The Spice of Life

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A few spices and herbs can turn your mundane dishes into a culinary masterpiece. The beauty of Lebanese food is its wonderful, somehow randomly, measured use of spices and herbs into almost all of its dishes. Almost all dishes are abundant in wonderful flavors of aromatic, spicy, lemony, sweet herbs and spices.

The Lebanese cuisine is an ancient one and part of the Levantine cuisine. Many dishes in the Lebanese cuisine can be traced back thousands of years to the Roman and Greek era, and to the roots and origins of the Levant and Mesopotamia civilizations: the Phoenicians. For most of its recent past, Lebanon has been ruled by foreign powers that have influenced the types of food the Lebanese ate.

Historically, culinary spices and herbs have been used as food preservatives and for their health- enhancing properties. Papyri from Ancient Egypt in1555 BC classified coriander, fennel, juniper, cumin, garlic and thyme as health promoting spices. Records from that time also note that laborers who constructed the Great Pyramid of Cheops consumed onion and garlic as a means to promote health.

Ancient Greeks imported Eastern spices (pepper, cassia, cinnamon, and ginger) to the Mediterranean area; they also consumed many herbs produced in neighboring countries. Examples include caraway and poppy seeds for bread, fennel for vinegar sauces, and coriander as a condiment in food and wine, and mint as a flavoring in meat sauces (all still part of our everyday diet here in Lebanon). Garlic was widely used by the country people in much of their cooking. Ancient Greeks wore parsley and marjoram as a crown at their feasts in an attempt to prevent drunkenness.

Spices and herbs played an important role in ancient Greek medical science. Hippocrates (460-377 BC), wrote about spices and herbs, including saffron, cinnamon, thyme, coriander, mint, and marjoram. He noted that great care should be given to the preparation of herbs for medical use.

The Romans were extravagant users of spices and herbs. Spice-flavored wines were used in ancient Rome and spice-scented balms and oils were popular for use after the bath. Since spices were considered to have health properties, they were also used in poultices and healing plasters.

Early on, spices were used as a source of trading. During the ancient Roman Empire, trading largely came from Arabia. Traders supplied cassia, cinnamon, and other spices and deliberately kept the source of their products secret. The intent was to have a monopoly on the spice trade and the Arabians spun great tales about the how they obtained the spices in order to keep their resource value high. They continued to keep the origins secret for several centuries from both Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman civilizations until about the 1st century, AD, when the Roman scholar Pliny made the connection between the Arabian stories and the inflation of spices and herbs.

Spices contain an impressive list of plant-derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties. They have been in use since ancient times for their anti-inflammatory, carminative, anti-flatulent properties.

Spices can be aromatic or pungent in flavors and peppery or slightly bitter in taste. In order to keep their fragrance and flavor intact, they are generally added in the cooking recipes at the final moment of cooking since prolonged cooking results in evaporation of much of their essential oils.

Spices can be categorized botanically according to their source of plant part as follows:

  • Leaves of aromatic plants: Examples include bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, etc.
  • Fruits or seeds: Examples include fennel, nutmeg, coriander, fenugreek, mustard, and black pepper etc.
  • Roots or bulbs: Examples include garlic, galangal, turmeric, ginger, etc.
  • Bark: Cinnamon, Cassia, etc.

In general, spices have a more pungent flavor than herbs. It is possible for one plant to provide an herb and a spice. For example, for the plant Coriandrum sativum, the leaves are used as the herb cilantro while the seed is used as the spice coriander.

Besides traditional spices like salt, pepper, oregano, garlic etc… the Lebanese cuisine uses also some special spices that give flavor to its food. The most popular are the following:

  • Cardamom – has a unique taste, spicy-sweet, slightly flavored. It has aphrodisiac qualities and is usually used to spice sweets, coffee, tea etc.
  • Sumac – is a tangy, lemony spice used sprinkled liberally over salads, Fatoush, Tabbule, and even to soften the strong taste of meat. The health benefit of Sumac are many, some being antifungal, anti microbial, anti osidant, and anti inflammatory.
  • Dried green mint – Known for its therapeutic properties, mint is generously used in our kitchen, in the Lebanese lemonade and as flavor to salads. Mint promotes digestion. It also soothes stomachs in cases of indigestion or inflammation. When you feel sick to your stomach, drinking a cup of mint tea can give you relief.
  • Rosemary: cooking at high temps produces compounds called heterocyclic amines, which are harmful free radicals that may cause cancer. marinating meat in a mixture made with rosemary before firing it up prevents the formation of heterocyclic amines by as much as 84 percent.
  • Lebanese seven spices – is a mix of spices that brings a burst of flavor to the taste buds. They are used in recipes involving minced beef or lamb such as in Kafta meshwe, Kibbeh, Koosa and more. Please note that a “Lebanese Seven Spices” mix is not the same as an “Arabic Seven Spices” mix, which consists of cumin, paprika, coriander, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and black pepper (as well as a little bit of cardamom). (recipe below)
  • Oregano: One teaspoon contains not only six micrograms of bone-building vitamin K but also the same amount of antioxidants as three cups of spinach. And preliminary research indicates that oregano can help fend off stomach flu.
  • Cinnamon: has one of the highest antioxidant values of any spice. The spice has been shown to reduce inflammation, lower blood sugar and blood triglyceride levels, alleviate nausea and increase sensitivity to insulin as an aid in fat burning. It’s also a good source of manganese, iron and calcium.
  • Cumin: One tablespoon of these aromatic seeds fulfills 22 percent of your daily requirement for iron, a mineral that helps keep your energy level high and your immune system in flu-fighting shape. And according to preliminary research, cumin may also boost your brainpower: In an animal study, consuming cumin extract was shown to improve performance on memory tests.
  • Basil: known to have exceptionally powerful antioxidant properties that can protect the body from premature aging, common skin issues and some types of cancer. The herb contains plant pigments that shield your cell structures from oxygen and radiation damage and can be applied to wounds to help prevent bacterial infections.
  • Other spices and herbs used in Lebanon are; bay leaf, nutmeg, aniseed, sweet pepper, black pepper, and many more

The truth of the matter is, just like spices and herbs, once you get used to eating Lebanese food, you can never live without its aromatic flavors. This land of plenty has spread its culinary wonders all over the world, making it one of the most popular cuisines in the world.

Lebanese 7-spice mixture:

1 tablespoon finely ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ground allspice

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground Ginger

Mix all the spices and store in a hermetically sealed container away from both heat and light.

Zaatar mixture:

  • 3 tbsp. salt
  • 6 tbsp. ground sumac
  • 6 tbsp. dried thyme
  • 6 tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted

(optional: I add 1 tsp. turmeric to the mix, for its health benefits)

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