Last time we talked about spices and their historical importance. We saw how spices were one of the main finds of the Age of Discovery. We also saw how two great men of that time were joined by destiny through an unseen thread woven along continents they sailed across looking for spices.
Today, let us talk about herbs, which are a close cousin of spices. The array of herbs is as varied as that of spices, and both of them are added to enhance the flavour of the dish and induce medicinal properties.
A basic difference between herbs and spices is that spices, as you know, are derived from the roots, bark, stem, seed or fruit of a plant; whereas herbs are the leaves of a plant which are used fresh or dried.
Another contrast between herbs and spices lies in their flavour. Herbs are subtle whereas spices have a pronounced flavour. Fresh herbs are great for garnishing your dish whereas spices are hardly used in their fresh form. They are usually roasted and then used in cooking. Also herbs are not as expensive as the spices which often have to be imported and require to be kept in certain temperature conditions for their growth.
Many herbs are also known for their usage in many religions around the world. For example tulsi is a revered herb here in India. It is worshipped in Hinduism alongside many gods and goddesses. Tulsi is known to have a calming effect and according to Gandharva Tantra a lawn overgrown with tulsi is a pre-requisite for meditation and worship. The herb also finds use in ayurveda. The roots, seeds and leaves of the plant are used to treat various ailments. It has been found to be an effective antidote in cases of scorpion and snake bites. Diabetic patients are often advised to regularly chew on tulsi leaves as the phytonutrients in them help lower blood sugar. Tulsi has been known for its anti-spasmodic properties and since time immemorial has been given to young children who suffer from colic pain. It forms an important ingredient of many ayurvedic cough syrups and expectorants. In days gone by tulsi was used to treat tuberclosis or TB. According to Indian mythology, goddess Tulsi is dear to Krishna and Vishnu. Married Indian women pray to Tulsi for longevity and happiness. Tulsi vivah — when the tulsi plant is married to Vishnu annually — this sets off the marriage season in India.
Polish folklore is full of uses of various herbs. Some have been praised for warding off the evil eye whereas others have been hailed for their medicinal value.
There are herbs like mint or pudina that are universally renowned. This healing herb is, and was, commonly used as an aid for digestion. The leaf, either used fresh or in its dried form, is widely used in beverages, jellies, candies and ice creams among other things. Menthol and the essential oils derived from mint are used in mouth freshners, rinses and tooth pastes. It has a cool, tingling taste which is known to be extremely refreshing. In a popular tea consumed in African and Arab countries, mint is an essential ingredient. It is also used to treat insect bites and at times as a decongestant.
Herbs have also been used in the Chinese medicinal system. A mythical figure, Shennong is the first recognised herbalist who it is said tasted innumerable herbs and imparted his knowledge of different medicinal and poisonous plants to farmers.
So you see, nature around us is bountiful. All that we may need is right here amongst us. We just need to recognise it and respect it.
(This post first appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on January 18, 2013.)