Herbs and Spices
It is easy to understand why explorers wanted gold, silver, and jewels. But why did they want herbs and spices?
Spices were used to flavor foods. They were also thought to have curative powers – drugs of choice during the Middle Ages. Many herbs are still the basis of modern medicines. Seeking herbs and spices was like seeking the Fountain of Youth. Herbs and spices were thought to make a person younger, healthier, wiser, stronger, and happier. Here is a list of some of the important ones:
- The gooey substance from the thick, fleshy leaves of the Aloe plant, native to Africa, helped with skin ailments such as leprosy, and was a purge for many things that ailed people.
- Betel-nut was the common name for an areca nut wrapped in betel leaves. The nuts and leaves were grown in tropical areas of Asia and East Africa. Chewed together, they acted as a mild stimulant and were meant to clean teeth. The nut was powdered and added to tea to help remove parasites in the intestines.
- Camphor was a flammable, waxy substance with a strong aromatic odor extracted from the wood of large evergreen camphor laurel trees found in Asia [particularly Borneo, Sumatra, and Indonesia]. It was dried to a chalky consistency that gave the herb its name. The word for chalk in Old Malay was kapur. Sometimes camphor was referred to as kapur barus, which translated to chalk of Barus. Barus was the ancient port in today’s Sumatra, where camphor was purchased from Indian-Batak tribesmen. It was used for its scent, as a stimulant, expectorant [to help get rid of congestion in the air passages], diaphoretic [to make people perspire], and as an embalming fluid [to preserve corpses]. Camphor was mentioned in the Koran as a flavoring for drinks and was used in the Muslim world and in India for cooking.
- Cardamom, a round brown seed, was purchased to protect a person from the plague. Its powers were so strong that it gave people nightmares.
- Coriander, also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley, was a leafy herb and its seeds were an ingredient in ancient love potions.
- Cinnamon was grown on small trees in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Egypt, and was one of the oldest known spices. Planks of bark were rolled into sticks called quills, or ground into a powder using a mortar and pestle. In China, it was used to combat colds, diarrhea, nausea, and painful menstrual periods. Some thought it gave people energy and improved their circulation. Others drank teas made with cinnamon for indigestion. Most people just liked the taste of it.
- Cloves were good for indigestion, flatulence, and toothache. They also helped preserve meat.
- Frankincense and myrrh were resins burned to produce a strong smell. The myrrh came from the sap of the Arabian myrtle tree, hence the name myrrh. It was used to embalm the dead. The ancient Jews thought a person could deter witches by eating myrtle leaves and myrtle sap.
- Small pepper kernels were so valuable that in some places the tiny little spices were used for money. Besides acting as a flavoring for food, pepper was thought to have curative powers over all illnesses.
- The tiny black seeds of the poppy were made into opium. Opium was used as an aphrodisiac. People ate it as an agent to inspire visions, to cure a toothache, and as a general treatment for being too excited. The seeds also made a beautiful red-orange dye.
- There were several varieties of rhubarb. The dried, bitter-tasting stalks and roots of the variety grown in Asia were used as a laxative [to help move the bowels].
- Saffron came in tiny red strands – flower pistils that had been pulled one by one from the inside of a crocus flower. The powder on the edges was used to make a blue die we call indigo, after which the Indigo Sea [Indian Ocean] was named. Indigo was the second most popular dye after reddish purple, which was almost always a royal color. Saffron was also a popular food spice.
- A tea made of boiled sassafras leaves and roots from the sassafras tree was considered a miracle drug that could cure any illness including the French Pox [syphilis].
- Star anise was a small brown flower-like seed pod believed, during Medieval times, to prevent seizures, enhance a youthful appearance, and prevent nightmares if one kept the pods near his or her bed.
- Tamarind was harvested in tropical Africa. Some Asian cultures thought it poisoned the air and warned people not to fall asleep under a tamarind bush or they would die. This myth was dispelled by the 1600s. The fleshy, juicy fruit, enclosed in a three- to six-inch pod with a hard brown shell, was used as a food spice. Tamarind wood was used in carpentry.
- The Indians of the West Indies and Virginia introduced tobacco to the Europeans in the late 1500s. The new Americans thought it calmed the humors.
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