Allspice (Pimenta dioica), a member of the Myrtle family, is native to the tropical Americas, particularly Jamaica and the West Indies; it was first brought to Europe around 1600 c.e. and would not have been known to the peoples of the Middle East until much later. Allspice is so named because it has a taste and aroma somewhere between pungent and mild, resembling a combination of cloves, pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It is readily available as both ground powder and whole dried berries, and it will have the best flavor and will keep the longest if ground fresh. Allspice is generally used to flavor stews and sauces, pork or chicken dishes, sausages, meat pastries, and pickled vegetables.


The anise flavor, which is quite like licorice, comes from two unrelated plants. The major source is the European anise (also called green anise and African anise: Pimpinella anisum), a flowering annual that is a native of the eastern Mediterranean—Egypt, Greece, Crete, and Asia Minor. It has been known since the time of the ancient Egyptians and would have been known to the peoples of the Bible, and it was used by both Greeks and Romans to flavor breads and cakes to aid digestion. Roman weddings also featured anise cake, perhaps a precursor of spicy wedding cakes and today's sugar-coated, anise-flavored almond candies. The Romans also believed that aniseed would prevent bad breath and remove wrinkles and that an anise plant hung over the bed would take away bad dreams.

The other plant is Chinese star anise (Illicium verum), a tree belonging to the Magnolia family. Coming to Europe through medieval Russia, Chinese anise became for a time the basis for French anisette until political relationships made it too expensive.

Oil of anise, which comes from the gray-green aniseeds, is also the basis for French anisette, Turkish raki, and South American aguardiente, all liqueurs. It is also commonly used to mask the taste of bitter medicines.


Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a member of the large Mint family. It is believed to have originated in India or Asia, though the location of its first cultivation is lost to history. It is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, but basil is thought to have been brought to the Mediterranean world via the ancient spice routes and to have been known to the ancient Israelites. Archaeologists have found basil in mummies removed from the pyramids and believe that the ancient Egyptians used it as an embalming herb. Both the Greeks and the Romans used basil. The Greeks called it basilikon phuton, which means “magnificent, royal, or kingly herb,” and it is possible that only Greek rulers were allowed to use it. The generic name Ocimum comes, perhaps, from the Greek word okimon, which means “fragrant,” as basil is a strongly fragrant herb. The Romans called it basiliscus, which refers to a basilisk, a fire-breathing dragon, believing perhaps that basil was a charm against this beast. The Roman belief may have given rise to a wider use of basil as a medicinal cure for venomous bites. People of the Middle Ages thought that basil could actually produce scorpions, and basil is associated with the symbolism for the astrological sign of Scorpio. In contrast, basil came to be associated with love in the Italian and Romanian regions: Italian maidens wore basil in their hair if they wished to be courted, and Romanian girls gave basil to the boy they wished to marry. The people of India consecrated basil to the Hindu god Vishnu, whose wife, Tulasi (or Tulsi), became basil when she visited earth. When someone dies, Hindus will still bathe the head in basil water and place a basil leaf over the heart.

There are more than sixty known varieties of basil, and these range from green to red to purple, each with a distinctive flavor. Basil leaves are used in sauces, pestos, salads, soups, and more, and for best results should be picked before the plant flowers. Either fresh or dried, basil is now an essential ingredient in many recipes.

Bay Leaf

Bay leaves of several species have a long association with humans. The ancient Greeks used the leaves of the Mediterranean bay leaf shrub (Laurus nobilis) to adorn their victorious athletes at the Olympic games, and Greek poets and scholars were granted wreaths of bay leaves upon completion of their studies; the modern word baccalaureate, which is the degree granted upon completion of undergraduate work, derives from the word for laurel berries and is a carryover from the Greek custom. The ancient Romans adopted this custom of bestowing laurel wreaths, but transferred it to their victorious warriors. The Romans also believed that lightning never struck the bay leaf tree and so wore crowns of its leaves as protection during thunderstorms. It is possible that the peoples of the Bible were familiar with the bay leaf, though it is not mentioned therein.

Bay leaves have a distinctive flavor, which is so strong that a single leaf can alter the taste of an entire stew or soup, so they are employed with restraint and in combination with other spices like parsley, thyme, and rosemary.

There are two other bay leaves used in cooking besides the Mediterranean bay leaf: the California bay leaf (Umbellularia californica), also known as California laurel, Oregon myrtle, and pepperwood; and the Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tejpata). The California variety is similar to the Mediterranean but has a stronger flavor. The Indian tree, though similar in appearance, has an entirely different flavor, more like that of cinnamon bark, and so is used in much different ways in the kitchen.

When using whole dried bay leaves, place them in the pot at the start of the cooking process so that they have time to release their flavor, but remove them before serving the meal. Powdered bay leaves are also available but are less common.


Also known as benzoinum, benzoin resin, benzoin gum, gum Benjamin, or balsamic resin, benzoin is the dried sap that seeps out from injured benzoin trees (Styrax benzoin), which are native to Sumatra, Java, and Thailand. Because benzoin is very fragrant, it is used to make perfumes and incense. It also contains benzoic acid, which makes it an effective antiseptic, stimulant, and inhalant. Among the varieties of benzoin, those from Siam and Sumatra benzoin trees are considered the finest. For centuries, benzoin has been mixed with frankincense or myrrh, particularly in the Middle East, to scent private homes and places of worship.


Borage (Borago officinalis) is a traditional medicinal and culinary herb native to the Mediterranean region and probably first cultivated in the lands now comprising Turkey and Syria; it would probably have been known to the peoples of the Bible. The Moors brought it to Spain, and from there it spread all over Europe. The name is from the Arabic abu rach, which means “father of sweat,” possibly because tea made from borage can help reduce fevers and ease chest colds.

Both the leaves and the small blue or pink flowers have culinary uses. The leaves are said to taste like cucumbers; both the leaves and flowers are used in salads, dips, and soups. The Frankfurter Gru¨ ne Sauce, also known as Green Sauce, relies on borage leaves as one of its seven ingredients. Chopped borage leaves can be added to stews during the final minutes of cooking, and they can also be cooked with cabbage. Both the leaves and the flowers often garnish ginbased cocktails, and the flowers are frozen in ice cubes to decorate other drinks. The candied flowers make splendid cake decorations.

Since ancient times, borage has been used to dispel melancholy and induce euphoria; it is also used to treat catarrh, rheumatism, and skin diseases. The oil from the seeds helps regulate the hormonal system and aids in lowering blood pressure. Borage is rich in potassium.

Also known as Starflower, borage is a lovely, easily grown garden plant. It blooms from June through September, growing to a height of about 8 inches. It is an annual, but it resows itself.


The caper is the unopened flower bud of the Sahara caper tree (Capparis spinosa), which is really a trailing shrub. It is believed that the caper originated in the Sahara Desert (thus its common name) then spread around the Mediterranean. Requiring strong sunlight but capable of absorbing moisture from the air through its leaves, the caper is first recorded around 600 b.c.e., when ancient Greeks brought some to the region of southern France. Likely, the Greeks (or at least those living in the lands now known as Turkey) used capers long before then. The Romans were great fans of capers. Given the desert origin of this piquant spice, it is highly likely that the peoples of the Bible called upon capers to flavor their stews and meat dishes.

