based in Hertfordshire, UK. 

After a successful career in banking, Kumud pursued her passion for food and retrained in food science. This background in food science and her family legacy as chemists and spice merchants gives her authority to explain the relationship between the chemistry of food and the impact on human biology.

She subsequently started The Saffron House - fine dining company - and this journey lead her to cater for clients including HRH the Prince of Wales, The Oxford Union, the Palace of Westminster, Nelson Mandela and many A-list celebrities.

In 2010 she established The Cooking Academy, a cookery school based in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire.  Kumud uses her blend of science and knowledge of spices to teach her ‘Alchemy of Food’.  The Corporate Wellness division of The Cooking Academy is dedicated to providing ‘Wellbeing in the Workplace’ and serves to improve employee productivity and engagement to increase staff retention and profitability. 

The services are delivered through a range of programmes including seminars, nutritional coaching, workshops and team building events.  The Cooking Academy also run a range of publicly available cookery classes. 

Kumud is a regular contributor to radio and television as well as writing in The Times, Telegraph, Mental Health Magazine and other publications.  Kumud has commented about food on BBC1’s Rip off Britain, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and BBC Three Counties Radio show.

Book a place on Kumud's Friends of Jekka's Master Class: The Alchemy of Food or buy Kumud's new book "A cupboard full of spice"; available from The Cooking Academy.