What’s the Difference Between an Herb and a Spice?
The differences between an herb and a spice can be complicated, but for many botanists an herb is a non-woody plant. But even here there are exceptions, for roses and rosemary become woody shrubs over time.
Many, but not all spices grow in the tropics, which was why an easy trade route from there to Europe was so important. They are often aromatic lichens or parts of woody plants such as trees, shrubs or vines. Often, spices are the roots, flowers, seeds or fruit of herbaceous plants. Cilantro, easy to grow in a garden, is considered an herb, Its seed, coriander, is considered a spice. Here are some commonly used spices:
Cardamon is native to India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. The fruit of the plant is used. They are ribbed, roundish to oblong, and each one contains 14 to 20 seeds. The fruits are harvested just before the seeds are ripe and dried in kilns or in the sun. They’re sold whole to preserve the fragrance of the seeds. Cardamom pods are then split open, and the seeds are used in curries, stews and beverages.
This admittedly expensive spice is made from the stigmas of the saffron crocus. The expense of the spice probably has to do with the fact that these delicate stigmas have to be picked by hand then separated and dried in the sun. Saffron not only adds flavor and a delicious aroma to foods, but even a pinch of saffron dyes food bright orange-yellow. Like cardamom, saffron is used to make curry. Saffron comes in powdered form and as stigma threads.
This is one of the oldest and most commonly used of the spices. Grown in all warm countries, the spice is made from the rhizome, which is a type of root. Ginger root can be peeled and eaten raw when it’s young. It is peeled, sliced, minced, dried and powdered and added to stir fries, casseroles, soups and stews. Dried, powdered ginger also adds zest to curries.
Cinnamon is made from the bark of the cinnamon tree, an evergreen that grows to 60 feet tall in the tropics. The bark is cut off the stems of young trees, bundled and allowed to ferment. After that the outer layer is craped off and the bark rolled up and dried. Cinnamon joins ginger as one of the most popular spices. They are sometimes used together in desserts or Vietnamese pho.