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The Strange Origins of Spices

When you add a pinch of pepper or paprika to a recipe, it’s easy to forget that many common kitchen spices have uncommon origins.

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Turmeric is a deep yellow spice from India that’s made by boiling, drying, and grinding the rhizome (underground stem) of a plant in the ginger family. It tastes slightly bitter and peppery and is often used in savory dishes. Some 4000 years ago, turmeric played a role in religious rituals, and it’s still used today in many Hindu weddings and spiritual ceremonies. Sometimes referred to as “Indian saffron,” turmeric is cultivated in India and Vietnam and grows wild in parts of Asia.

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Photo: Photo by Lynn Coulter


Paprika gives a dash of bright color to deviled eggs and many other foods. It's made from the dried pods of sweet bell peppers. Columbus introduced the plants to Spain after he returned from his voyage to the New World.

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This pungent spice comes from the rhizome of a tropical plant and dates back to about 500 B.C., when Confucius allegedly flavored his food with it, hoping to ensure a long life. Arab traders probably carried ginger from the Orient into Europe, but it almost disappeared after the Roman Empire fell. Marco Polo is credited for reviving its popularity when he found the plants growing in China and took them home to Venice. In Anglo-Saxon Britain, the rhizomes were boiled in sugar syrup as medicine. Queen Elizabeth may have invented the first gingerbread man when she ordered her bakers to make something edible in the likeness of her visitors. Today, many Asian dishes are spiced up with fresh or ground ginger.

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As you might guess from its leaves, cumin is in the parsley family. Cumin comes from an annual herb with fruits that resemble fennel seeds (in fact, cumin fruits are often referred to as “seeds.”) Some people dislike cumin’s strong aroma and flavor, but the early Greeks sprinkled it over foods the way we use pepper today. In ancient Egypt, cumin was one of the spices used for embalming mummies. This yellowish-brown spice came into the New World with Spanish and Portuguese colonists and merchants about 400 years ago. It’s frequently used in Mexican dishes.

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