Popular Herbs and Spices Used for Cooking and Wellness

Herbs, which are the leaves of plants with savoury or aromatic properties, are typically used for flavouring food, and are also used for medicinal and aesthetic purposes. Popular herbs used by Jamaicans include thyme, rosemary, basil, bay leaf and sage; and commonly used spices are onion, garlic, ginger, pepper and pimento, to name a few. While these herbs and spices are relied on for the distinct flavour they bring to dishes, health benefits may be derived from them due to their medicinal nature.

Five Popular Herbs Used in Jamaica

Thyme is indigenous to the Mediterranean. It is an intense herb, both in smell and taste, and is mostly used to flavour meats and soups. Thyme tolerates heat well and as such can be used throughout the entire cooking process. Because it is an overpowering herb, it is best used sparingly in cooking. In fact, excessive, high volume use of thyme (the oil in particular, which is a powerful antiseptic) can over stimulate the thyroid gland and be toxic. Thyme is a rich source of potassium, iron, calcium, manganese, magnesium and selenium. Medicinally, thyme is used for treating uterine pain and kidney stones, and may protect against developing colon cancer. Because of its potassium content it is used for controlling heart rate and blood pressure. It is also used to control spasmodic coughing and to soothe sore throat.

Rosemary has a rich, aromatic flavour that is a cross between woodsy and lemony. The pungent leaves of this Mediterranean and Middle Eastern herb provide a slightly bitter, herbaceous taste to foods, whether meats, tubers, or vegetable preparations, including stews. Rosemary is also popularly used to infuse butter for cooking meat and vegetables. It is a good source of iron, calcium, and vitamin B-6. Rosemary is traditionally used to help ease muscle pain, improve memory, and boost the immune and circulatory system. Its oil is renowned for its regenerative properties and is used to promote hair growth.

Basil is a strongly flavoured herb and is sweetly aromatic. Its taste is somewhere between licorice and clove. In cooking, fresh basil should be used sparingly because of its potent flavour which may overpower a dish. Basil is a member of the mint family and originates in Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands. It is enriched with macronutrients such as calcium and vitamin K, and provides a range of antioxidants. Medicinally, basil is used to ease indigestion, relieve headache, and calm nervousness. It reduces oxidative stress by eliminating free radicals from the body. It therefore helps in supporting liver health.

Bay leaf provides an earthy, slightly bitter flavour to dishes. It is usually dried and used whole early in the cooking process to infuse its flavour. Alongside other spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, Jamaicans typically add bay leaves when boiling porridge. However, bay leaves are typically removed from foods after cooking because the whole leaf, which remains stiff after cooking, poses a risk of choking or harming the digestive tract if swallowed. The leaves are also used in the grilling preparation of jerk chicken. Bay leaves are a rich source of vitamins A and C, and minerals iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Native to Asia, bay leaves are used to treat migraine, reduce cholesterol, and manage high blood glucose levels. The leaves are also used to alleviate stomach ache and control diarrhoea.

Sage is a fuzzy looking, highly flavourful herb. It is savoury and minty in taste and aroma. Like basil, because of its strong flavour, sage should be used sparingly when cooking, more so if it is dried. Its potent flavour makes it especially favoured in seasoning meats. The Mediterranean herb has a high vitamin K content, and also contains the minerals zinc, copper and magnesium, and to a lesser degree, vitamins A, C, and E. It is no accident then that the herb has a strong reputation for improving brain function, particularly in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. It helps chemical imbalances in the brain and as such is likewise used to treat depression. Sage is also used to manage asthma, and relieve painful swollen nasal passages and tonsils. Additionally, sage is commonly used to treat digestive problems such as heartburn, gastritis (stomach pain), gas (flatulence) and bloating, diarrhoea, and loss of appetite.

In general, the flavour and medicinal potency of herbs may also be concentrated by mixing with vinegar or alcohol.