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Traditional Culinary Herbs for Health

By Tammera J. Karr, PhD


The role of herbs and spices in traditional cookery is more than flavor; herbs played a vital role in nutrition and health for past generations. The daily use of herbs in cookery supplied minerals, vitamins, and volatile compounds effective at killing pathogens and parasites. They provided expectorant, glucose-regulating, diuretic, and anti-inflammatory properties. It is essential to understand the healing properties of herbs and their inclusion in cookery to fully grasp the concept of “food as medicine.”

For centuries, the food placed before mankind was his nourishment and sole source of medicine. A good wife during medieval times was the mistress of the household and known for keeping order. Housewife later became the accepted term and further denoted a married woman in charge of the household. Additionally, the lady of the house was judged on how well-provisioned the pantry, how well the kitchen garden tended, which included herbs for food preservation and medicine, and on how flavorful the foods were coming from the kitchen. All of these were considered before beauty. The skill the good wife possessed reflected on her family and the prosperity of her husband and his charges, making the place of good wife an elevated and essential role.

Now, this all sounds ridiculous to us in the modern age, but remember these were different times, and these skills meant life or death during famine or war. A skilled good wife would be called on to care for the injured or ill. If her skill was lacking, she could find herself in chains or on the fire for being a witch. This is historically the earliest beginnings of holistic nutrition for those of European descent. The Persians and Asians had extensive use of culinary herbs predating the European good wife by more than a century. ,  ,

When did individuals begin adding flavor to their food? Food anthropologists really cannot give us a definite answer on this, because plant remains rarely last, which is why researchers seldom speculate on how they were used thousands of years ago.

That being said, in 6,000-year-old pottery from Denmark and Germany, a team of researchers found phytoliths, small bits of silica that form in the tissues of some plants, most notably garlic mustard seeds, which carry robust and peppery flavor but little nutritional value.

Because they were found alongside residues of meat and fish, the seed remnants represent the earliest known direct evidence of spicing in European cuisine. According to researcher Hayley Saul of the University of York, “It certainly contributes important information about the prehistoric roots of this practice, which eventually culminated in globally significant processes and events.”

The flavors associated with Europe, Mediterranian, and Asian traditional foods is primarily due to the influence of the Arabian Agriculture Revolution. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Muslims stepped into the vacuum. Their ships and caravans carried their cuisine rich in spices and fruits across three continents. The Muslims brought melons, pomegranates, grapes, raisins, peaches, almonds, pistachios, cherries, pears, and apricots to the Persian Empire.

In Europe, they introduced spinach, melons, eggplant, and artichokes. The Muslims planted orchards of stone fruits; peaches, cherries, and apricots. In Spain the introduction of sugar, saffron, rice, and the bitter orange; the foundation of British marmalade. All this happened before 700 A.D. By the 10th century, the influence on the world’s flavor of food was apparent.

The earliest Muslim recipes date from Baghdad in 1226. They were recorded by al-Baghdadi, who “loved eating above all pleasures.” Many of the recipes are for tagines – meat and fruit stews simmered for hours over a low flame until the meat is falling-apart-melt-in-your-mouth-tender. The inclusion of spices in almond stuffed meatballs called mishmishiya consisted of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper. Saffron added color, and ground almonds were added to thicken. Stews were also perfumed with waters distilled from rose and orange blossoms.

Le Viandier: Cooking with spices was considered a new style of cookery and written down by Frenchman Gillaume Tirel ca. 1312-1395. This became the first European cookery book. Le Viadier reflects the  influence of the Middle East and on the cooking of the Middle Ages of Europe, especially the use of spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cumin, coriander, and cardamon. All of these spices can be found in the traditional Christmas drink known as wassail.

The fall of the Christian Eastern Roman Empire to the Turks in 1453 sent the European world and its now addicted sweet tooth and love of spices into a tailspin. All roads east were closed and the need for food explorers brought us Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus), and a whole “new world” of flavors joined the old.

Here is to Flavorful Traditional Foods that build the Body and Spirit


Our Journey With Food Cookery BookYou can read more on the Pantry in the Our Journey with Food Cookery Book