Throughout the centuries, wars have been waged over herbs and spices, and entirely new civilizations have been discovered in an effort to seek out the best trade routes to supply the wealthy with their favorite culinary delights. The history of culinary herbs is thought to go as far back as the first days when humans discovered the concept of both cooking and preserving their meals. But of course there isn’t really an encyclopedia of how our ancestors prepped their dinners, so we are forced to rely on archeological discoveries that have suggested herbs were collected and stored.
In those very early days however, humans likely used plants in their cooking primarily for medicinal purposes or again, as a means of preserving the food. While salt is a mineral and not an herb, it is often lumped into the herbs and spices category, but it is important to make the distinction. Undoubtedly we know our ancestors used the plants around them as a part of preparing their meals, but our ability to trace the use of culinary herbs doesn’t really become a marked part of history until about 3000 BC, when it has been discovered that the Arabs traded herbs and spices amongst other civilizations.
3000 BC – 200 BC
One of the earliest records related to herbs or spices dates back to an Assyrian fable that tells of gods drinking sesame wine just before they set out to create the earth. The Ancient Egyptians also left us telltale signs of having included onions and garlic in their diets as a means of obtaining strength and courage. The Egyptians were also known for their advances in medical science, much of which included the usage of a range of herbs.
Greek medical guru Hippocrates provided his own texts that listed over 500 medicinal uses for a selection of herbs and spices, some of which we still use to this day. Parsley, bay leaves, and ginger were all in great demand throughout history and throughout several regions of the world, primarily for the medicinal benefits that they offered.
200 BC — AD 1200
As the years marched on, so did the herb and spice trade. The Romans embarked on many a journey that took them from the pyramids at Giza to discovering the intriguing blends that India had to offer. The climate in India lends towards the sweltering, which can result in rapid spoiling of food. The Indians discovered that a clever blend of select herbs and spices wouldn’t just bring intense flavor to their meals, but would also work as a very useful preservative.
Pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and curry blends were all in high demand, and due to the grueling two-year journey it took to procure these herbs, they were only available to the upper class elite who could afford such luxuries. Imagine the cinnamon currently in your pantry being almost as valuable as precious jewels and rolls of silk!
The Renaissance saw a surge in the middle class who then found it appealing to add herbs and various spices to the meals they were preparing. At this point in history, several types of herbs became less medicinal and much more inspirational for delectable meals.
AD 1200 – Today
As cultural development evolved throughout the years, there was a continuing increase in the demand for various herbs and spices. While some were naturally occurring in certain regions, the majority of the most valuable spices and herbs were sourced from the Middle East and Asia. A lot of the world’s most famous explorers went venturing across the vast expanse of the world’s oceans in order to seek out new herbs, new spices, and more exclusive trading routes. Christopher Columbus would not have discovered the Americas had he not been seeking a much more direct route towards the famed Spice Islands!
Today we are fortunate enough to live in a world where we are not only able to pop out to the store to pick up our favorite herbs, but we are also able to readily grow our own herbs and spices in our kitchen windowsills or our herb gardens outside on the deck. Herbs have an intriguing background steeped in medicinal usage that melds into their benefits as a flavor additive, and they have since come full circle towards a growing re-appreciation of the medicinal benefits that they can offer us all. We no longer need to wage wars in order to get our hands on a delicious batch of peppermint tea or fresh vanilla pods, unless you count wars waged against pests that would turn your herbs into their own dinner. But there has definitely been a strong shift towards a better understanding of the benefits and roles that herbs play in our lives – both as natural medicinal gems and culinary delights.
Some of the herbs that no kitchen and garden should be without include the following.
- Basil – native to India and other parts of Asia
- Chives – native to Europe, India, and the Americas
- Fennel – native to the Mediterranean
- Dill – native to the Mediterranean and some parts of Asia
- Oregano– native to Greece
- Parsley – native to Italy. However, parsley has been cultivated in so many regions that it can sometimes also be linked to other regions in the Mediterranean
- Rosemary – native to Greece
- Mint – native to European countries, but some have also been found to be native to Asia and the Americas
- Sage – native to central European countries
- Thyme – native to the Mediterranean
- Lavender – native to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia, but references to lavender have also been found in ancient Egyptian texts.
Herbs aren’t just for making teas and sweet-smelling potpourri for your living room. They can flavor your baked desserts, add a burst of flavor to your savory stews, and they can bring you a measure of relief after a stressful day. Herbs are easy to grow, lovely to look at, and deliciously fragrant. Your collection of culinary herbs is sure to bring endless delight to the chef in your household. Dry them, freeze them, and grow them year-round on the windowsill, your home can only benefit from the addition of fresh herbs.