Lior Lev Sercarz, author of the brilliant new book The Spice Companion, reveals five surprising facts about the spices we use every day.

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The Spicpe Companion
Credit: © Thomas Schauer

Green, white, and black pepper are all the same fruit from the same plant, Piper Nigrum.
Green peppercorns are picked unripe and processed to retain their color, and have a brighter and fresher aroma. Black peppercorns are picked when nearly ripe and dried in the sun, which turns them black. White pepper is the inner seed of the peppercorn, they are soaked for a few days in water and the black skin is rubbed off, it is well suited to dishes where black specks would ruin the visual appeal.

Vanilla beans are the cured and ripened fruit of the vanilla orchid.
In its native Mexico, the flower was pollinated by a small variety of stingless bee in the Melipona genus. Vanilla was impossible to cultivate outside of Mexico until 1841, when a slave living on Reunion Island, Edmond Albius, discovered that they could be hand pollinated in the one day window when the flower blooms. This labor intensive step is still used today, partially accounting for the high price this spice commands.

What you know as cinnamon may not be from the real cinnamon tree.
Common grocery store cinnamon resembles a hard stick and is actually bark from the cassia family, which is a cousin of true cinnamon. True cinnamon, cinnamomum verum, is much more brittle and delicate, and has a flavor and aroma similar to cinnamon candy.

Heat from chiles accentuates flavors in foods.
Adding a little bit of heat to a dish stimulates your taste buds, making the food taste sweeter and more flavorful that it would be without the chile. Use this trick to reduce the amount of sugar you use. You can use either chiles or berries from the prickly ash family (sansho, sichuan pepper), or both!

Celery seeds contain sodium (about 10 milligrams per tablespoon), along with potassium, calcium, and iron.
Adding them to a dish let's you add more flavor and reduce the amount of added salt you include in your cooking. Other examples include cumin seeds.