No wonder Columbus risked life and limb in a dangerous adventure in his pursuit of spices. Our lives would be duller without them, and for enthusiastic food-lovers nothing warms the cockles of our heart like a well-spiced dish.
In the chapter The Great Chilli Migrations of her book Spices Manisha Gambhir tells us the story of how chili left America to become one the most widely used spices worldwide. Mexican cuisine is unimaginable without this fiery spice, but so are cuisines as far from America as Indian, Chinese, Thai and Korean.
From peppers we also obtain pimentón (paprika), which gives the Spanish chorizo its fierce red color and characteristic flavor.
Already known in India and China over 7,000 years ago and used by ancient Greeks and Romans as a medicine, ginger was a very valuable spice in antiquity. Today it is an integral part of oriental cuisine. The pungent taste of ginger is caused by a non-volatile resin also found in other spices of the ginger family.
Ginger has proven qualities as an anti-hemetic (to relieve nausea) and has been used throughout history for medicinal purposes (not yet proven by modern science). It is used in Chinese and Indian cuisine and in Japan it is also traditionally pickled and served with sushi.
And speaking of sushi, we have to mention wasabi in the category of extremely fiery spices. This green paste served with sushi comes from the wasabi root (also known as Japanese horseradish) which is indigenous to Japan. The hotness in wasabi is different from chili pepper, chili “burns” the mouth whereas the extreme, but short-lived hotness of wasabi is felt in the sinus cavity instead. The active ingredient in wasabi is known to inhibit microbe growth, which would explain why it was traditionally served with raw fish.
What is commercially marketed as wasabi nowadays is, unfortunately, not the real thing. The wasabi plant is very demanding in its growth and is cultivated in very few places around the world. What we usually get as wasabi is a concoction prepared with European horseradish and dyed green.
Black pepper, to which many an ancient empire owed its riches, is the dried berry of the plant Piper Nigrum. It is indigenous to Asia and now used in pretty much every country worldwide. Its pungent taste, which richly enhances the flavor of many dishes, made it a valuable commodity in antiquity. Salaries, dowries, rents, taxes and tributes were paid with pepper and it is believed to be one of the reasons why Columbus sailed in search of the Indies.
And while Columbus himself is quite a controversial figure in some circles, I am not about to discuss these aspects of his legacy, but to at least acknowledge that we foodies owe him a debt of gratitude. The world may or may not be a better one because of him, but it sure is a tastier one.
White Beans (Cannellini) and Chorizo Stew Recipe
- 2 cups of dry white beans
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 lb of chorizo (Spanish sausage) sliced
- 3 cloves of garlic , crushed
- 1 red bell pepper , diced
- 2 large potatoes , diced
- 1 large carrot , diced
- 1 red onion , diced
- 4 sprigs of thyme
- 1 1/2 teaspoon of salt (or more, to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon of pepper (or more, to taste)
- Soak the beans in abundant water overnight. Discard the water and rinse the beans.
- Boil the beans in fresh water until they are very soft. This may take up to an hour in a regular pot, or 20 minutes in a pressure cooker. Separate the beans from the water in which it boiled. Set both aside.
- In a pot heat the oil over very low heat. Add the chorizo, garlic, bell pepper, potatoes, carrot, onion and thyme. Cook and stir until the onion becomes translucent (3 to 5 minutes).
- Add the beans to the pot, increase the heat to medium and cook and stir for a minute. Add the water in which the beans were boiled. If you obtained less than 5 cups complete with fresh water.
- Simmer over medium heat until the vegetables are cooked throughout.
- Serve with white rice.