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Herbs and Spices Glossary


Allspice (Pimenta officinalis) takes its name from its aroma, which smells like a combination of spices, especially cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. In much of the world, allspice is called pimento because the Spanish mistook the fruit for black pepper, which the Spanish called pimienta.

Anise (Pimpinella anisum) is native to the eastern Mediterranean region, the Levant, and Egypt. It is the true taste of licorice— its oils are distilled into the flavouring for licorice candy (not from the herb licorice, which has a different taste).

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is native to India, and other North Mediterranean countries. It is the leaf of the plant of the mint family, and has an aromatic clove-like aroma.

Bay Leaves (Laurus nobilis), also called Laurel leaves. The bay tree is indigenous to Asia Minor, from where it spread to the Mediterranean and then to other countries with similar climates. It has a distinct, strong, pungent flavour, almost bitter, and the flavour strength increases with amount used, and the cooking time.

Caraway Seed (Carum carvi) is native to Europe, imported mainly from the Netherlands (Holland) and also grown in the regions of North Africa. This seed has a sweet warm aroma with a flavour similar to anise seed and fennel. The seeds are brownish in colour, are ribbed and slightly crescent shaped. It figures prominently in the cooking of Germany, Austria, eastern Europe and Scandinavia. It seems to have a special affinity for apples, pork and sausages and the spice seems to counteract the fattiness of pork, duck and goose.

Cardamom (Elletaria cardamomum) is native to India, and is also grown in Guatemala and Ceylon. The small, brown-black sticky seeds are contained in a pod in three double rows with about six seeds in each row. It is the seed of a plant of the ginger family, and is called ‘decorticated’if the pod has been removed. It has an aromatic, pungent, sweet flavour.

Cayenne Pepper (Capsicum frutescens) takes its name from its supposed centre of origin – the Cayenne region of French Guyana. It is now grown largely in India, East Africa, Mexico and the United States, and in most tropical and sub-tropical regions. Cayenne pepper is a finely ground powder prepared from the seeds and pods of various types of chilli. The powder is red or red-brown in colour, and may include the ground seeds. Cayenne pepper that includes the seeds is hotter than that from which seeds have been excluded. It is known for its extremely high heat flavour, which
is measured in ASTA scoville heat units (“shu”).

Celery Seed (Apium graveolens) is native to the Mediterranean area and Central Asia. It is the dried seed of the celery plant with the aroma characteristic of celery.

Chili Pepper – includes:
Capsicum annuum (common varieties such as bell peppers, paprika, jalapeños, and the chiltepin)
Capsicum frutescens (includes cayenne and tabasco peppers)
Capsicum chinense (includes the hottest peppers such as habaneros and Scotch bonnets)
Capsicum pubescens (includes the South American rocoto peppers)
Capsicum baccatum (includes the South American aji peppers)
Technically chilies are a fruit, but once dried are categorized as a spice.

Chipotle Pepper is a special smoked chili, made from fresh chili peppers that take on a wonderful smoky flavour when roasted or charred over a flame. It has a wrinkled, dark brown skin and a smoky, sweet, almost chocolaty flavour. It also has less than half the heat of cayenne pepper.

Cilantro (Coriandrum saltivum) The leaves of this plant are frequently referred to as cilantro, while the seeds are most commonly called coriander. Cilantro leaves have a pungent smell described by some as “soapy”.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree, with an estimated 50 – 250 species. The two main varieties are Cinnamomum cassia (or “Cassia”) and Cinnamomum zeylanicum (or Ceylon cinnamon). Cassia tends to dominate the North American market. Cinnamon is one of the best known and most versatile of all spices.

Cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata) are the immature unopened flower buds of a tropical tree, native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, and also grown in Brazil. When dried, the cloves are reddish brown in colour, nail-shaped and tapered at one end. The flavour is penetrating, sweet and pungent.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum – see also Cilantro, above) is native to the Mediterranean but is widely grown in Morrocco, Romania and also Canada. Also known as Chinese parsley, the seeds once dried, are small and ribbed with longitudinal lines. The flavour is a combination of lemon peel and sage with a sweet note.

Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) is a small delicate annual plant of the parsley family. The cumin seed has a striped pattern of nine ridges and oil canals, and is hairy, brownish in colour, and tapered at each end. The cumin seed is often mistaken for the caraway seed, however cumin has a stronger, more pungent and slightly bitter flavour. Black cumin seed is similar in shape, but darker brown in colour. Black cumin is not to be confused with nigella (kolonji), which is often incorrectly called black
cumin seed

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is native to Europe, with the dill seed grown in India and the dill weed commonly grown in California. Both the seeds and leaves are edible. The seed is light brown, winged and oval, and is aromatic and slightly bitter in taste.

