Millennium Post

Majestic world of herbs and spices

In our daily lives, we use a multitude of spices and herbs but know little about their origin, history, and proper use. Celebrity Chef Vikas Kumar discusses the role of herbs and spices in contemporary culinary culture

One of the most memorable places that I have visited in my life is the island of Madagascar. The island which has become a popular tourist spot due to its beaches and wildlife today, was only known for its spice plantation back then. In fact, the most popular tourist activity that one could indulge in was visiting a spice plantation.

I also undertook one such guided trip and it completely changed the way I looked at the use of herbs and spices in the preparation of food. Admittedly, although I had been using plenty of herbs and spices in my job as a Chef, I had never given much thought on how those might have been cultivated and how they would look on trees or plants.

Embarrassingly, I could not identify most trees of the various herbs and spices that were shown to us and were quizzed by our guide. We were shown the trees of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and various other herbs and spices and they looked nothing like I thought they would. I found those quite fascinating and well, kind of overwhelming. I could also see the way some of those spices were processed and that was even more fascinating.

We in the normal daily lives use a multitude of spices and herbs but know little about their origins, history, and proper uses. In this article, I would like to touch upon the majestic world of herbs and spices, the critically consequential culinary ingredient that has not only heavily influenced cuisine and culture but also the history of the world.

History of herbs and spices

But first, we need to understand what is a herb and how it is different from a spice. As per the obvious visual difference, a herb is basically a leaf or a green part of the plant whereas a spice is any other part of the same plant such as seeds, bark, twigs or berries that has a strong flavour, smell and often has medicinal properties. The history of use of herbs is as old as the civilization itself with depictions on the cave paintings in France dating back to 13,000 BC. There is enough evidence to suggest that the herbs and spices were initially used only for medicinal and therapeutic purposes but were later included in culinary usage owing to its pleasant flavours, preservative qualities and rarity. Many cuisines across the world, especially the Middle Eastern, Arabic, Chinese, Greek and Indian have evolved around the use of herbs and spices and many dishes delve very heavily in those for developing their characteristic flavours and uniqueness.

Cooking with Herbs and Spices

It is really no secret that most popular recipes from across cuisines and cultures call for the use of various kinds of herbs and spices. Whether it is the use of a mellow saffron in a Spanish Paella or of a star anise in a Chinese stir fry, even the humble but fragrant cardamom in our own kheers or vanilla in a British custard, fact is that most of our dishes will become bland, dreary and even unpalatable if it weren't for the use of herbs and spices.

Tradition aside, many chefs all across the world are trying to create new flavour combinations and unique taste profiles by mixing and matching the various food ingredients to different herbs and spices.

Although it is a general belief that some herbs are paired best with some foods, the fact is that the correct use of herbs and spices can really take the food to another level in taste and sophistication and a general understanding of the various characteristics of these herbs will go a long way in making food more interesting and unique.

Have you ever wondered why most Indian dishes use coriander as a garnishing herb and not parsley or rosemary or why pastas and pizzas normally use basil and not coriander?

The complementary nature of the various herbs and spices to different food, and their contribution in the overall end product is a subject of study, but it is a fact that some herbs and spices really complement or pair with specific food items owing to their flavour profiles, and hence are used more frequently than others.

The familiarity of flavours and continued usage has also inculcated traditions where certain herbs are used with a certain kind of food only. However, as a culinary student and chef, I have always been inclined to useing various herbs and spices with non traditional pairing and while many of those haven't worked at all, many others have been spectacular.

Some interesting facts

There is a list of facts which are as fascinating as this whole world of herbs and spices. I will enumerate a few – I was aware about a couple of them, while others I got to know while researching for this story.

Did you know that India alone is responsible for 44% of the global spice production?

To get one lb of Saffron, more than 75,000 flowers have to be carefully processed; the process can last 20 hours.

Nutmeg and Mace are actually produced by the same tree.

The demand of spices was one of the main reasons that the East India and the Dutch India companies were established which eventually led to the colonisation of India and many other countries of the world – something that completely changed modern world history.

Chillies have four times more vitamin C than Oranges.

The world's hottest Chilly– Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Chilly is so hot that it can burn through a latex glove.

Significance of herbs and spices in Indian food

It won't be an overstatement to say that spices are the soul of Indian food and almost all Indian dishes are defined by the liberal use of spices in many forms. At the beginning of cooking, whole spices are used in hot oil to infuse flavours into the food, powdered spices are used to give body and character to the dish, and in many dishes a spice blend is also used to finish or garnish the food. Irrespective of the culinary region, spices and herbs are the mainstays of Indian cuisine.

Some spices such as turmeric, red chillies and saffron are also used for imparting colour to the dishes. Such is the Indian food's dependence on spices that some dishes such as the ubiquitous Biryani uses more than 20 herbs and spices in a single dish.


Here is a recipe of classic Italian dessert that incorporates a generous use of spices - giving this dessert a unique twist, making, while at the same time providing a savoury and tart dimension that balances the overall character of the dessert.



For the Pannacotta

Milk: 200 ml

Cream: 200 ml

Sugar: 20 g

Gelatine: 5 g

Freshly roasted and

crushed black pepper: 2 g

Fresh thyme: 2 g

Fresh rosemary: 2 g

Fresh Red chilly: 2 g

Frozen Raspberry: 100 g

Fresh Mint: To garnish


Boil the milk and the cream together. Add sugar, the bloomed gelatine and crushed pepper and thyme.

Put the mixture in chilled moulds and allow to set for at least six hours. For the compote, cook the raspberries with the fresh rosemary, chopped red chillies, some sugar and a little orange juice. Cool and reserve till use.

To assemble the dessert, unmould the pannacotta and plate it on a bed of the spicy raspberry compote.

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