The caper buds are usually pickled, though sometimes they are allowed to mature and the berries are collected for use. Even today, the collection of capers is labor-intensive, so they tend to be relatively expensive. Yet a small amount will give a significant lift to an otherwise bland dish.

Caraway Seed

Caraway (Carum carvi) is a member of the Parsley family. Its origins are not known, though caraway seeds have been found in Swiss Neolithic lake settlements. It prefers cool weather, and the Romans may have imported it from Gaul (present-day France) or Spain. Some authorities claim that caraway originated in Egypt, as the medical papyrus of Thebes, which dates from 1552 b.c.e., mentions it, though other authorities claim that the reference is to cumin. Many translations of the Bible still use the word “caraway” instead of “cumin,” though the latter is what the peoples of the Bible would have known and used.

Although the roots of the plant are sometimes eaten, the caraway seed is what is most often called for. The flavor is pungent, and caraway is a common flavoring for breads and cakes, casseroles, cheeses, pickles, carrot and potato dishes, sauerkraut, salads, pastas, and even liqueurs. The oil from caraway seeds also flavors soaps, lotions, and perfumes. The ancient Romans may even have chewed caraway seeds to alleviate bad breath.


Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), a pungent, aromatic spice, is native to the moist mountain forests of what is now southwestern India, and it is first mentioned in the ancient Vedic medical texts of 1000 b.c.e. By the 4th century b.c.e., it had been imported to Greece; thus it is doubtful that Abraham and his kin would have known about cardamom. But in the intervening years it has become an important ingredient of Middle Eastern cooking, and it is most often used to add spice to coffee, either by adding freshly ground cardamom seeds to the coffee powder or by steeping a few cardamom pods in the hot coffee. Middle Eastern cooks also use cardamom to flavor meat and rice dishes. A member of the Ginger family, cardamom is often considered the third most expensive spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla. It quickly loses its flavor when ground and should be purchased only as whole pods and crushed immediately before use.

Cayenne Pepper

Sometimes known as simply cayenne or hot red pepper, cayenne pepper is made by grinding up hot red cayenne peppers or chilies (Capsicum frutescens; see Pepper). Used in many Mexican, Indian, Italian, Caribbean, Chinese, and Cajun recipes, cayenne also adds a kick to marinades and barbecue sauces for meats and poultry. Cayenne pepper has spreadworld-wide and is often found inMiddle Eastern kitchens.

Celery Seed

Celery seed comes from the celery plant (Apium graveolens). The seeds have a mild celery flavor and often add a nice taste to split-pea soup, fish chowders, tomato sauces and soups, vegetable and potato dishes, breads, and stuffings. They are also an important ingredient in pickling and curry recipes. Celery seed figures importantly in the cuisines of Germany, Italy, Russia, and Asia and has been adopted by Jews of the modern Diaspora.


There are at least three herb species that go by the name “chamomile”:

  • German chamomile (Matricaria recutita or M. suaveolens; also Chamomilla recutita or C. chamomilla)
  • Wild chamomile (or pineapple weed: M. matricarioides; also known as M. discoides, M. suaveolens, and C. suaveolens)
  • Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile; also known as Anthemis nobilis)

German chamomile, also known as wild chamomile and scented mayweed, is an annual of the Sunflower family and is native to Europe and temperate Asia; it is an invasive species in temperate North America and Australia. Its flowers have white petals surrounding the bright yellow center, which has a strong, aromatic fragrance. Usually consumed in the form of an herbal tea (tisane), the dried flowers help relieve upset stomach, work as a sleep-inducing relaxant, and help guard against mouth infections.

Wild chamomile, an annual, is native to both North America and northeastern Asia. Its flowers are yellowish-green, without petals, and have a pineapple/chamomile aroma. They can be steeped to make an herbal tea (tisane) or added to fresh salads, and they help to calm the stomach and relax the body; if crushed and applied externally, they can soothe itching and skin irritation.

Roman chamomile is also known as garden chamomile, ground apple, low chamomile, and whig plant. A perennial that is native to Europe, it produces single flowers with yellow centers and silver-white petals. Infusions of the flowers can help ease flatulence and digestive cramps and can sometimes help abate fevers. The oil from the flowers can help soothe calluses, bruises, and painful joints.

Jews of the modern Diaspora, particularly those who settled in Europe, used chamomile, and it is now a common tea in the Middle East.


The “herb of joy,” according to the ancient Greeks, chervil or garden chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is an annual herb that is a member of the Parsley or Carrot family. Native to southwestern Russia and western Asia, chervil was widely known around the Mediterranean during the classical period. In the ancient Middle East the roots were boiled and added to soups and salads, as well as used fresh. The ancient Greeks used it to flavor foods, while the Romans ate it as a vegetable. It is likely that chervil was known to the peoples of the Bible. The Gauls cultivated chervil, and it is still widely in use in French cuisine and has an established place in Italian recipes; it is much less common in English and American kitchens.

Chervil leaves are consumed fresh in salads or dried as herbs. It is one of the ingredients in bouquet garnis and fines herbes and is used to flavor poultry, some seafoods, and vegetables. The seeds are also aromatic.

Chili Powder

Chili powder, also known as chili mix, is a combination of spices such as cumin, garlic, oregano, paprika, salt, and ground chili peppers. Used to add spice to chili, chili powder can also flavor other dishes, such as guacamole, tomato sauce, cornbread, tamales, enchiladas, chicken stew, hamburgers, nachos, and bean dip. The first chili powders were sold commercially in Texas in the 1890s, and chili powder has become part of spice cabinets world-wide.


Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are a member of the Onion family. They originated in Asia and are recorded in China as long ago as 3000 b.c.e. Some scholars believe that chives spread over the Siberian-Alaskan land bridge to the Americas long before Marco Polo brought them to Europe. Other authorities assert that the ancient Romans used chives in their cooking, for chives now grow wild around the Mediterranean. It is unlikely that chives were part of the diet of the peoples of the Bible, though they are used in the recipes of Jews of the modern Diaspora.

Chives have an arresting flavor that is both delicate and incisive. They are used to flavor cold soups, stir-fries, cheese and cream sauces, dips, and potato dishes. The blossoms are also delicious in salads and can be used to flavor vinegar.

Chives are relatively challenging to grow from seed, but they are easily grown from bulbs. In fact, the clump of bulbs needs to be separated every couple of years for best results. The edible portion is the greenery, and the bulbs will regularly send up new growth to replace the cut leaves. If not cut back, chives will produce a lovely purple flower.


Often confused with myrrh (and therefore appearing in some biblical translations as such), cicely (Myrrhis odorata), sometimes known as sweet cicely, is a perennial probably native to central and southern Europe. The leaves, seeds, and roots are all edible, the leaves tasting slightly like those of chervil or anise. Cicely was very popular in France and England in the 16th and 17th centuries, but its use has much declined since then in favor of milder-tasting herbs. Cicely is now used mostly to flavor fish dishes.


Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum or C. aromaticum) is a light-brown spice with a fragrant aroma and a warm, sweet flavor. A member of the Laurel family, it is a native of what is now Sri Lanka, India, and Myanmar (Burma), though it was probably known in China by 2800 b.c.e. Cinnamon was also recorded in Egypt by 1500 b.c.e. and was certainly familiar to the Hebrew tribes by 1000 b.c.e. (it is mentioned in Exodus, for example, as an ingredient for an oil of anointing). In ancient times, because of its flavor and its scarcity, cinnamon was worth as much as fifteen times the value of silver. In Middle Eastern cooking, cinnamon is used to flavor both fiery curries and subtle, fragrant rice dishes. In Western cooking, cinnamon was very popular in the 16th to 18th centuries c.e. but is now used primarily to flavor desserts such as stewed fruits or spice cakes and rarely used in spicy dishes.


The clove (Syzygium aromaticum) is a native of Indonesia. Cloves were known in China during the Han Dynasty (c. 200 b.c.e.– c. 200 c.e.), and from China made their way to India. Cloves reached the Roman Empire by 335 c.e., brought by Arab traders. But cloves disappeared from Europe with the collapse of the Roman Empire, to reappear when the Saracens conquered Sicily, when the Crusaders brought spices back from the Holy Land, and when the Portuguese made their way by sea to India. By the 13th century, cloves were becoming an important and expensive import to Europe—and thus an object of numerous “trade wars' among competing merchants. Cloves are sometimes mentioned as one of the rare spices that the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon in II Chronicles 9:9 and are a very common spice in Near and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Clove trees are evergreens, growing to a height of 60 feet. They thrive in Indonesia,Madagascar, and Zanzibar. The cooking spice comes from the buds of the tree, picked just before they open, then dried, separated from their husks, and dried further, whereupon they resemble brown, black, or rusty nails. Indeed, the name “clove” derives from the French word clou, which means nail. Harvesting is very labor-intensive. Often used whole, cloves are also ground into a powder.

Modern-day cooks use cloves to flavor meats, salad dressings, and desserts. Cloves are an essential ingredient in ketchup and Worchestershire sauces. They are also used to flavor certain coffees and can even be made into cigarettes. As it is a strong spice, only a small amount is necessary to create an impression.


Cocoa is a product of the seeds of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), which is native to the low Andean foothills and the Amazon and Orinoco River basins. Introduced into Central America by the Mayans, and later cultivated by the Toltecs and the Aztecs, the tree grows to a height of 25 feet and requires humid conditions, regular rainfall, and good soil in order to thrive. The trees produce ovoid pods about 12 inches long, and each pod contains twenty to sixty seeds; but a single mature tree may yield only about twenty pods in a year, and from three hundred to six hundred seeds are required to make 2 pounds of cocoa paste, so many trees are needed. One of the most important active ingredients in the seeds is theobromine, a chemical that is similar to caffeine. It is interesting to note that theobroma means “food of the gods,” and many people would say that cocoa is just that. The Aztecs were great lovers of cocoa drinks, which they flavored with vanilla and other spices.

The three main cultivars used for making cocoa are the Criollo Group, which produces beans that are less bitter and more aromatic than the others; the Forestero Group, which are hardier than the other cacao trees; and the Trinitario Group, which is a hybrid of the other two. Beans from Criollo trees are extremely expensive and are used in only about 10 percent of chocolate, though it is considered to be the best tasting of all.

The Spanish conquerors of Mexico brought cocoa back to Europe and also planted cacao trees in the West Indies and the Philippines. Cacao trees were also planted in Africa. Today, most of the world's cocoa comes from trees in Africa and Brazil, and the Netherlands and the United States are the leading processors of cocoa. Cocoa would not have been known to the peoples of the Bible, though it is now consumed world-wide.

Because of its wonderful taste, cocoa is a favorite ingredient in many drinks, cakes, creams, cookies, toppings, and other recipes. It is also a health food, with about twice the anticancer antioxidants of red wine and three times those of green tea.


Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), a member of the Parsley or Carrot family, was one of the first spices used in cooking. Archaeologists have discovered coriander seeds in both Bronze Age ruins on the Greek Aegean islands and in Egyptian tombs. The Ebers Papyrus mentions coriander, and the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, and Mycenaeans grew it. The Hindus used coriander in religious ceremonies, and the Hebrews, adopting it perhaps from the Egyptians, perhaps from the Babylonians, used it in cooking (Exodus 16:31 and Numbers 11:7, where the taste of manna is compared to that of coriander). The Romans spread the cultivation and use of coriander throughout Europe, and it has been grown as far north as the southern part of England. Spanish settlers brought coriander to the Americas, where it quickly became a favorite of Native American peoples in Mexico and the southwestern regions of the United States.

Cooks can most easily find coriander powder, but the taste is much better if one buys the seeds and grinds them as needed. The flavor is both pungent and sugary, and it can serve as a complement to almost any dish, from wild game to chicken, curry to omelets, soup to bread, and pudding to cake. While many people use coriander as a spice, coriander leaves are also used as a salad. The fresh leaves are known by the common name “cilantro.”

Cream of Tartar

Cream of tartar (the potassium salt of tartaric acid) is a byproduct of winemaking and might well have been known in biblical times. During the fermentation of grape juice, tartar crystallizes in the wine casks. The crystals are collected, purified, and ground, producing a white, odorless, acidic powder. Cream of tartar has many uses in cooking: for example, it can stabilize egg whites, increasing their heat tolerance and volume; prevent sugar syrups from crystallizing; and decrease discoloration in boiled vegetables. When combined with baking soda it produces an effective laxative.


Cumin (Cuminum cyminum), a member of the Parsley family, is native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was an important spice during biblical times, noted by Egyptian medical writers (in the medical papyrus of Thebes) by 1552 b.c.e. and by Greek palace scribes earlier than 1000 b.c.e., and it was also mentioned by the author of Isaiah (28:25, 27). Cumin has often been confused with caraway, but scholars now assert that their origins and uses are quite distinct. The Roman scientist Pliny considered cumin an appetite stimulant. The cumin seeds, which are really fruits, have a warm, bitter flavor. In modern times, European cooks use cumin only for cheese flavoring; it is much more important to cooks throughout the rest of the world. In Indian cooking, for example, cumin is used to flavor lentil or other vegetable dishes or curries and as an essential ingredient in tandoori recipes. According to folklore, cumin also has a medicinal application, as a stimulant and antimicrobial.


Dill (Anethum graveolens) is another early spice, thought to have been well known to the ancient Romans, who called it aneth and used its oil as a tonic. Frequently mistranslated in the Bible as “anise,” true dill was mentioned in Hebrew law texts as a plant whose stems, leaves, and seeds were subject to tithe; hence the admonition in Matthew 23:23: “Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law.” Cooks of northern Europe, North America, and the Indian subcontinent use it regularly; elsewhere, it is relatively unknown.

