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spice

Introduction

spice, aromatic vegetable product used as a flavoring or condiment. The term was formerly applied also to pungent or aromatic foods (e.g., gingerbread and currants), to ingredients of incense or perfume (e.g., myrrh), and to embalming agents. Modern usage tends to limit the term to flavorings used in food or drinks, although many spices have additional commercial uses, e.g., as ingredients of medicines, perfumes, incense, and soaps.

Spices include stimulating condiments, e.g., pepper, mustard, and horseradish; aromatic spices, e.g., cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, and mace; and sweet herbs, e.g., thyme, marjoram, sage, and mint. Spices are taken from the part of the plant richest in flavor—bark, stem, flower bud, fruit, seed, or leaf. Although spices are very commonly used in the form of a powder, some are used as tinctures obtained by extracting essential oils, and many are used whole.

Garlic, chives, caraway, mustard, and many herbs grow in temperate regions, and vanilla, allspice, and red pepper are indigenous to the West Indies and South America. Most of the major spices, however, are produced in the East Indies and tropical Asia.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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