The Science of Spice, Flavour and Tasty Food
Food should always be the best it can be, a simple combination of carefully sourced ingredients with well-balanced flavours and textures that tastes beautiful. My life happily revolves around food, creating recipes and designing food products with liberal use of the group of phenolic compounds known as spices. I think of fresh, fragrant spices as an everyday ingredient. I simply don’t mix with the train of thought that spice is about merely Indian, Thai, Mexican or so-called ethnic food. Spices add a wealth of beautiful flavours and clean finish to all they touch. They create smoky notes, menthol notes, delicate fragrant subtle aromas, sweet tingling vibrant flavours and should not so easily be categorized.
In a world of monochrome seasoning, black pepper, white salt and a whole array of beautiful green herbs, spices are flecks of bright, glorious colour. I wholeheartedly believe that everyone can cook and everyone can cook with spice, negating the need for excess use of salt, sugar and fats. With just a few basic ideas, a bit of thought and a desire to treat our food with tender respect, we can all cook healthy food at home. Knowing how things grow, how they’re made, where they come from and what makes them ‘tick’, is vital when we want to twist, tweak, combine and cook them. Understanding the basic building blocks of spice is similarly important.
I make reference to ‘essence’ and ‘fresh’. Freshness is key to all spices. A spice is made up of oleoresins. Oleoresins are compounds formed of volatile and non-volatile parts, the more of the volatile part a spice contains, the fresher it will be. The two main players influencing the essence of volatile oils are the terpenes and the benzenes. The terpenes are the flavour compounds, myristicin in mace and nutmeg, limonenes in coriander for example. Benzenes are the aroma bits, alpha-pinene in peppers, eugenol in cloves, cinnamon, cassia, bay leaves and basil. The trick from a grower and a trader’s perspective is to achieve the best balance of oleoresins, maximising volatile oil content.
Natural factors will always play the biggest part in a spice’s flavour. Just as with wines, the terroir; region, soil, position of the crop, the environment atmosphere all play their part. The cultivation process as a whole from harvest, time of harvest, how long they’re allowed to remain on the plant, tree, spike or vine through to processing, drying, curing and storage all have equal influence on the quality of the spice. Indeed, to me all these unknown, uncontrollable factors are what makes a spice so intriguing, so wonderful, so indescribably exciting.
Spices are parts of plants rich in flavour compounds. They form a link with herbs, indeed some of the foods we think of as one, could quite as easily be classified as the other. They can be leaves, curry leaves for example or cassia leaves. Fruits, such as vanilla, cumin, pepper, coriander, fennel. Seeds, such as mustard, fenugreek and onion. Seed husks, or pericarps such as Szechuan pepper. Asafoetida, one of my favourite all time spices is an oleoresin, an amber. It has beautiful, darkly sulphurous, onion garlicky tones so excellent at creating depth within a dish. Then there are the barks of cassia and cinnamon. Rhizomes (roots), like ginger, turmeric and galangal.
The most enigmatic of all to me are mace, clove and saffron. Mace, the lacey outer coating to the nutmeg seed defined is an aril. Clove and saffron are the pure aromatic essence of sunshine. Saffron the stigma of a crocus flower, clove the dried, un-opened flower bud basking high-up in the south India tree canopies gathering up glorious sunshine.
Naming and classifying spice isn’t an exact science, the understanding of flavour and taste perception however is becoming increasingly well explored. In simplistic terms, taste is perceived in the mouth, flavour by the nose. Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) channels is the described system mapping out how we perceive taste. In its most base terms, (TR) Potential is realised as food is broken down and digested into constituent parts which ‘pass over’ various taste receptors by means of ion exchange through ‘oily membranes’ linked to neural tissue, the ‘sensitive part’ of us.
In our mouths and all over our bodies, there are many different types of specialized receptors, sensors. These sensors, are triggered, ‘tripped’ if you like as food hits them, sending information to our brain to help us form an overall picture of the food we’re eating which in turn, provides us with the perception of what we’re eating. To focus on the parts of our food that are soluble in our saliva, we need to think of the five basic taste sensations, salt, sour, sweet, bitter and umami.
The tastes of salt and sour have similar recognition mechanisms. Umami and sweet share a receptor unit, then there’s bitter, perhaps the most complicated of tastes, which has over thirty receptors on the human tongue. These five tastes all have biological functions. Sweet is our body’s way of rewarding us for consuming calorie rich carbohydrates and our body has a natural saturation point to sweet. Sourness tells us about the acidity of foods, and is a great indicator of things like the ripeness of fruits. Umami is our method of recognizing proteins in our foods and we need the ability to recognize salt, to maintain homeostasis, equilibrium and balance in our bodies. Bitter compounds are often toxic or medicinal and this might explain why we’ve developed a more highly tuned receptor system, self-protecting, self-nurturing in its nature.
Incorporating spices in our food improves digestion through increased salivary, gastric and intestinal secretions, bile production and bowel motility. Pungent food and other chemesthetic sensations are found not only in the mouth and nose cavity, but also in the respiratory, gastro-intestinal, cardiovascular and nervous systems, giving a hint of more ‘systemic’ health effects. In short, spices contain many bioactive compounds. On a physiological level, we perceive the flavour of these compounds as exciting, pronounced and vibrant. Our mouths work in synergy with mechanisms all over our body and these compounds often work in tandem with many of our other bodily functions. To me, spices are quite simply all about vibrant natural flavour, perceived through our taste receptors, enjoyed on levels unquantifiable by science alone. We use spice to make food delicious, to make it healthy and to add variety.
One particular field that excites me is spice as medicine, an everyday, down-to-earth, easily accessible, safe medicine. Many spices have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-bacterial and many other beneficial properties, indeed the ancient philosophy of Ayruveda describes a rich history of spice use as medicine and effective method of food preservation. The next part of my spice odyssey is hugely exciting, I’m forming a partnership with the brilliant Professor Paul Ross of UCC and Catherine Stanton of Teagasc, the Irish food science and research department. Together we aim to prove benefits of spice on human being bodily functions. Ever since I can remember, my father would say to me, ‘Darling, western medicine is finally catching up with our Hindu philosophy’. I very much look forward to being a part of that catch up and to proving my father right. Onward!
Arun Kapil is a Spice Specialist and chef. Honing his skills at Ballymaloe, and kitchens in London, Arun’s cooking as with his presenting has an easy uncomplicated style. Settling in Ireland’s food capital, Co Cork in 2004, Arun set-up his highly regarded and award winning spice company Green Saffron in 2007. Green Saffron sources spices direct from farms in India, ‘grading’ them in their unit at Moradabad just outside Delhi, before shipping them over to Cork. Arun has appeared on RTE’s ‘Today with Maura and Daithi’, TV3’s ‘Late Lunch Live , alongside Richard Corrigan on Channel 4’s Cookery School, and has featured in programmes with Rachel Allen, Donal Skehan and Market Kitchen, UKTV and ‘Pies and Puds’ with Paul Hollywood on BBC1. Arun contributes regularly to various Irish national radio channels and has just published his first cookbook, ‘Fresh Spice’ through Pavilion, UK with co-edition in the US through Sterling Gourmet.