Dill is most familiar because of its use in flavoring cucumbers and making pickles. Dill often adds spice to potato salads and sauerkraut, vinegar, cabbage and other vegetable dishes, stews and soups, sauces, pork and fish—even bread, apple pie, and chutney. The entire aromatic plant is edible.

Five-Spice Powder

Five-spice powder is a spice mixture that originated in China. Balancing the yin and yang in the taste of food, this powder incorporates the sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty. Most recipes for this powder call for mixing Tung Hing cinnamon, powdered cassia buds, powdered star anise and aniseed, ginger root, and ground cloves. Sometimes the recipe will consist of cinnamon, black pepper (or Szechuan pepper), cloves, fennel seed, and star anise. The powder is most often used in cooking duck and beef stew. Its use has spread to more than a few Middle Eastern kitchens.


Frankincense is the resin or gum produced by injured forest trees (Boswellia thurifera) native to Somalia and parts of Arabia. Frankincense is a stimulant, and in ancient times it was widely used as such. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Israelites, and Romans used frankincense for religious purposes. Mentioned frequently in the Bible (for example, Exodus 30:34; I Chronicles 9:29; Matthew 2:11), it was presented with the shew-bread every Sabbath and was stored in the Temple at Jerusalem. In ancient Egypt, it was used to scent perfumes and makeup.

Today, besides its use in the making of incense, frankincense has little value, aside from possibly aiding in the treatment of bronchitis and laryngitis.


Also known as galingale and galanga, galangal is the common name for four species of the Ginger family: greater galangal or Chewing John (Alpinia galanga), lesser galangal (A. officinarum), sand ginger (Kaempferia galangal), and Chinese ginger or fingerroot (Boesenbergia pandurata). Galangal is best known in Thai and Laotian cuisine, but it was common in medieval European cooking and is well known to Jews of the Diaspora. It is frequently used in the Near and Middle Eastern and North African kitchen. Although it is not true ginger, galangal is like ginger in both appearance and taste, though with a bit more citrus flavor and perhaps a touch of soapiness. It is readily available from merchants of Asian spices, either as a powder or whole.


Garlic (Allium sativum), a member of the Onion or Lily family, is native to Central Asia and grows wild in Sicily and southern France. It was known in Egypt as long ago as 3000 b.c.e. From tomb paintings, we know that the ancient Egyptians made offerings of garlic to their gods, and bunches of garlic were placed in the pyramids to provision the deceased in the afterlife. The book of Numbers (11:5) offers evidence of the esteem in which the ancients held garlic: when Moses had led the Israelites into the desert, they complained, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (NRSV). The Chinese cultivated garlic as early as 3000 b.c.e., the oldest Vedic writings of India mention garlic, and the Babylonians made extensive use of garlic in the 8th century b.c.e. Greek and Roman military leaders urged their soldiers to eat garlic in order to get fired up for battle. During the centuries of Roman rule, however, garlic fell into disrepute: it has an acrid taste, and its strong, sometimes offensive odor was considered unsuitable for the aristocracy, so it became a staple of the lower classes. (The well-bred citizens of Rome did not know that fresh parsley can alleviate “garlic breath.”) Furthermore, it was believed to have certain magical properties, such as the ability to ward off vampires, protect children or farm animals from sorcery, or keep seafarers safe on their voyages. It was believed to have aphrodisiacal powers too. It may have actual medicinal uses, such as the easing of hypertension, the lowering of cholesterol, or the prevention of cancer. Garlic is now an important ingredient in such diverse cuisines as Italian, Korean, and Californian and in sauces, stews, and salad dressings. Garlic bulbs can be dried and stored, and individual segments (cloves) peeled off and chopped or crushed, then added to flavor recipes; the dried cloves can also be ground into powder for longer storage.


Ginger is the dried root of the perennial ginger plant (Zingiber officinale). Native to tropical Asia, ginger has been under cultivation for so many millennia that its wild forebears have disappeared; botanists might guess that they came from India and Malaysia. Confucius is the first to mention ginger in his writings circa 500 b.c.e. The name ginger comes from the Sanskrit sringa-vera, which means “horn-root” or “horn-body,” and that is an apt description of the root, which is strangely knobby. Some speak of the roots as hands; others, as races, which makes sense because the Portuguese-Spanish word for “roots' is raices. The plant itself grows to a height of 3 feet, and the 6-inch roots are unearthed once the upper plant dies.

The ancient Romans imported vast quantities of ginger and taxed it heavily because it was in such high demand, so it was likely known to the peoples of the New Testament. After the fall of the Roman Empire, ginger became rare in Europe, andMarco Polo remarked how inexpensive ginger was in Asia compared with its cost in Europe. Use of ginger declined in many parts of Europe except England, which enjoyed its pungent flavor and found a ready supply in India (at one time a part of the British Empire). English colonists brought ginger to the Americas, where it became and still is a favorite ingredient in cookies, breads, candy, carbonated beverages (ginger ale and ginger beer), and even ice cream.

Over the years many effects have been attributed to ginger: the Portuguese thought it an aphrodisiac; New Englanders believed it prevented belching and flatulence; a French doctor said that it gave the person who eats it power over tigers; it was even used as a suppository for horses to make them act lively for potential buyers. Truthfully, ginger adds a special flavor to curries and to spice blends. Often it is purchased fresh and sliced thinly for consumption; the French were the first to dry and pulverize the roots into usable powder. Ginger oil is also used in the cosmetics industry, mostly for men's eau de cologne and shaving lotions.

The farming of ginger has spread throughout the tropics, and today it is part of the agriculture of Australia, South America, Indonesia, western Africa, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, in addition to India and China.

Lemon Balm

Also known as bee balm or sometimes simply as balm, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is so called because it has a slightly lemony scent. It is a perennial native to southern Europe. “Balm” is mentioned many times in the Bible but probably refers to the gum of the balsam tree. It is possible that cooks of the Middle East would have learned of lemon balm from the Romans. Throughout history, it has been used medicinally, as it was believed to have mild sedative properties and to be able to relieve gas, reduce fever, and increase perspiration. In the Middle Ages lemon balm was steeped in wine and consumed to lift the spirits, heal wounds, and treat venomous bites. It was also used as a disease preventative, its oils and extracts possessing antibacterial and antiviral qualities.

Sprigs of lemon balm make a refreshing garnish for cocktails, salads, and main dishes. Either fresh or dried, the leaves make a delicious tea. The dried leaves are added to potpourris, and the oil is an ingredient in perfumes.

Lotus Oil

Lotus oil is an extract of the flower of the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera). Although the flowers are relatively large (about 8 inches in diameter), each one yields only a tiny amount of oil, so lotus oil is very expensive. But it is also very concentrated, so it is usually diluted or blended with other lighter oils. Commonly, lotus oil is added to bath or massage oils or diffused in the air to create a pleasing scented atmosphere. For more information on the lotus, see Lotus Root. The royal courts of Persia would likely have been familiar with lotus oil.


