Herbs & Spices (and Salt)

Herbs come from the leaves of a plant, spices are from any other part of a plant (and salt is a mineral).

In cooking they are frequently used together to flavor a meal, and their names get used interchangeably, but herbs and spices are not the same. In short:

HERBS
Herbs are a seasoning that are the leaves of a plant

SPICES
Spices are a seasoning from any part of a plant other than the leaves (roots, stalks, bark, seeds, and sometimes even the fruit)

Herbs

In greater detail, an herb typically comes from smaller deciduous plants without a bark stem. There are exceptions of course as lavender, sage, rosemary aren’t deciduous and never lose their leaves. Either way, the key is that the green leaves become herbs when they are used in cooking, medicine, teas, cosmetics, etc.

Spices

Spices can come from everything but the leaves of a plant. For example cinnamon comes from bark, ginger comes from roots, pepper comes from seeds, and chili powder comes from the pulverized fruit of the chili pepper. Saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world at around $10,000 a pound, comes from the hand-picked stigma & styles from the Crocus sativus flower.

Allspice, despite a misconception, is not a blend of spices but is just one spice which comes from the berry of the Pimenta dioica tree. Its name comes from the fact that it tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.

Herb & Spice Plants

There are a few plants that produce both an herb and a spice. The leaves of the Coriandrum sativum produce the herb cilantro while the seeds become coriander. Similarly the Dill plant produces dill the herb from its leaves, and dill the spice from its seeds.

Salt

The food seasoning odd-one-out, salt is a mineral and does not come from a plant (although salt is present in plants). There is a lot to say about salt but in short it’s been used as a preservative and a seasoning for thousands of years. It’s the only food seasoning that doesn’t come from a plant.

Cinnamon

From a mythical origin story, to common kitchen spice, cinnamon has a long strange history

To start, cinnamon is a spice (which means it’s not made from leaves, which is what herbs are). It comes from the bark of trees in the Cinnamomum family. It’s been used for thousands of years, but where it came from had been intentionally shrouded in mystery for much of that time. During the spice trade cinnamon would be harvested in southern Asia, brought to the Middle East along the Maritime Silk Road, and then resold by spice merchants around the Mediterranean and onward. To maintain control over the Western market, the Asian origins of cinnamon were kept secret by its Arabian merchants.

This cinnamon subterfuge begins with an incredible origin story. Westerners were told that there was a species of Arabian bird called the Cinnamologus (ie. “cinnamon birds”) who would make their nests out of pieces of cinnamon they collected from an unknown land. These nests were either high on cliff faces or at the tops of very tall trees depending on who was telling the story. The key was that the nests were inaccessible. So the cinnamon was harvested by either leaving heavy pieces of meat out for the birds, who would carry the meat back to their nests but the weight would topple the nest to the ground, or the nests were shot with projectiles which would do about the same thing.

Medieval manuscript depictions of the harvesting of cinnamon

This exotic & daring method of harvesting cinnamon only made it more desirable, much more so than if people found out you just had to peel the bark off of a tree and let it dry. Not everyone believed these stories, but either way the market supply was cornered by Arabian merchants and so cinnamon remained an expensive spice & Western status symbol for hundreds of years.

Two kinds of cinnamon

Today southern Asia still produces most of the world’s cinnamon. There are several kinds but the two you will find the most are Cassia Cinnamon (aka Chinese Cinnamon) and Ceylon Cinnamon (aka “True” Cinnamon). Cassia Cinnamon originates in China but is now grown all around southeast Asia. It has a bold flavor and is the version of cinnamon most commonly found in the United States. Ceylon Cinnamon comes almost exclusively from Sri Lanka (Ceylon being the old name for Sri Lanka). It has a subtler taste but in the culinary world it is considered the superior cinnamon (hence, “True” Cinnamon). One other difference is that Cassia Cinnamon contains higher concentrations of the chemical compound coumarin, which in large amounts can cause liver and kidney damage.

In general, other than just tasting nice, cinnamon has a variety of potential health benefits and it’s proven to be antimicrobial. Cinnamon can kill E. coli along with other harmful bacteria and as such has been used for thousands of years to preserve meat (including during the embalming process of Egyptian mummies, which is just preserving meat of a different kind).