Please Explain: Spices

Friday, August 14, 2009

Most spices are delicious, some have medical value and a good amount of them have changed the course of human history. On this week's Please Explain we'll learn all about spices, from Anise to Vanilla. We'll be joined by Dr. John E. Hayes, Assistant Professor of Food Science at Penn State University and by chef Michael Krondl. Michael is also the author of numerous books, including The Taste of Conquest.


Michael Krondl

Comments [23]

Gary Allen from Kingston, NY

A few issues:

Birds cannot detect capsaicin, so when they eat chiles there experience no heat. This has allowed the spread of chiles, as the birds don't digest the seeds and excrete them in new locations.

Another reason why spices were NOT used to disguise the taste of spoiled meat: spices were MUCH more expensive than meat in the middle ages.

People's ideas about food have always been in sync with their ideas about medicine and health. Part of the reason heavy use of spices declined in Europe was a switch from medical ideas of Avicenna to those of Galen (once Galen's work was rediscovered in the Renaissance). Avicenna's ideas were rooted in Islam (and included much of what we think of as "Arabic" food -- which tends to be spicy), while Galen's medicine was based on balance between four "humors."

Aug. 14 2009 02:11 PM
BJK from Queens

I tried to get on the show by phone, but failed.
My understanding is that the key bioactive ingredient in chilis is the chemical capsaisin, which I believe is a bronchodilator.
I have strong personal empirical evidence of this.
One of my favorite spots in the city is Mamouns for their fresh falafels.
They are also known for a particularly strong 'hot' (chili) sauce, only a few drops of which suffice to generate quite a lot of heat.
I get the sense, because the very different taste of this compared to store-shelved hot sauces, that this is freshly ground.
In the winter, when I am prone to upper-respiratory congestion know and then, almost immediately upon a few bites of falafel with this pepper sauce, and my chest instantly clears.
I am always amazed at the effect.
I challenge any doubters this winter, if they come up with a cold, to give it a shot!

Aug. 14 2009 02:01 PM

There are also regional differences in spices in India. I think the curry powders are different between north and south.

Aug. 14 2009 01:57 PM
maggie from morristown nj

btw, from
Parrots eat peppers (even the hot ones) to settle their stomachs. In the wild, they eat all types of stuff, some toxic things, bugs, insects, etc., that might not be good for their systems/upset their intestinal tract, so they eat the peppers to help overcome the upset that these things cause. Parrots' digestive systems are different than humans so they can tolerate the hot peppers. They were made this way for a purpose!

Aug. 14 2009 01:57 PM
flavia bacarella from orange county, ny

I spent time in Mexico years ago with an Indian family. I always felt that the hot foods helped regulate the body's temperature in hot climates.

Aug. 14 2009 01:56 PM
maggie from morristown nj

Not true that only humans and primates will develop a taste for hot peppers.
Everyone who lives with a parrot knows that they eat and enjoy hot peppers very much./
interesting--they are also highly intelligent, as the above.

Aug. 14 2009 01:55 PM
Jennifer from NYC

where does vanilla come from?

Aug. 14 2009 01:55 PM
Amy from Manhattan

National Geographic had an article (in the April issue, I think) about chili peppers that concluded that the hottest ones get the least fungus.

Aug. 14 2009 01:54 PM

What role did the British Empire play in the dsitribution of spices globally?

Aug. 14 2009 01:54 PM

Turmeric and black pepper do reduce the chance of upper respiratory illness.

Aug. 14 2009 01:52 PM

It is irresponsible to tell us to throw old spices out without explaining the exact reasons why. Are they harmful, or are they just less potently flavorful? I would never throw something out for the second reason alone.

Aug. 14 2009 01:52 PM

The problem is not necessarily eating spices. It's when you have to go to the bathroom afterwards. That is pain :-\

Aug. 14 2009 01:51 PM
Karthik from NYC

Indian Folk Medicines uses a lot spices for home treatments. For example, hot milk with turmeric and black pepper is ideal cure for cold treatment.

Aug. 14 2009 01:50 PM
abram epstein from new york city

In this author's Passover Haggadah "The Historical Haggadah" you will find a discussion of bitter herbs traditionally eaten at the seder. Interestingly, Exodus chapter 12, which pre-dates the event of the escape 9in the Torah story, describes the final pre-escape supper as having (among other things) bitter herbs. Today, Jews ritualize the bitter herbs as a commemoration of the bitterness of slavery. But, in the Torah they are eaten while the Hebrews are still enslaved. What function did they actually have? Most likely (I propose) they medicinal, and may well be evidence the "Ten Plagues" were an historical reality and threat. This comports with the use of bitters as medicine, being offered by every better pharmacist in bottled remedies certainly since late Colonial times, becoming extremely popular in the US by the mid-1800s. For more, see

Aug. 14 2009 01:50 PM

Can spices be patented or trademarked? I think in India they want to trademark tumeric like what has happenned to Olive oils, champagne, roquerfort etc...

Aug. 14 2009 01:50 PM

Being an Indian, I can definetly say that adding turmeric and black pepper will reduce upper respiratory illness

Aug. 14 2009 01:50 PM
Simone from Brooklyn

I used to have an African Grey parrot who loved red chili peppers. I would buy a bushel of dried ones and she would go at it. Is it that they do not have the same sensation of burn or that they like that? You mentioned that only humans and some primates like that burn....

Aug. 14 2009 01:50 PM
Vinny from Manalapan

I've heard that there are some squirrels who've acquired a taste for spice when the telephone cables they were chewing had been sprayed with capsicum to stop them from chewing the cables.

Aug. 14 2009 01:49 PM

Should we expect demise of the bland North European cuisine, leading to a much spicier version? I once had a curry pizza in Copenhagen.

Aug. 14 2009 01:46 PM
Ryan from brooklyn

I had all sorts of boogery allergies as a kid. Spicy food is the best, most fast-acting decongestant money can buy. A bowl of habenero chili will bust up anything.

Aug. 14 2009 01:45 PM
rylee from manhattan

What can you tell me about that term which was recently "discovered" called umami (sp) the new taste sense which comes from what?

Aug. 14 2009 01:38 PM
John-Paul G from Elizabeth, NJ

No Frank Herbert references, yet?

Aug. 14 2009 01:32 PM
Harvey Wolchan from Yorktown Heights

Is it true that spicey foods from South of the border were originally spiced as a form of preservative?

Aug. 14 2009 01:31 PM

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