Mace is a spice made from the bright scarlet netting, called the aril, that surrounds the seed of the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans); the seed itself is nutmeg. Although the nutmeg tree is native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, the Roman naturalist Pliny wrote about a tree that produced two different spices, and it is thought that he might have been describing the nutmeg tree. However, the earliest reliable record of the spice's entry into the Mediterranean world dates from the 6th century c.e., and it is probable that neither mace nor nutmeg was known to the peoples of the Bible.

The flavor of mace is similar to but stronger than that of nutmeg, and mace can be used much the way nutmeg is. Mace is, however, the classic spice for poundcake. It is available primarily as a powder and most flavorful when whole, but it is difficult nowadays to find “a blade of mace,” as called for in old cookbooks. When it is used in Middle Eastern cooking, it is often for sweet dishes.


Botanists seem to be somewhat confused about marjoram. Many believe it to be the herbal plant Origanum majorana; others say it is the herbal plant Majorana hortensis; some mix things up entirely and say it is O. hortensis. The confusion stems from the popular belief that marjoram is a close relation to oregano, a belief fostered by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century when he incorrectly classified marjoram as O. majorana, but the two plants are not at all related: marjoram is a plant of the Majorana genus; oregano, of the Origanum. Marjoram is thus correctly classified as Majorana hortensis, a perennial herb, and it is commonly known as garden marjoram, sweet marjoram, annual marjoram, or knotted marjoram, all of which are descriptive of its characteristics.

Marjoram originated in the Mediterranean region, but exactly where is lost to antiquity, as it has been under cultivation since prehistoric times. The ancient Greeks and Romans used marjoram in bridal wreaths as it symbolized love and honor, and the former believed that the growth of marjoram on a gravesite indicated that the deceased was enjoying eternal peace. Marjoram is mentioned in the Bible (Leviticus 14:4), but it is often mistranslated as “hyssop,” a plant that looks very similar. A member of the Mint family, it reaches a height of 2 feet and, unlike other members of its family, does not release its fragrance until crushed. It is an herb that is much more pungent dried than fresh.

Marjoram adds a pleasant, sweet flavor to pickles, sausages, lamb, beef, pork, chicken, and fish. It also works well in tomato dishes, stuffings, breads, salad dressings, and chowders. Italian, French, northern African, Middle Eastern, and North American cuisines and spice blends such as bouquet garni and fines herbes often call upon marjoram. As well, it is an ingredient in potpourris and scent bags and sachets, and marjoram oil is used in perfumed soaps.


Mastic is a hard, aromatic, transparent resin that is harvested from injured mastic shrubs (Pistacia lentiscus). Native to the Mediterranean, from Turkey west to Spain, Morocco, and the Canary Islands, mastic shrubs grow to 12 feet in height. It is mentioned in the apochryphal book of Susannah (verse 54). Some scholars speculate that it may have been the substance called “manna” in the book of Numbers. Mediterranean peoples have been treating gastrointestinal distress with mastic for many centuries, as attested by Dioscorides, the 1st century c.e. Greek physician. Recent medical studies have reinforced mastic's healing properties, showing that mastic oil is a strong antibacterial and antifungal agent and that mastic can help heal peptic ulcers and reduce tooth plaque caused by bacteria.

In the kitchen, mastic is a key ingredient in Turkish ice cream. It is also used to make chewing gum, which can help freshen the breath, and a liqueur called mastica.


There are about twenty true varieties of mint, from peppermint (Mentha piperita) and spearmint (M. spicata) to apple mint (M. suaveolens), water mint (M. aquatica), and even chocolate mint (M. x piperita “Chocolate mint”). All are vigorous perennials originating in the Mediterranean region, but they now grow in a wide range of conditions. Menthol, a local anesthetic and counterirritant that has long been used as an ingredient in soothing balms, is the compound that gives mint its scent. The mint called pennyroyal (M. pulegium) was well known in Greece by 1200 b.c.e. as a flea repellant and an abortifacient (a substance that can induce abortions), and according to the Roman naturalist Pliny, both the Greeks and the Romans used peppermint (or a wild ancestor) as adornment and table decoration. There is evidence that the Egyptians cultivated a variety of mint, and the Israelites would have adapted it to their cooking during their years in Egypt, using it to add zest to fruit or grain salads, beverages, vegetable dishes, and soups. Some biblical scholars believe that mint was among the bitter herbs mentioned in Exodus 12:8 and Numbers 9:11. The mint mentioned in the gospel of Luke (11:42) would probably have been some type of peppermint.


Mustard is a member of the Cruciferae family, so called because the four petals of their flowers are arranged in the form of a cross. The most common mustards are the black mustard (Brassica nigra), white mustard (B. alba), field mustard (B. campestris), and Indian mustard (B. juncea). The consumption of mustard dates from prehistoric times, in Asia to Europe to northern Africa: early humans ate both the seeds and the leaves. It was known to the Egyptians, Romans, and Hindus, and mustard is so productive, even in the wild, that cultivation was hardly necessary; indeed, it became among the Hindus a symbol of fertility. Mustard has a prominent place in the Bible, in Jesus' parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31–32; Mark 4:30–32; Luke 13:18–19); most scholars believe that black mustard must have been the plant referred to, even though the plant grows to a height of only three feet. Today, mustard is second only to pepper in the world spice trade.

Mustard seeds can have either a pleasantly nutty taste or a pungent, hot flavor. Compounds made from their oils have helped the body absorb scar tissue, relieved strained muscles, and disinfected surgeons' hands. Powdered mustard has helped relieve pulmonary congestion and has aided sinus and throat congestion.

Today, mustard is grown mostly for use in condiments or cooking oils, though mustard greens are a necessary ingredient in what is now called soul food and are a very good source of vitamins A and C.


Often confused with cicely, myrrh is the dried reddish-brown, highly aromatic resin of the myrrh tree (Commiphora myrrha), although other trees (such as C. erythraea, C. opobalsamum, and Balsamodendron kua) also produce sap that is called myrrh. The myrrh tree is native to Somalia, but the name “myrrh” comes from the Hebrew murr or maror, which mean “bitter.” Because it has a very pleasant aroma, solid myrrh has been used in perfumes and embalming oils and as an aromatic additive to wine for many centuries. However, when burned, myrrh gives off a repulsive odor, and it has been used extensively in penitential incenses. Myrrh is mentioned in the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 37:25; Exodus 30:23; Esther 2:12); and in the New Testament (Matthew 2:11) as one of the gifts that the Magi brought to the baby Jesus, perhaps as a foreshadowing of the bitterness that the infant and his parents would experience in years to come. Today, myrrh is sometimes added to toothpowders and mouthwashes.


