Spice Alley Dictionary

Spice Alley Dictionary

As you begin to explore the wonderful world of spices, herbs, and seasonings, you will probably come across various terms and references that may be new or unclear. From the botany and ecology of various plants, to the chemical components that determine flavor, references to the ancient spice trade, and regional cooking vocabulary — the Spice Alley Dictionary helps to define these terms and give context to the information you're absorbing on your journey.


noun  |  ar·il  |  air-el
: outgrowth from a seed that covers the seed either partly or completely; the mace spice is made from the reddish aril of the nutmeg seed

adjective  |  ar·o·mat·ic  |  air-oh-mat-ick
: having a pleasant and distinctive smell; having a strong smell



noun  |  cap·sa·i·cin  |  cap-say-eh-sin
: active component giving hot peppers their hotness; colorless irritant for mammals, including humans, producing a sensation of burning
(Not to be confused with the active piquant chemical in black pepper, piperine.)

noun  |  corm  |  korm
: a thick, underground stem serving as a storage organ that a plant will use to survive winter, droughts, or other adverse conditions

noun  |  cul·ti·var  |  kuhl-teh-vahr
: plant variety that has been produced in cultivation through selective breeding or maintained by cultivation; a “cultivated variety” (variety selected and cultivated by humans) can happen by creating hybrids of two plants or by selecting plants with specific mutations and propagating those

verb  |  cul·ti·va·tion  |  kuhl-tuh-veh-shuhn
: promotion of growth through labor and attention; the planting, tending, improving, or harvesting of crops or plants
(Not to be confused with harvest)

noun  |  cur·cu·min |  ker-kyoo-min
: a phytochemical found in turmeric; the yellow pigment derived from the rhizome of Curcuma longa

noun  |  cur·ry  |  ker-ree
: a food, dish, sauce, or seasoning made with a blend of pungent spices (sometimes called a masala) which usually includes turmeric, cumin, ginger, and fresh or dried hot chilies; generally refers to dishes prepared in a sauce; most curry dishes originated from the Indian subcontinent; curry powder is a commercially prepared mixture of spices that may (or may not) include leaves from the curry tree


noun  |  droop
: a type of fruit that has an outer layer surrounding a single seed or “pit”; sometimes the shell is fleshy (e.g., cherries, peaches, olives, coffee) and sometimes it’s hard (e.g., walnuts, almonds, pecans); also called “stone fruit”


East India Company
A British trading company established in the 1600s for the purpose of trade with Asia and India, primarily the East India spice trade. Up until that point, the spice trade had been a monopoly of Spain and Portugal. The company quickly became political and acted as an agent of British imperialism, extending its reach from Indonesia and India to East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. By the 1700s, the company was heavily involved in the use of, and transportation of, slave labor  mostly from East Africa. In addition to spices, they were trading other goods such as cotton, silk, indigo, and tea. After nearly three centuries of operation, several wars, much violence and opposition — the East India Company was dissolved in 1873.

noun  |  en·tre·pôt  |  on-trah-poe
: a port or city where goods are received for distribution, import, export, or transfer; a trading center at a geographically convenient location

essential oil
Also known as volatile oil, an essential oil is that which gives plants their characteristic odor. It is "essential" in the sense that it contains the "essence of" the plant's fragrance it does not mean the oil itself is essential or required for life. Essential oil is what gives a spice its flavor and aroma. As spices dry out over time, they lose their essential oils and become ineffective. This is why it's important to store your dried herbs and spices in a cool, dry place to preserve their longevity.




noun or verb  |  har·vest  |  har-vist
: (noun) the season for or process of gathering agricultural crops
: (verb) to gather a crop
(Not to be confused with cultivate)

noun  |  (h)erb  |  erb
: a plant or plant part used for flavoring food, medicine, or perfume; many herbs are used both in the fresh form or dried form; herbs generally come from the leafy green or flowering parts of a plant (whereas spices come from seeds, bark, roots, or fruits)






noun  |  ma·sa·la  |  ma-sa-la
: a blend of spices used in Indian cooking; a masala can be either a combination of dried spices or a paste made from spices and fresh ingredients such as ginger, garlic, onion, and chili paste; masala is a Hindi word for "blend of spices" a masala can be used to make a curry

Once known as the Spice Islands and now commonly known as the Maluku Islands, the Moluccas are an archipelago in the Banda Sea of Indonesia, made up of over 1,000 islands. During the 16th century, the Moluccas were the world's exclusive source of nutmeg, mace, and cloves garnering them the nickname Spice Islands. Most of the islands are geologically young and have never been attached to the larger nearby landmasses (neither Asia nor Australia), giving them a unique ecology that has fascinated naturalists for centuries.



