How many times have you taken a bite of something and said, “oh, my god, what is that herb (or spice), this is fantastic!” You may know right off the bat or it may be a subtle thing. Do you know the difference between curley, flat Italian or Mexican parsleys? Cumin, cinnamon or clove? Where do these come from, should I buy whole, dried or grow it myself? Why do some, like saffron, cost so much?
It comes from the stigmas of the purple crocus. One acre only produces 70,000 crocuses. One pound contains about 225,000 of these stigmas which must be hand harvested. It is the world’s most expensive spice.
Delicate saffron threads after they have been plucked from the flower.
Our interest in healthy foods has most of us looking for low, or no-salt and ways to use herbs instead for flavoring. Herbs have always been important to Native people. There are medicinal herbs, aromatic herbs and culinary herbs. Asian, Mediterranean and Native American herbs are the major origin culture areas to have cultivated these varieties.
Chinese herbalists today still prescribe medicinal herbal products used thousands of years ago. I think it is safe to say that many, if not most, Native cooks and chefs learned about herbs and spices as flavor enhancers through wildcrafting while growing up, as did I. This education has no end since there are hundreds, even thousands of plants to list as herbs or spices. There are far too many to list here, so I will just elaborate on a few culinary varieties used in Native American cooking.
Probably the most familiar is cilantro, both pungent and aromatic. It is best used in cold dishes like guacamole and salads, though not exclusively. It is known as Mexican parsley.
Cilantro is pungent and aromatic, and is used in guacamole.
Curley parsley is a common decorative and delicious garnish.
Sage is another favorite of Native cooks with a slightly bitter or musty flavor. Dried white sage is a favorite for smudging, as is Canadian sweetgrass.
There are also many types of mint, spearmint and peppermint being the most popular for culinary uses. Oregano is a member of the mint family.
Rosemary, thyme, basil and lavender are other herbs most popular in cooking.
Of course we mustn’t forget the three spices Native to the Americas: allspice, chiles and vanilla.
In the discussion of whether fresh or dried is best for herbs, fresh is the winner, not always possible to obtain. Growing your own if you have the room is a great idea, herbs don't take up much space, most spread by themselves like mint or chive for example. Parsley, basil and mints make great potted herbs for your windowsill.
Parsley, basil and mints make good potted herbs to grow on a windowsill.
There are also new, small scale hydroponic units available, while pricy, they are a good way to have fresh crops all year like watercress and baby spinach, even in an apartment.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: “New Native American Cooking,” “Native New England Cooking” and “A Dreamcatcher Book.” She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.