Ch. 5: Spice Medicine
Spices are medicine! They are sensory nourishment. They contain volatile oils that transform our consciousness and bring us joy and contentment as they elevate our mood and help us to relax. An easy and effective way to integrate herbal medicine into your daily routine is to use spices in your cooking. Spices can be incorporated into your meals as an illness preventative, and they are a powerful support when using food as medicine for whole-health healing when you are ill.
I love to make my own spice mixtures from whole seeds, leaves, and roots on the spot for meals or in advance to use as medicine when I am feeling ill. I also bottle spices and mixtures, along with favorite recipes, as gifts for my friends and family on special occasions. Preparing spice mixtures as a group activity with friends and family provides “kitchen lessons” (I also call these lessons “culinary pedagogy”—for the highfalutin or for those who want to incorporate this knowledge into schools and universities) as we share the history, geography, health, medicine, indigenous knowledge, and women’s stories surrounding a particular spice or plant.
After all, the history of global exploration (and colonization and resource extraction) can be told by following the routes of the spice trade and the exchanges of foods across borders and seas. Did you know that there would be no Szechuan spicy eggplant without the peppers from Mexico, or that the Italians did not have a red sauce before 1492 when the tomatoes brought from Mexico?
All the world’s different peoples with their many different cultures use spices. In this chapter we will explore some familiar and hopefully some novel spices and mixtures that will enhance your healing and culinary adventures.
ALLSPICE (Pimenta dioica)
The dried, unripe berries of this tropical tree are referred to as allspice, pimenta, Jamaican pepper, or myrtle pepper. It was given the name “allspice” by the English in the seventeenth century because it had notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, juniper berries, peppers, and cloves. Allspice is the foundation of Caribbean cuisine. It is used to flavor Jamaican jerk seasoning, moles, curry powders, pickling mixes, sauces, sausages, cold cuts, and relishes. Allspice contains eugenol, which is a potent antibacterial and antiseptic, which may be why it is also used to cure and preserve meats.
In Costa Rica, allspice is used to treat indigestion and diabetes. In Guatemala, the berries are crushed to treat bruises, sore joints, and muscles. In Ayurveda, allspice is used in the treatment of toothaches and respiratory congestion. Allspice is also a central ingredient in most Mexican mole sauces and Jamaican jerk seasoning.
Note that the volatile oils of allspice evaporate very easily so buy small quantities and store the berries in an amber glass jar with a tight lid. The lessons and recipes provided here will help you explore this healing culinary spice.
During the American colonial era, Caribbean pirates popularized a dish called boucan or buccan, which was meat marinated with allspice berries. Among the Taíno people in the Caribbean, the pirates were referred to as the boucaniers, or buccaneers. Buccan is also related to what the Spanish called barbacoa, which later became “barbecue.”
Jerk Spice Marinade
This recipe celebrates allspice cuddled by other spices that enhance its flavor and action. Use this rub on chicken, shrimp, pork, or vegetables. The term jerk refers to spice-rub culinary practice that evolved from cross-cultural contact. It was developed when Africans taken as slaves to the Caribbean came into contact with indigenous Arawak and Tíano peoples. Make this rub in advance for the best flavor.
Makes 1-2 meals
- 1 tablespoon ground allspice
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon peppercorns
- ¼ stick cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 thumb fresh ginger, peeled
- 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
Grind the dry ingredients in a spice grinder and blend the wet ingredients in a blender. Combine the wet mixture with the dry and mix thoroughly with a spatula. Rub it on your meat or vegetables and let them marinate for a few hours in the fridge. Then roast them in the oven.
You can also prepare extra of the dried ingredients and store them separately in a cool, dry place, adding in the wet ingredients when needed for a future meal. If you have leftover wet ingredients, store them in a glass jar in the fridge for up to a month.