Fennel Seed (Foeniculum vulgare) is the dried seeds of the annual fennel plant, related to the parsley family. It is native to the Mediterranean region, and is also cultivated in India, Australia and South America. The seeds are 4 -8 mm (1/8 – 5/16 in) long, thin and curved, with colour varying from brown to light green. The flavour and aroma is similar to sweet anise, with licorice notes.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is a small slender annual herb that is a member of the pea family. The fenugreek seeds resemble small hard golden brown pieces of gravel between 3-5mm long, with a noticeable furrow on one side. It is used in the preparation of mango chutneys and as a base for imitation maple syrup. The aroma is slightly spicy and sharp, and the flavour is powerful and bittersweet, similar to burnt sugar.

Garlic (Allium sativum) belongs to the same family as onions, chives, leeks and shallots. It is a hardy perennial, and it is the bulb, which lies beneath the ground, that is harvested for its strong acrid taste. The garlic clove has very little smell when wrapped in its protective husk, but when crushed or peeled, the enzymes are activated and produce “allicin”, which provides the main flavour.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is native to Southeast Asia and also Jamaica, and was one of the first oriental spices known in Europe. Ginger is a lush-looking tropical, perennial plant, growing up to 4 ft. in height, and the spice is the peeled and dried ginger root which grows underground in tuberous joints. The flavour is a combination of hot, spicy and sweet.

Juniper (Juniperus communis) The juniper trees are native to the Mediterranean, Russia, and North America, and the juniper berries take three years to mature. Initially hard and pale green, juniper berries ripen to blue-black, become fleshy and contain three sticky, hard, brown seeds.When dried, the berries remain soft but if broken open one will find the pith surrounding the seeds is easily crumbled. Both the flavour and aroma are a combination of gin and turpentine, pine-like, and spicy.

Mace (Myristica fragrans) is the lacy skin that is wrapped around the nutmeg seed shell, belonging to the evergreen nutmeg tree. The bright red skin becomes brownish-orange when dried. The yield of mace is much less than that of nutmeg and so it has a greater value. A pile of fruit large enough to make one hundred pounds of nutmeg produces a single pound of mace. The flavour is stronger than nutmeg, with a spicy, bitter taste and strong aroma.

Marjoram (Majorana hortensis) is a cousin of the oregano family, originating in northern Africa. The flavour and aroma of marjoram is mildly savoury, grassy and resembles thyme. Sweet marjoram is the variety used most often in cooking.

Mint (Mentha spicata) is also called spearmint, and is native to Europe and Asia. There are over 40 varieties of the plant mentha, of which spearmint is the most common variety used for cooking. The leaves are available in flakes, with the characteristic mint aroma and sweet flavour with cool aftertaste.

Mustard (Brassica hirta – yellow or white; Brassica juncea – brown or black) belongs to the Cruciferae family, and is one of the oldest and most used spices, native to both Europe and Southwestern Asia. Black mustard seeds are the most pungent, however all mustard seeds have very little aroma when whole, and the flavour and aroma increases only slightly when ground. Mustard seeds contain an enzyme called “myrosinase”, which is activated only when mixed with liquids, creating the typical hot, pungent taste.

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is native to the Molucca Islands (Spice Islands), and is also grown in the West Indies. It is the dried seed of an apricot-like fruit of an evergreen tree, which bears for more than fifty years. Wrapped in the mace skin, the nutmeg is actually the dried oval shaped seed found inside the dark brown nut. It has a sweet, aromatic and slightly nutty aroma, and is sweeter in flavour compared to mace.

Onion (Allium cepa) is native to western Asia, and is now cultivated in Egypt, Japan, North America, South America, France and Mexico. Onion is an indispensable ingredient in most cooking recipes. There are many types of onions, and based on their origins, they vary in size, colour and flavour. Onion is a member of the lily family, and it is the bulb of the onion that is processed into flakes, granules and powder. The colour varies from white to red to purple, the shape from spherical to almost conical, and the diameter at the largest point from 10mm (1/2in) to 8cm (3in) or more. The aroma and pungency can vary from mild to very pungent, but only once the onion is cut or chopped and the enzyme “allinase”is released. Onion contains protein, sugars, cellulose, minerals, a fixed oil, an essential oil and over 80 per cent water.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is cultivated predominately in the Mediterranean region, including Greece, Turkey, France, Israel and Morocco, and also in India, Mexico and South America. Oregano leaves are larger than marjoram leaves, and the taste is slightly floral, and bitter, with added lemony and pungent notes, and an aroma similar to marjoram. The leaves can vary in colour depending on its country of origin.

