Pungent or aromatic seasonings obtained from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds or stems of various plants and trees (whereas herbs usually come from the leafy part of a plant). Spices were prized long before recorded history. Though they've always been used to flavor food and drink, throughout the eons spices have also been favored for a plethora of other uses including crowning emperors, making medicines and perfumes, religious ceremonies and as burial accoutrements for the wealthy. More than 3,000 years ago the Arabs monopolized the spice trade, bringing their rare cargo back from India and the Orient by arduous camel caravans. During the Middle Ages the demand for spices was so high that they became rich commodities—a pound of mace could buy three sheep and the same amount of peppercorns could buy freedom for a serf. By that time Venice had a tight hold on Western commerce and controlled the incredibly lucrative European spice trade. That Venetian monopoly was an important catalyst for the expeditions that resulted in the discovery of the New World. Today the United States is the world's major spice buyer. Among the more popular spices are allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, saffron and turmeric. Spices are also sold in blends, such as curry powder and Spice Parisienne. Many spices are available in both whole and ground forms. Ground spices quickly lose their aroma and flavor, so it's wise to buy them in small quantities. Whole spices can be ground as needed. Store spices in airtight containers in a cool, dark place for no more than six months. To refresh spices that have been on the shelf too long, heat them in a dry skillet over medium heat or in a 375°F oven for 3 to 5 minutes. Spices are used to enhance a wide variety of food, both sweet and savory. They should be used sparingly so they don't overpower the foods being seasoned.

From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

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