Coriander is a spice, cilantro an herb, yet both come from the same plant. Lavendar, basil, rosemary, thyme, sage: herbs. Cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cardamom are spices. Increasingly, I see the two terms used interchangeably. So what gives? I did some spice sleuthing to get the scoop. Here’s what I found…
According to Random House a spice is any class of pungent or aromatic substance of vegetable origin, used as a seasoning. Not very helpful since both herbs and spices qualify under this definition. Herbs, however, are flowering non-woody plants that are valued for medicinal properties, flavor, scent, or the like.
In 1964, authors Avanelle Day and Lillie Stuckey published The Spice Cookbook. Its 1400 simple spice recipes are supported by 80 pages of spicy background. Sure enough, the meaning of “spice” was right on page 63. The authors point out that in cooking vernacular, “spice” is a catch-all term for all those spices, seeds, herbs, and vegetable seasonings used to flavor food. But if you want to be scientific about it (ahem…like me), “true spices are parts of plants that usually grow in the tropics; herbs are leaves of plants that grow in temperate zones; seeds, such as mustard, caraway and poppy, are actually seeds, or sometimes the fruits of plants that grow either in tropical or temperate zones.” Whew.
Spice Sherpa’s Turn
In general, spices are the dried flowers, fruits, roots or bark (cinnamon) of tropical trees and shrubs. Herbs, by contrast, are always the dried leaves of a flowering plant. That said, there are exceptions. Asafoetida is considered a spice (a very weird one) and it’s the dried exuded sap from the root of a flowering plant. I’ve stumbled across substances given the “spice” label but really come from animals. (e.g. Spanish fly and sperm whale excrement. No joke, the post is here).
While “true spices” have a tightly packaged definition, the common term offers flexibility. But everyone loves categories, so think of it this way: here in Spice Sherpa’s friendly world all herbs are spices, but not all spices are herbs. The same way all reptiles are animals but not all animals are reptiles. Or all shades of green are colors but not all colors are green. Or fruits are food but not all food is a fruit. Got it? Great. Hope it helped or at the very least, entertained you for a few minutes.