Nutmeg is a spice made from the seed of the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans); another spice, mace, also comes from this tree, which is native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. The Roman naturalist Pliny wrote about a tree that produced two different spices, and it is thought that he might have been describing the nutmeg tree. While ancient Indian and Arabian literature mention the medicinal uses of the spice from the two-spice tree, the earliest reliable record of nutmeg's importation to the Mediterranean region dates from the 6th century c.e. A mild, slightly sweet spice, nutmeg is used to flavor stews, sausages, meats, soups, preserves, beverages (especially alcoholic beverages), and vegetable and fruit dishes; it is also an important ingredient in baking. Nutmeg can also be used as a sedative and as a treatment for diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. When used in Middle Eastern and North African cooking, it is often in sweet dishes.

Old Bay

Old Bay is a trademarked seasoning produced by McCormick & Company. Named for the Chesapeake Bay region of the United States, it was first blended by Gustav Brunn in the 1940s. Old Bay contains celery seed, mustard seed, red pepper, black pepper, bay (laurel) leaf, cloves, allspice, pimento, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika (many of the spices of the Bible). A “hot” seasoning, it has come to be associated with steamed crabs and shrimp.


Often confused with marjoram, oregano (Origanum vulgare) is believed to be a native of the Mediterranean region, though like marjoram it has been under cultivation for so long that its exact origin is lost to prehistory. Like marjoram, oregano was highly favored in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and would have been known to the peoples of the Bible. Like marjoram, oregano is a perennial. Unlike marjoram, however, oregano can tolerate cool weather, thriving as far north as the British Isles, and more arid soil.

The name origanum comes from the Greek words meaning “mountain” and “joy,” and indeed, the Greeks still appreciate the flavor that the “joy of the mountain” adds to their meals. Oregano has a stronger taste than marjoram and is much preferred for Mediterranean cooking. It has certainly become necessary for Italian tomato sauces and pizzas, Middle Eastern tomato and eggplant dishes, and, of course, Greek mutton kebabs. But the English use it in Exeter stew, the French add it to many sauces, and the Swedes sprinkle it on pea soup.

Orris Root

Orris root is the underground stems, or rhizomes, of three species of iris plants: Iris germanica, I. florentina, and I. pattida. These irises are native to southern Europe. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans used orris root to make perfumes and scented balms, as it has a lovely violet-like scent when dried. It would probably have been known to the wealthy people of the Middle East during New Testament times. Orris root was also used to flavor candies, toothpastes, and mouthwashes, and orris root tea was (and still is) taken for cases of bronchitis, colds, coughs, diarrhea, and dropsy. It is also used in cosmetics and potpourri.


Paprika is the name for the dried, ground pods of the sweet red pepper (Capsicum annuum). Fragrantly sweet, paprika is bright red, and chefs prize it because even its color adds zest to their cuisine. A member of the Nightshade family, the paprika pepper is believed to have originated in South America; it was probably first domesticated in Mexico. Spanish colonists first brought this pepper to Europe. It would not have been known to the peoples of the Bible. The paprika pepper now grows world-wide, though Spain, Central Europe, and the United States are the major producers. Many Spanish and Hungarian (and some Middle Eastern) dishes call for paprika, and it adds color and flavor to poultry and fish, chowders, salad dressings, soups, and vegetable dishes.

In addition to its culinary popularity, paprika is famous because it was the fruit from which vitamin C was first identified, by Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Gyo¨rgyi, who won the Nobel Prize for his work. Paprika peppers are also high in beta-carotene (a source of vitamin A), as well as vitamins B1 and B2.


Parsley (Petroselinum crispum and P. neapolitanum) is a native of the Mediterranean region, and both the ancient Greeks and Romans used it as a seasoning and a garnish. The Greeks also wreathed the heads of their young war or athletic heroes with crowns of parsley and used it to treat rheumatism and kidney pains; and the Romans believed parsley could prevent intoxication. It is possible that the Israelites used parsley as one of the bitter herbs that were part of their Passover meal. A bright-green, biennial herb, parsley adds a fresh, crisp flavor and decorative color and texture to almost any dish. In the Middle East today, it is an essential ingredient of hummus and tabbouleh.

Pepper, black

It is not an exaggeration to say that black pepper (Piper nigrum) ranks as one of the most important spices in world history. Originating on the Indian subcontinent and in Indonesia, black pepper is first mentioned in the Sanskrit literature about 1000 b.c.e. It probably made its way to the Mediterranean world by the 4th century b.c.e., carried by caravans from market to market. Thus it would most probably not have been known to the peoples of early biblical times but would have entered their cooking perhaps during the times of exile. In the Mediterranean region, black pepper was initially considered a medicine. Its merits as a seasoning soon recognized, black pepper became a common ingredient, called for in almost every type of dish except desserts. In fact, the ancient Romans were so enamored of pepper and other spices that the Emperor Domitian built a special spice market, the horrea piperataria, which, as can be seen, derives its name from pepper. When the Roman Empire collapsed, pepper became scarce in Europe— and thus all the more valuable. During the Crusades, Venetian ships transported soldiers to the Holy Land and pepper and other spices back to Europe, and it might almost be said that the spice trade became as important a cause for a crusade as any theological or political reason. Trade in pepper brought wealth to merchants from cities as far-flung as Venice, Genoa, Augsburg, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Brugges, and Alexandria. During the Middle Ages pepper also served as currency: tenants paid their rent in peppercorns, landholders paid their taxes in pepper, and pepper was used to bribe city officials. Consumption of pepper was enormous, due to the prevalence of foodstuffs such as salted pork, dried and salted fish, the rare bit of “aged” beef, and the need in all cases to mask their unpalatable taste. By the 17th century, however, overspicing with pepper began to fall from fashion, as raw and fresh foodstuffs seasoned with milder spices and herbs made their way to the table. At one time the most valuable of all spices, pepper is still the most widely used and the most easily recognized by taste.

Black pepper actually comes in three colors—green, white, and black—which are merely peppercorns picked at three different stages of ripeness; all come from the tropical climbing bush P. nigrum. Once treated and dried, the berries can be stored whole or ground into powder. Because pepper has a volatile, fast-fading aroma and taste, ground pepper loses its flavor rapidly, and many connoisseurs insist on buying the peppercorns to grind their own.

Poppy Seed

The poppy seed comes from the poppy flower (Papaver somniferum), an annual, which has been cultivated at least since 2000 b.c.e. The exact origins of the poppy are not known, though some botanists believe that they are native to the northern Indian subcontinent or perhaps to southwestern Asia; thus, it may have been known to the peoples of the Bible. Although the poppy is the source of the narcotic opium, dried poppy seeds do not have a narcotic effect. Instead, they contain an oil that adds a nutty flavor to breads, vegetables, and salad dressings. Crushed poppy seeds, which are extremely small and slate blue in color, are mixed in with other spices to create unique blends for use in Indian and Turkish dishes.

In Greek mythology, the goddess Demeter (known as Ceres to the Romans) was believed to favor the poppy. Demeter's daughter Persephone, kidnapped by the god of the underworld Hades, was thought to bring the rebirth of the world with her when she ascended from the shadowy realm every spring, and her fertility became associated with the poppy, each flower of which produces millions of tiny seeds.

In the United States, the poppy has lost its connection to fertility; instead, it is used to commemorate Veterans' Day.


Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) received its name from the Roman author Pliny, who described it as a flowering plant that grows so close to the shore that foam (ros) from the sea (mare) sprays upon it. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans placed a high value on rosemary, the Greeks believing that their gods would prize a wreath of rosemary above one of gold, and the Romans offering the plant to their house gods and dedicating it especially to Venus. Ancient Greek students wore rosemary to strengthen their memory during examinations, and it became a widespread symbol of remembrance, featured in both weddings and funerals. Early Christians believed that during the flight to Egypt, when the Virgin Mary made a bed for the Christ Child upon a clump of rosemary, the plant's flowers turned blue, a color that represented eternity, truth, and wisdom. It is believed that rosemary was not used for cooking until the Middle Ages, when it became popular as a means of masking the taste of salt-preserved meats, but surely the many ancient peoples of the Middle East who preserved their meats with salt would have known and taken advantage of rosemary's fresh, slightly bittersweet taste. A member of the Mint family, rosemary is a perennial herb that is very tolerant of dry climates and is easily cultivated. Rosemary leaves do not lose their flavor through long cooking, as other leaves do, and are more aromatic when dried than when fresh. They are most frequently used to flavor fish, meat (particularly chicken), potato, and vegetable dishes. The taste of rosemary is very strong, and cooks must take care not to overdose their recipes with it.

Rose Oil

Rose oil is the extracted oil of rose petals, usually the petals of the damask rose (Rosa damascena). Roses are native to the lands from eastern Asia to western Europe, though the exact origins are now unclear. One of the ancestors is believed to be R. gallica, which continues to grow wild in the Caucasus Mountains. The damask rose is a hybrid of R. gallica with R. phoenicia or R. moschata, and damask roses were first known in western Asia in the Bronze Age and were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Rose oil has also been distilled from the blooms of R. centifolia, R. gallica, and R. rugosa. The rose appears numerous times in the Bible: e.g., Ecclesiastes 24:14, 39:13, 50:8; Wisdom of Solomon 2:8; II Esdras 2:19.

Rose oil is very precious because many flowers are needed to create even an ounce of oil. Furthermore, the content of oil is highest on the first morning when the blooms open, so the flowers must be picked by hand, a process that makes rose oil even more expensive. Today, the main producers of rose oil are France, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Iran.

Rose oil is used mostly in perfumes, cosmetics, massage and bath oils, and incenses. It can also be used to flavor jams, jellies, honey, butter, tea, and vinegar, as well as desserts, especially baklava, a Middle Eastern favorite.


Rue is the name of a genus (Ruta) of highly fragrant evergreen shrubs native to the Mediterranean and southwestern Asia. There are a number of species of rue, the most common being

  • Common rue (R. graveolens)
  • Egyptian rue (R. angustifolia)
  • Fringed rue (R. chalepensis)
  • Corsican rue (R. corsica)
  • Mountain rue (R. montana)

Many people consider rue to have a strongly disagreeable odor, and the bestknown literary references to rue (in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Richard III) refer to rue as a reflection of inner heartache. It is also mentioned in the Bible when Jesus dines with the Pharisee (Luke 11:42).

The ancient Greeks considered rue an antidote to poison, and people of the Middle Ages used dried rue as an antimagical herb and a protection againstwitches. In the Renaissance, rue was used to prevent epileptic fits, earache, and vertigo, and it was believed to bestow second sight. Some Italians still add fresh rue to salads, as it is supposed to help keep the eyesight clear. In modern times it is employed as an asperges for distributing holy water during Roman Catholic masses of repentance.


Saffron (Crocus sativus) is the spice made from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, a member of the Iris family. No longer a wild species, saffron crocus probably originated in the Near East or Asia Minor and was one of the earliest domesticated food species. The word saffron is believed to be derived from Sumerian, the language spoken by the peoples of the southern Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys more than 5,000 years ago. A Chinese book of medicine dating from 2600 b.c.e. provides the earliest written reference to saffron, and an Egyptian text of about 1500 b.c.e. describes the crocuses in the palace gardens at Luxor. People of the Phoenician cities (which thrived about 1500–1000 b.c.e.) used saffron-dyed sheets on their wedding nights, and Buddhist monks wore (and still wear) saffron-colored robes as a sign of holiness; it also became a color reserved for the higher classes. The Israelites certainly knew about saffron, and the ancient Hebrew text known as the Song of Solomon (or the Song of Songs [4:14], probably written in the 10th century b.c.e., or perhaps later) mentions a garden filled with saffron crocuses. Saffron had made its way to ancient Greece via Crete and the Minoan civilization by this time, and Greek mythology included at least two different stories to explain the origins of the saffron crocus. The Greek physician Hippocrates and the Roman physician Celsus both used saffron in their remedies, particularly to treat abdominal ailments, and saffron also came to be known as an anti-intoxicant among Roman revelers. Roman emperors such as Hadrian and Heliogabalus also used saffron to mask unpleasant smells and improve the odor in public places.

The saffron crocus blooms in the late summer, and the flowers must be picked early in the morning, before the scent is lost to the heat of the day, and then the appropriate parts of the flower must be separated by hand. About 150,000 flowers are required to make 2 pounds of saffron. Consequently, saffron is perhaps the most expensive spice ever cultivated.

Saffron has a pleasant spicy scent, a slightly bitter taste, and colors food yellow to orange. It is used in many rice dishes and in the preparation of soups, meat and seafood stews, breads, egg dishes, and vegetables.


Silvery-gray in color, sage (Salvia officinalis) is available either as whole leaves (known as cut sage) or as a fluffy, cottony powder (known as rubbed sage). It is most common as rubbed sage.

The ancient Greeks used sage for its medicinal properties as early as the 4th century b.c.e., believing in its curative powers, particularly against fevers. Judean sage is the plant after which the flower design on the Temple menorah was patterned (Exodus 37:17) and was well known to the peoples of the Bible. Native to southern Europe, sage was planted and cultivated throughout Europe by the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century c.e. People of this era believed that sage strengthened the memory, and to this day wise people are known as sages.

The use of sage has declined somewhat since the Middle Ages, though it is still employed to flavor stuffing, poultry, cheese, sausages, breads, vegetable dishes, and even some desserts. Some people favor eating the young shoots in salads; others enjoy pickled sage leaves—although both dishes would be very pungent.

Sesame Seed

Sesame seed is the dried seed of Sesamum indicum. High in protein, the seeds are oval shaped and have a nutlike flavor when toasted. Sesame was native to Indonesia and eastern Africa but spread to Mesopotamia by the 2nd millennium b.c.e. The ancient Babylonians used sesame seeds to make cakes, to flavor wine and brandy, and to provide oil for both cooking and perfuming purposes. By 1500 b.c.e. the Egyptians were using sesame oil as a medicine. The peoples of the Bible would have used sesame seeds in their cooking.

The indigenous peoples of Africa and Asia treat sesame seeds as a grain, but in Europe, Japan, and the Americas, sesame has entered the diet as cooking oil. In recent years sesame seeds have been used to flavor breads, crackers, and salad dressings.

