Learning about Spices
What is a spice?
Why were spices important?
Sources of spices
Perfumes and Incenses 
Use of spices as aphrodisiacs
Use of spices as medicines
Culinary herbs
A spice timeline

Table of Spices
Allspice (Pimento)
Black Pepper
Chile Pepper
Coriander (Cilantro)
Frankincense and Myrrh
Nutmeg and Mace

Contacts and Acknowledgments


The ancient Middle Eastern civilizations utilized all types of plant, animal and mineral products to treat disease. The ancient Egyptians developed a somewhat more sophisticated pharmacopoeia, although magic and religion were always utilized as part of therapy. Nevertheless, the Egyptian priests, physicians and embalmers became familiar with a significant number of herbs and spices, some of which (such as cinnamon and myrrh – which were expensive imports) they employed in embalming preparations. The Ebers Papyrus, which was written in Egypt about 1500 B.C., mentions the use of several spices as medicines, including coriander, cumin, fenugreek and mint. The Old Testament recognized the role of apothecaries in compounding ointments; the holy anointing ointment consisted of myrrh, cinnamon, cassia and calamus in olive oil. The exotic spikenard from India was used to anoint Jesus; this fragrant herb is regarded as a perfume source. See a list of spices and their medical use: Medical Use of Spices.

Peppers were known as an important import from India in biblical times. These spices were used in wine as medications for stomach pain, and similar spiced wines were used therapeutically for centuries afterwards by Greeks, Romans and medieval Europeans. One famous spiced wine that was popular in medieval Europe was named ypocras or hippocras, after tissanes that were prescribed by Hippocrates: a typical recipe would include cinnamon, ginger, melegueta, nutmeg, galingale and honey in wine. Many other sweetened spiced wines were used for pleasure or as prescriptions for numerous diseases. The warming qualities of peppers derived from peppercorns, long-pepper, melegueta (Guinea pepper from Africa) or cubebs would make these pungent wines suitable for use on cold evenings or for diseases characterized by excess of cold humors such as the excessive phlegm of respiratory tract inflammatory conditions. Similar spiced wines, ciders and mead are used today, but they are prepared mainly for their festive value, such as their characteristic use at Christmas time.

Many commercial wines, cordials and liqueurs contain proprietary mixtures of herbs and spices. Cardamon, aniseed, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and other spices and herbs such as juniper are favorites, while mints and other herbs such as celery might be used as garnishes as much as flavors. Undoubtedly, folk remedies and family traditions lead to many people favoring specific spicy beverages for a spectrum of health purposes varying from aphrodisiacs and digestives to cold preventatives and bronchitis therapies.

One drink of past days was piment, consisting of wine flavored with honey and various spices. The word piment has been used to mean capsicum pepper (chiles), allspice (also called pimento) or black pepper (pimienta). The word is related to the Latin pigmentum, meaning pigment: this word was often applied to the colorful imported spices from Asia. The Anglo-Saxons prepared a sweet, spicy wine which they called “piment”; this was called “pigment” by the Danes who used it. The apothecaries who were entrusted to make this wine were known as pimentarii. Chaucer refers to such people making hippocras or the similar glarry. The pimentarii of Byzantium prepared many medical products according to the needs of physicians.

Poisoning was a favored means that was employed in ancient Greece and Rome to eliminate enemies. In the 1st century B.C., Mithridates VI, King of Pontus (located in present-day Turkey) worked with his physician to devise an effective antidote to all poisons. Two hundred years later, Galen wrote about antidotes, and he credited the King of Pontus with creating a “mithridatium” that contained 41 ingredients. By that time other famous antidotes had been described; some of these persisted in use for centuries, including one devised by Galen. The most popular of the herbal antidotes besides mithridatium included galene, diascordium and philonium, which were named for their inventors. A generally used antidote that was alleged to be effective against venomous bites and stings was called theriaca; the theriacas of Damocrates and those produced in Cairo, Venice and other large cities became very popular.

