The van bumped down a dusty dirt road surrounded on both sides by lush green vegetation. At the road’s end, a pile of hot travelers dressed in beach sarongs and sleeveless shirts tumbled out, only a bit worse for wear after the drive of several hours from Stone Town, the main city of Zanzibar, just off the coast of Tanzania.
One of the things Zanzibar is best known for, other than its untouched beaches and Swahili culture, is its spices, and these travelers had come to the spice farm to see how they grow.
For most cooks in North America spices come in small glass bottles, plastic jars, or from the bin at the local bulk store. Sure, gardeners grow some of their own herbs, but many of our most common kitchen staples actually come from climates far more tropical than ours.
Take pepper, for example. Did you know that the world’s most commonly used spice is actually the seed of a flowering vine native to India that can grow up to 12 or 15 feet high?
And where would our morning cappuccino be without cinnamon? You may know it best as a soft, brown powder but cinnamon is, in fact, the inner bark of an evergreen tree that grows up to 50 feet tall.
Most of the visitors could not identify the unremarkable root the guide held in his hand. That is, until he cut it open. One peek at the vibrant yellow colour and it was immediately – and correctly – labelled as turmeric. Closely related to ginger, this perennial rhizome has its own distinct taste and smell and is known to have many healthy virtues.
Zanzibar is perhaps best known for its cloves, which were introduced about two centuries ago by sultans from Oman. The island was once the world’s leading producer of cloves, but economic pressures and government controls have put a stranglehold on the industry in recent years.
Cloves are actually flower buds of a tree that must be harvested by hand during the months of September, October and November. Once collected, the buds are dried in the sun for about three days. They carry a heady aroma and are used not only in cooking, but also to make medicines, perfumes and clove cigarettes.
Among the most surprising aspects of the tour were the long green pods resembling pole beans that were, actually, how vanilla grows. We take this powerful essence completely for granted, and it was amazing to find out that vanilla comes from the seed pod of an orchid plant originally native to Mesoamerica.
Ever wondered what gives the brick of store-bought cheddar its interesting orange colour? You’ve probably never imagined the source was the seed of a tropical fruit! Annatto trees, also known as achiote, bear beautiful but inedible heart-shaped fruits covered in stiff hairs. Inside the fruit are dark red seeds covered in a pulp that is often used as a colourant for lipsticks, skin care products and shampoos, as well as for custards, cheeses (think Red Leicester), breakfast cereals and snack foods.
Feeling inspired to spice things up a bit? Here are some of our favourite spice-laden recipes:
- Sri Lankan pepper beef curry
- Lamb tagine with prunes and cinnamon
- French lentils with sausage, wilted arugula and dijon mustard (and cloves)
- Roast lobster with vanilla sauce
- Beef rendang with turmeric rice