In folklore, the magical password “Open Sesame” that unlocked the cave for Ali Baba in The Thousand and One Nights probably was a play on the fact that ripe sesame seed pods pop open loudly with a slight touch. Also, sesame seed was so common that “sesame” would not have been considered important enough to be used as a secret password.


Sumac (Rhus coriaria L.) or sumach is native to the Mediterranean region and is a member of the Cashew family. It produces clusters of bright or dark-red fruit, berries, or drupes. Drupes are the type of fruit in which the outer fleshy part (exocarp [skin] and mesocarp [flesh]) surrounds a shell (endocarp) with a seed inside. In the Middle East, the hairy covering of the drupes is harvested, ground, and used as a spice. This purple-reddish powder has a tart and sour taste and is used to flavor rice dishes and stews. In some parts of the Middle East, sumac berries are cooked in water until they reduce to a thick, sour essence that is then added to meat and vegetable dishes. Other Middle Eastern cooks mix the berries with onions and serve the me´lange as an appetizer. Sumac was also used as a dyeing and tanning agent, as in the ram's skins mentioned in the book of Exodus.


See Tahini.


Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is a perennial plant that can reach 4 to 5 feet in height but can easily be grown in a corner garden or window box. Its land of origin is thought to be the steppes of Asia. Invading Mongols introduced it to the Near East in the 12th century c.e., and the Crusaders brought it to Europe soon thereafter. Tarragon was probably one of the bitter herbs of the Bible, often mistranslated as “wormwood” (Revelation 8:11). Tarragon has been served as a vegetable in the Near East, though its use as an herb for flavoring is much more widespread. Tarragon is usually available dried; unfortunately, the dried leaves are much less flavorful than the fresh. Its species name, dracunculus, means “little dragon,” from the Roman superstition that a twig of tarragon would protect the bearer against snakes and dragons. Its names in French (estragon), Spanish (estrago ´n), Italian (targone), Swedish (dragon), and German (Estragon, Dragon) convey the same meaning.

Tarragon complements the flavor of poached, baked, or broiled fish or poultry. It also works well with shellfish and eggs, and it adds a nice touch to vinaigrettes and other salad dressings, cooked potatoes, and vegetable dishes.


Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a small perennial member of the Mint family. Native to the Mediterranean basin, it entered the herb garden early, being used by the ancient Sumerians by 3500 b.c.e. The Egyptians used thyme for embalming, and it would have been familiar to the peoples of the Bible (Revelation 18:12, according to the Wycliffe New Testament). It was said to be one of the few fruits and spices that could be easily gathered in the fields of Israel during the First Temple Period. The Greek physician Hippocrates considered it a healing herb, and to the Greeks, thyme also symbolized courage. Roman soldiers sometimes bathed in thyme water because it was thought to give strength in addition to courage. The ancients also believed that tea made from thyme would lift depression and dispel nightmares. In the Middle Ages, knights wore scarves embroidered with sprigs of thyme to fortify their bravery, and some folk to this day call upon thyme to help them see elves and fairies.

Garden thyme now exists in many varieties, including orange, lemon (T. citriodorus), caraway, camphor, and even turpentine. Wild thyme (T. serpyllum) still thrives from Greece to the British Isles.

Thyme is considered an essential ingredient in stuffings and is used to flavor meats, stews, soups, fish, and wild game dishes, or even salads. It is part of zaatar, herbes de Provence, and bouquet garni, and it is required in the making of jerk pork and curries. It also adds a nice touch to desserts that include lemon, such as custards, creams, and sherbets.


Turmeric (Curcuma longa) most probably originated in South Asia (the Indian subcontinent) or Southeast Asia and spread to the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean lands as a result of Alexander the Great's conquest of Central Asia (achieved from 334 to 326 b.c.e.). Thus turmeric would not have been known to the peoples of the Bible until New Testament times.

Turmeric is a perennial member of the Ginger family, and its thick rhizome is harvested, cleaned, cooked, sun-dried, polished, and ground into a powder. This deep yellow-orange powder is a key ingredient in curry powder and is also used to color sauces and syrups and rices and to flavor meat and vegetable dishes. Turmeric is sometimes used as an inexpensive, though much less flavorful and aromatic substitute for saffron. It also has wide use as a cloth dye. Today, it is very common in Middle Eastern dishes.


Native to the West Indies, Central America, and northern South America, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia, formerly known as V. fragrans) made its way to Europe on the ships of Herna´n Corteés and would not have been known to Middle Eastern cooks of biblical times. Vanilla is a member of the Orchid family and is a lush trailing plant that can climb up to 100 feet in its native tropical rainforest environment. It produces 2–3 inch yellow-white flowers in clusters, and when pollinated, these flowers yield 10-inch pods (incorrectly called beans) containing vanilla seeds. Most of the fragrance resides in the seeds and the surrounding oily liquid. Vanilla is a very expensive spice, second in value only to saffron, because the production of vanilla is very labor-intensive. To capture the vanilla spice, the pods must be either blanched or steamed, then cured and dried, a time-consuming process that might take up to a full year, before they are ready for use. Additionally, although vanilla plants are self-pollinating (that is, pollen from one flower can be used to fertilize other flowers on the same plant), they are adapted to pollination by insects (butterflies or bees) or hummingbirds; unfortunately, the original pollinator of vanilla disappeared centuries ago, and long before Christopher Columbus first tasted vanilla in 1502, the flowers were all pollinated by hand. Called tlilxochitl by the Aztecs of Central America, vanilla was harvested and used to improve the taste of chocolate drinks, which were very spicy (containing, for example, chilis, paprika, peppers), sweetened with honey, colored deep red (like blood) by the addition of annatto, and drunk cold. The Mayans consumed their chocolate drinks hot or cold and did not necessarily sweeten them. Columbus brought vanilla to Europe, where it soon became an essential ingredient in chocolate drinks; Europeans almost always sweetened their chocolate, added spices such as cinnamon or anise, and used a milk base instead of a water base, which gave the drink a much thicker consistency. In Western cuisine, vanilla is now used almost exclusively in sweet recipes, such as cookies, cakes, puddings, pastries, and ice creams, though it remains a staple of spicy recipes in certain cultures. Scientists were first able to create artificial vanilla in the 19th century, but it still does not have nearly the prized aroma or taste of natural vanilla. Today, vanilla is used extensively in Middle Eastern cooking.

Vanilla, Madagascar Bourbon

Many connoisseurs consider Madagascar Bourbon vanilla to be the best vanilla ever produced. It comes from vanilla beans grown and processed on the islands of Madagascar and Reéunion (formerly Bourbon) in the Indian Ocean since the 19th century, but it did not come into great demand world-wide until the 1960s. It is used to flavor baked goods, ice cream, and French toast.


Zaatar is a mixture of powdered thyme, whole sesame seeds, and powdered sumac. Some recipes for zaatar also include oregano, marjoram, savory, and salt. It is a staple of modern Middle Eastern kitchens.