The word “theriaca” was corrupted to the word “treacle” in English, especially for preparations of herbs in a thick, sweet base. The famous 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper declared that the virtues and inexpense of garlic made it the “poor-man’s treacle”, and that it can be used as an effective panacea. Most of the other forms of theriacas and the various mithridatiums contained dozens of constituents, including exotic spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cassia, malabathrum, galbanum, cardamon, nard, pepper, frankincense, myrrh and saffron. Although these ineffective multiherb remedies remained in official use until the 19th century, they have spawned a host of similar tonics and stimulants that contain a comparable, illogical array of herbs and spices that enjoy a wide market today. See section on Spices as Aphrodisiacs. The only differences in today’s theriaca equivalents are the incorporation of various modern constituents such as vitamins, minerals, amino-acids and newly fashionable herbs.

A similar group of medical recipes included bitters or “hiera”, which were introduced in Greece for use in the Temples of Ascalepios. The components and the number of constituents varied considerably over the ages, although aloes and cinnamon were commonly used. These were prescribed as purgatives and tonics, and were eventually recommended as valued panaceas for a great number of different disorders. Their use persisted – despite no evidence of effectiveness – for many centuries. Today, some European countries still make available similar bitter tonics (such as the ancient Hiera picra or “holy bitter”), and they are marketed as non-specific remedies; people regard them as digestives, cough medicines and so on.

In all medical systems of Asia and Europe, spices have been used both as therapeutic foods and as medicines. Despite the contrasting opinions of different experts who insisted on their indications, there is little evidence of any specific benefit from most spices. Many pungent spices are unattractive to animals (excepting most, humans, many birds and some rodents), and they do have some antimicrobial, gastrointestinal, and mucus-loosening properties. Modern studies suggest that garlic, onion, allspice and oregano are the most potent antibacterial and antifungal agents; thyme, cinnamon, cloves and chile peppers are among the next best, while cardamon, black and yellow pepper, ginger, anise and celery seeds are less effective. However, there is lack of uniformity in findings, and this may reflect non-uniformity in source material. Furthermore, some fungi and bacteria use spices as supportive media for their growth.

Although it is often claimed that exotic spices were sought as valuable food preservatives, this is not correct. Thus, simple pickling with common-place vinegar, garlic and mustard can preserve and flavor food almost as well as dehydrating and salting can. Honey and strong sugar soultions can also be used as food preservatives. There is little evidence that pepper, cloves, nutmegs, ginger and other expensive spices were used as alternatives to garlic, etc. to preserve food or to delay the spoilage of cooked dishes. Their use in their countries of origin is not related to spices serving as an alternative to refrigeration, since they are usually added to fresh foods as flavors. In particular, they add zest to a bland diet based on rice and other high-carbohydrate vegetable staples. Indeed, the concentrations of spices that would be needed to significantly retard food spoilage by microorganisms would result in an overwhelming flavor, that may be worse than that of the decaying food.

While it is true that ancient recipes suggest that spices were added in extraordinary large amounts to banquet recipes, it is not clear how many people were meant to be served. It is likely that in practice large amounts were used only if a huge number of people were to participate in the feast. Thus, the actual amount of spice per individual may have been closer to what is acceptable today. Moreover, banquets were an opportunity to enjoy a prolonged bout of gorging, and it is likely that little food remained to be preserved from putrefaction over the ensuing post-banquet days. The evidence does not support claims that spice imports were driven by a need to either disguise the taste of spoiled food or to prevent putrefaction of cooked dishes. Furthermore, when coffee, tea, tobacco and snuff became fashionable in the 18th century, spices in food became less acceptable; thus, spice use declined in France and many other countries, even though methods for food preservation had not improved.

It is noteworthy that honey was recognized to be an effective preserver of meats and other foods. In ancient times honey was applied to wounds, and more recent studies have shown it to be more effective than granulated sugar. Honey may have more than a simple osmotic effect that contributes to its bactericidal and fungicidal benefits. History records that when Alexander the Great died in Babylon, his body was encased in honey in a tomb for transfer to Alexandria for burial. There is no evidence that any spices are superior to or offer additive benefits to honey as a food preservative.

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