Paprika (Capsicum annum) refers to the ground form of dried peppers of the non-pungent to slightly pungent red varieties. Paprika peppers are grown in Hungary, Morocco, Mexico, Spain, Turkey and the U.S. Paprika plants are early maturing, erect shrubs with oval leaves, single white flowers, and non-woody stems. The quality of paprikas is predominately based on the strength of colour, which is determined by the amount of capsanthin (the red pigment) and the lack of capsaicin (the heat component found in chilies). Hungarian paprika is classified into six main grades, based on the quality of the fruits, the ratios of seeds, connecting tissue and stem to outside flesh, and the degree of grinding. The grade “noble-sweet”(edesnemes) is the most widely exported variety.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum – “curled parsley”) is a popular garnish in many food dishes, as it compliments most flavours. Italian parsley and Hamburg parsley are also grown, but not as popular as the curled parsley, which is available mostly as dried flakes. Parsley is an excellent source of vitamin C.

Peppers: Black, White, Green (Piper nigrum) Black Pepper is renowned through history as the King of Spices. Pepper is native to the Malabar Coast of southwest India, and is now cultivated in Thailand, Sarawak (in Malaysia), Sumatra (Indonesia), Madagascar, Vietnam, Korea and Brazil. Peppercorns are the fruits of a tropical, perennial climber that can reach over 10 meters in height. Black Peppercorns are the dried unripe berry, with the skin (pericarp) becoming black and shrivelled. It has a warm, oily penetrating aroma and full-bodied, pungent flavour, with a lingering heat.

Green peppercorns are picked by hand when they have reached full size, but have not yet begun to ripen. They are then plunged into boiling water for 15 minutes to deactivate the enzyme that will otherwise oxidize to turn the skin black. Freeze drying is another process used to keep the
peppercorns green.

Removing the pericarp from the fruits before they are dried produces white peppercorns. The preferred method for producing the white peppercorn was developed in Indonesia, where the berries are tightly packed into burlap sacks and immersed in water, usually a stream or small river, and left to soak for 1-2 weeks. During this period, the outer hull (pericarp) softens and is rubbed away from the peppercorn. The remaining white peppercorn is then thoroughly dried in the sun, or in ovens.

Pink peppercorns (Shinus terebinthifolius), commonly used in mixed peppercorns, are in fact, not a true pepper. This pepper tree is native to the Andean deserts in Peru, and the ripe, fully mature pink berries are used more for their appearance than flavour.

Poppy seed (Papaver somniferum) is native to Southwestern Asia, and now also grown in India, China, Turkey, Holland, France, the U.S. and Canada. The seed comes from the opium poppy but contains no narcotic properties. The Dutch are known for growing a high quality seed, with its uniform slate blue colour, and pleasant, crunchy, nut-like flavour.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is native to the Mediterranean area, and also now cutlivated in Yugoslavia, France, Spain and Portugal. The slightly curved leaves are greyish-green in colour, and resemble miniature curved pine needles. The aroma is fragrant, pine-like and minty.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is the dried leaf of a plant of the mint family, is native to the Mediterranean area, and imported primarily from the Dalmatian region of Yugoslavia. Sage has a high pungency level similar to rosemary and thyme, and the flavour includes notes of peppermint. The rubbed flakes should be gray and woolly with a greenish tone. Like most spices, there are many varieties of sage including Dalmatian sage, English sage, ‘garden sage’,‘common sage’ and ‘true sage’.

Savory (Satureja hortensis) is sometimes called Summer Savory, and is cultivated in France, Germany, Spain, Great Britain, Canada, North Africa and the U.S. Another variety is winter or mountain savoury, which is stronger, sharper and with spicier flavour notes. It is summer savory that is preferred for most culinary applications. Savory is one herb that retains its distinctive flavour when dried.

Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is native to Western and Southern Asia, but also cultivated in Southern Europe, especially France. It is a favourite for many chefs for its intriguing flavour. Tarragon has long, narrow grayish green leaves, with a sweet, licorice-like aroma and the flavour includes hints of basil and anise.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and France is one the leading producers of thyme, with French thyme and lemon thyme being the most common. It is a small perennial shrub, and the aroma of the leaves is pungent, warming and spicy. Some varieties will have a slightly lemony and minty flavour. Moroccan thyme and Spanish thyme are also commonly used for culinary purposes.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is the rhizome (part of the root system) of a tropical perennial plant. There are many varieties; with the most common variety used in North America being the Alleppey variety from India, as it is known for its colour, value and flavour. The dried rhizome is lemon yellow to orange yellow in colour, with Madras turmeric being a lighter and brighter yellow, and Alleppey turmeric a more brownish yellow colour. Turmeric has a distinctive, earthy aroma and a sharp, bitter and peppery flavour with mild ginger notes. It is most commonly used in curry powders and prepared mustard.


Malabar thanks the American Spice Trade Association for it’s kind permission to reprint this information on the storage and handling of spices. For more information, visit www.astaspice.org