One of the truly great pleasures of Mediterranean cuisine is the degree to which you eat with all of your senses. The single biggest aspect of this is the aggressive use of spices in these cultures. While most of the foods in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Morocco and others are not inherently spicy per se, they are loaded with spices of all kinds and they aren’t shy about applying them to their dishes. As a dish is brought in front of you, the first thing you notice is the wafting aroma from the dish that dances in your nose, preparing your taste buds for what they are about to experience. The spices are not only complex, but these cultures have mastered the art of combining spices you wouldn’t traditionally expect to see together and in conjunction with meat for example. It isn’t uncommon to pair traditionally “sweet” spices, like cinnamon and ginger, with chicken or lamb, adding a hint of dried fruit to create an unctuous sauce that is to die for.
Yet the use of spices in these cultures goes far beyond the food itself. One of the most profoud experiences I had in Morocco was in a spice shop in the souks of ancient Fez. The two hours I spent there were eye opening in the degree to which it showed me that every spice has not only a culinary purpose, but a medicinal one as well. People in these cultures truly eat for their taste buds and their health. The following are a few samples of what I learned that day.
Cumin, which is delightful with vegetables, meat and fish, is actually a powerful aid for intestinal discomfort. A teaspoon dissolved in a cup of water will cure any stomach ailment.
Saffron, which is the highly prized stamen of a crocus flower, and very expensive, is a wonderful immunological booster. A cream is often manufactured out of saffron which is used for skin irritations and acne.
Ginseng, also known as the Mandrake, is a common supplement that can aid in promoting circulation, hindering depression and helping against dizziness. Can often be steeped in hot water to make a soothing tea.
Nigella or Sativa, is a wonderful spice for headaches, migraines, colds and asthma. We took some of this and placed it in a tissue. Then we rubbed the tissue along with the seeds in the palm of our hand and inhaled. What resulted was nasal clearing sensation that actually re-energized us. These seeds are often used in baking as a subtle flavoring.
And the list goes on, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, cayenne pepper, all of these spices have alternate purposes ranging from digestion to circulation and overall health.
Many of these spices can be found at gourmet food markets, such as World Gourmet Foods in Bloomington, IL. You can also find them on various websites such as www.igourmet.com and www.zamourispices.com. Learning to incorporate them into your cooking will not only make your food taste wonderful, but may offer other potential health benefits. And if nothing else, using more spices in your cooking is a wonderful way of cutting out fat and sugar, which as we all know is healthier for us. Note: Spices begin to lose much of their flavor after 6 months. Purchase them in smaller amounts more frequently and keep them in a cool dry place in an airtight container for maximum shelf life.