noun  |  oleo·res·in  |  oh-leo-reh-sin
: a natural or artificial mixture of resin and essential oils; oleoresin can be prepared from spices and dried herbs and may be used as a food additive, coloring agent, as well as in various medicines, perfumes, soaps, lotions, candles, etc.


noun |  phy·to·chem·i·cal  |  fie-toe-keh-mi-kel
: chemical compounds produced by plants; they provide plants with color, odor, and flavor

noun  |  pip·er·ine  |  pip-er-reen
: alkaloid, or naturally occurring organic compound, that gives black pepper and long pepper its distinct pungency. The sensation we get from eating pepper comes from piperine's activation of our pain-sensing nerve cells. (Not to be confused with the active piquant chemical in chili peppers, capsaicin.)

adjective  |  pi·quant  |  pee-kahnt
: stimulating to the taste; sharp, biting, spicy

verb  |  prop·a·gate |  prah-puh-gate
: in horticulture, to cause plant species to multiply by way of reproduction from the parent stock; to reproduce a plant with cuttings by spreading to sprout

adjective  |  pun·gent |  pun-jint
: causing a sharp or irritating sensation; having an strong taste or odor (can be pleasant or unpleasant); spicy or "hot"


quill (cinnamon)
noun  |  quill |  kwil
: a stick of cinnamon; a roll of dried bark


noun  |  rhi·zome |  rye-zome
: an underground horizontal plant stem that is thickened by food reserves and sends out roots below ground and shoots above ground (turmeric and ginger are derived from rhizomes)


noun  |  sam·bal |  sahm-bull
: a spicy condiment chili paste made from chile peppers with other ingredients that may vary, including garlic, ginger, shallot, fish sauce, vinegar; native to Indonesia and popular in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Singapore.

Scoville scale
A system of measurement for pungency (spiciness or "heat") of chile peppers, ground spices, or other spicy foods. Recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) which measure the concentration of heat-producing capsaicinoids (capsaicin content) in a substance. For perspective, the world's hottest pepper — the Carolina Reaper — measures at an average of 1.5mm SHU (and as high as 2.2mm SHU). Spice Alley Cayenne is 30,000-40,000 SHU.

noun  |  sea·son·ing |  seez-ning
: something that's used to season food; an ingredient, condiment, spice, blend of spices, salt, or herb added to food to enhance the flavor

Silk Road
An ancient network of trade routes that connected East Asia and Southeast Asia to East Africa, West Asia and Southern Europe. At first, the most lucrative item traded was silk from the Han dynasty, hence the name. Later, the Silk Road was used to trade many other items including spices, glassware, perfumes, and various textiles. It also resulted in the spread of culture, religion, science, technology, as well as disease. The Silk Road consisted of several routes including land routes that avoided large desert areas and maritime routes that could connect the Indonesian archipelago and Spice Islands with India, the Arabian peninsula, Egypt, and Southern Europe.

noun  |  spice |  spice
: an aromatic plant substance used to flavor, color, or preserve food; spices can be derived from the seeds, fruit, root, bark, or other parts of a plant (whereas herbs generally come from the leafy green or flowering parts of a plant)

Spice Islands
A nickname given to the Moluccas, or Maluka Islands, by spice merchants in the 16th century who came for the nutmeg, mace, and cloves that could only be found in this corner of the globe at the time. The "Spice Islands" are an archipelago in the Banda Sea of Indonesia, made up of over 1,000 islands.


noun  |  ta·gine  |  tuh-jeen
: a slow-simmered Northwest African stew cooked over hot charcoal, in a slow oven, or on a stove top at heat low enough to keep the stew simmering gently for hours, named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked; traditional tagine (also spelled tajine) pottery consists of a round base unit with low sides and a large cone-shaped cover that sits on the base and helps to return condensation to the bottom of the dish; tagine pottery is often glazed and painted with beautiful decorative patterns

verb  |  thresh  |  thresh
: to separate or loosen the seed (or edible part of a grain) from a harvested crop; in agriculture, threshing is the step after reaping (cutting for harvest) and before winnowing (chaff removal); the mechanical threshing machine was invented in 1786 by Scotsman Andrew Meikle



volatile oil
Aroma compounds of plants that are easily evaporated at normal temperatures; also known as essential oils, volatile oils are what give plants their characteristic odor. As spices dry out over time, their volatile oils evaporate and the "essence" is lost. This is why it's important to store your dried herbs and spices in a cool, dry place to preserve their longevity.

We hope you found this guide useful! Check back as we continue adding more spice definitions and explanations for common spice world terminology and references.

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