Spices and Herbs

views updated

Spices and Herbs

Native populations in America used plants for flavoring their foods before the arrival of Europeans, but the importance and varieties of these plants are poorly known. The most popular species that originated in present-day Latin America are discussed below.


Comes from the cured seedpod of an orchid vine that grows in tropical forests. In pre-Columbian times, the Aztec nobility used vanilla to flavor their chocolate drinks; several South American tribes considered it a desirable body perfume, wearing the pods in strings around the neck; medicinal properties were also attributed to it. The pod arrived in Spain aboard the first ships returning from America; it was used by priests and nuns to flavor their chocolate beverages. The aristocracy followed, then the French court in the seventeenth century. In colonial Latin America, vanilla was favored by the elites as an addition to chocolate drinks and sweet confections. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Dutch, French, and British tried to start large-scale production of vanilla in their colonies in Africa and Asia; frequently they smuggled plants from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in America for that purpose, but plants never produced seedpods outside their native habitats. It was not known then that a small bee found only in the American tropics is needed to pollinate the flowers. In the 1840s a former French slave developed a technique of hand-pollination; it proved so effective that later Mexico adopted it for large-scale production. Today vanilla is produced in tropical America, some Pacific islands, and Asia.

Chili peppers

Many varieties of chili peppers were widely cultivated throughout Mesoamerica and South America, and some of their ancient names are still in use: chile (Mexico), ají (the Caribbean), huayka (Peru, Bolivia). Chilies were so important in the diets of South American tribes that going without them was considered similar to fasting. Employed in initiations of young men and for protection in war, they were also used as medicines and insect repellents; the hottest varieties, macerated and mixed with water, served occasionally as weapons against the Spaniards. The Portuguese took hot peppers from Brazil around the world in the early 1600s; by the end of the century several varieties were grown in Africa, India, China, and some of the Pacific Islands, becoming important ingredients in their cuisines. The origins of the spicy malagueta pepper, African or Brazilian, has generated debate yet it remains a central ingredient to Bahian cooking in Brazil. The Ottoman Turkish armies brought hot peppers with them from India to Hungary, where it became established as paprika. Chilies entered colonial Anglo-America with the African slaves. Today chilies lend their fiery grace to foods from all over the world. All Latin American countries use hot peppers in their cuisine to a greater or lesser extent, either in sauces or as condiments for various dishes.


Achiote (annato) is a seed that serves as both a red colorant and a spice. Native populations painted their bodies with achiote for ceremonial occasions and war. In Nicaragua it was added to chocolate to give the beverage a bloodlike color. Spanish colonists accepted it as a substitute for saffron. Today it flavors and colors dishes like pollo pibil (Yucatán), corvina a la chorrillana (Peru), and the ever-prevalent arroz con pollo.


This Caribbean seed, used also by the Aztecs, was exported to Europe in 1601 as a substitute for cardamom and became popular in German, Italian, and Scandinavian sausages and other dishes. Most of the world's production comes from Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, the spice trade had enormous economic importance in Europe, comparable to that of oil today; in fact, it was in search of a spice route that Europeans first reached America. However, once established as a colonial power, Spain abandoned its interest in the spice trade: the exploitation of American precious stones and metals prevailed. Portugal, and later the Netherlands, France, and Britain, monopolized the spice trade in fierce competition. Oriental spices favored in Europe were traded with the colonies; black pepper, cinnamon and cloves, still popular in Latin America today, are often imported. Some herbaceous spices of Asian origin that rooted well in American soil have been staple flavorings since early colonial times: the ever-popular cilantro, mostly as an herb; cumin seeds, for sofrito and guisado preparations; gingerroot, for drinks and as medicine; anise, to flavor alcoholic beverages like aguardiente; and cardamom. The last, once more valuable than gold to Arabs, is cultivated today in Central America, Guatemala being the world's first producer. Plants of European origin like onion, garlic, parsley, and oregano, also introduced in the sixteenth century, are today essential flavorings in Latin American cooking.

See alsoFood and Cookery .


A scholarly and well-documented ethnobotanical history of equatorial America and Central America is Victor Manuel Patiño, Plantas cultivadas y animales domésticos en América equinoccial vols. 2 (Plantas alimenticias) and 4 (Plantas introducidas) (1962). Good information on the origin and present situation of individual spices is Kenneth Farrell, Spices, Condiments, and Seasonings (1990). A fascinating introduction to the general history of spices is Wolfgang Schivelbush, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, translated by David Jacobson (1992), chap. 1. Also useful are introductory chapters of Latin American cookbooks such as Barbara Karoff, South American Cooking (1989) and Elizabeth Lambert De Ortíz, The Book of Latin American Cooking (1979). See also Amal Naj, Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits (1992); and Larry Luxner, "A Spicy Tale," in Américas 44, no. 1 (1992): 2-3, on cardamom.

Additional Bibliography

Andrews, Jean. The Pepper Trail: History and Recipes from around the World. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1999.

Cascudo, Luís da Câmara. História da alimentação no Brasil. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1967.

Dalby, Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Rain, Patricia. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004.

                                 Carmenza Olaya Fonstad