That’s what some of my favorite kids and I asking were asking each other the first time we blended our own spices.
When we sprinkled our spices on hot, buttery baked sweet potatoes, the only way we could describe what happened inside our mouths was MAGIC!
But I’m kind of getting ahead of my own stripes by starting in ZeMiddle of my story.
It all began when I asked my friends Ronit and Shuli Madmone: “What are spices? And why do humans like them so much?”
I thought, considering that they’re experts who own a really cool company called Whole Spice and I’m a just a simple zebra who’s only beginning to explore the world of food, they would have given me a super-simple answer.
But they looked at each other and laughed, “If you really want to understand spices, ZeBot, come to our house.”
It turned out that my questions were the first steps on a journey that would take me into deliciously exciting new worlds.
For a taste of our adventure, please check out the video (below) — then read on!
You might be wondering what kind of humans would invite a zebra to their house. Well, besides being master spice blenders, Ronit and Shuli are the mom and dad of three hilarious boys, ages 3 to 8—so the idea of teaching a zebra seemed pretty normal to them.
They’re the kind of super-cool adults who know the best way for zebras and kids to learn about spices is to get our hooves, hands, noses and tongues involved in the exploration. So that’s what we did!
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I had the honor of joining the Madmone boys and their fun friends for a special spice class.
Of course, Ronit and Shuli’s sons, Maorr, Mathan and Ophir, already knew a lot about spices. Their friends, Ofri, Ido and Aya, knew something about spices. And my zebra buddies and I knew absolutely nothing.
Maorr and his brothers told the rest of us that we should be detectives and investigate everything there is to know about spices, using all of our senses. (The kids actually wrote about this themselves—you can check out their work here!).
The first thing we learned was that spices are aromatic (that means they have a strong smell) parts of plants. They also have very concentrated flavors, which is why they’re used to make food taste better than ever.
A spice can come from lots of different parts of a plant. It can be a root (like ginger), tree bark (like cinnamon), a fruit (like chiles), a seed (like sesame), a seed pod (like vanilla) or a flower (like saffron). When you use leafy parts of a plant to season food, they’re called herbs.
Okay, so you can see that there’s a LOT to this whole spice thing. And the sources are just the beginning. Spices also have a history that’s as fascinating as the best Harry Potter books.
A long time ago, spices were as valuable as gold—and you could use them like money to buy things (even really expensive things). For centuries, these botanical treasures were transported over land by camel caravans from India and the Far East.
Later, when European explorers searched for direct sea routes to the spice lands, their sailing voyages led to the Age of Exploration—and the discovery of the whole New World.
Today, spices are used by great cooks all around the world to give foods special flavors. In fact, different spices and combinations of spices create flavors that are so distinctive, they’re sometimes called culinary signatures.
That’s why spices can make foods “taste like home” – and why the spices you use can give your dish a personality that’s as unique as you are!
We all thought that sounded really cool. But we wondered: there are zillions of spices, so where do we start?
Ronit said that, just like with anything else, the best approach is to start where you are—and that’s what we did.
I started with what was right in front of me: a plate of mysterious-looking plantlike things. These turned out to be roots (which, as we’ve learned, are spices), including ginger, horseradish and turmeric.
I couldn’t really tell them apart until we cut them into tiny pieces and smelled them.
Chopping releases the essential oils that give spices their unique taste and aroma.
When the kids held a spoonful of chopped ginger under my nose, I was able to identify it faster than you can say “stripes!”.
The next closest thing to me on the table was a plate of cilantro: fresh, bright green leaves and softer-colored dried leaves. Both are herbs – and the fresh ones have a much more lively aroma and flavor.
Ronit told us that when it comes to knowing your herbs and spices, it’s super-important to smell them. The reason the aroma is such a big deal is that a lot of taste actually happens in your nose.
Yup: you heard that correctly—when it comes to taste, the nose knows!
If you’re curious about the technical explanation, it’s because tasting and smelling are both your body’s way of sampling the chemical compounds in a particular food.
This dates way back to prehistoric times when people had to rely on their senses to know if the food they got by hunting and gathering was safe to eat.
Anyway, because your mouth and nose share an airway in your throat (called the pharynx), the sense of taste is a combination of what’s happening in your nose and on your tongue (which is covered with taste buds).
Want to know another cool thing? Kids have more taste buds than adults, so if things taste different (or stronger) to you than they do to the grown-ups you know, you’re not imagining things!
Also, the same things can taste very different to different people (or zebras).
Taste depends on the actual physical sensation, plus other things including: your mood, your history, your culture, the atmosphere around you, what the food looks like, what you know about the food, what people have told you about the food—and lots more!
Okay, so now that we’d learned a bit about individual spices and herbs, it was time to explore the fun of blending.
Shuli told us that we were going to make a simple blend of sea salt, garlic and parsley.
I asked if there are any rules about spice blending, and he said there’s only only one: you have to make a blend that you like.
He told us that the first ingredient (and the one we’d need the most of) would be sea salt. This is because the salt absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients, then helps carry them through your food. Garlic adds yummy, savory notes—and parsley brings its own fresh green flavors.
Right before we mixed our blends, we ground the parsley into tiny pieces, so all their magical essential oils would make friends with the compounds in the garlic and sea salt.
We each chose our perfect amount of each ingredient, then used our hooves (or hands) to blend them all together. When we were finished, Ronit brought in a tray of piping-hot baked sweet potatoes, fresh from the oven.
Each of us sliced a pat of creamy butter that would melt on the fluffy inside of the potato. The reason you need to use some butter (or olive oil) is because it will act as a vehicle for the flavors, making sure they travel all through the food and into your mouth.
And the reason it helps when foods are hot is that heat is another way to bring out flavors and aromas.
Then, we sprinkled our spice blends on top of our steaming baked potatoes.
And now I’m back to the beginning of this story: magic.
I’m sure there are other more practical, scientific explanations, but the way the flavors danced inside each one of us felt like nothing less than pure magic.
We’d each chosen exactly the amounts of herb and spice that felt right to us—and we were all exactly right!
Want to create your own in-your-mouth magic? You’ll find Ronit’s yummy baked potato and simple spice blend recipe below.
Want to go even farther on the journey of spices? Stay tuned – because our adventures with Whole Spice are just beginning. We hope you’ll join us, then share stories, photos and videos of your own spicy fun in our IACP Kids Digital Kitchen (click here for details).
RECIPE: Ronit’s Spiced-Up Sweet Potatoes
These are ZeYummiest sweet potatoes ever because you’ll eat them with exactly the spices you love! If you are a kid (or a zebra), please make sure an adult helps you with using a knife, making sure the potatoes get in and out of the oven safely—and serving the piping-hot potatoes.
What You Need:
For the potatoes:
1 sweet potato for each spice lover
About 1 tbsp. of butter for each spice lover
Spice blend (see recipe below)
For the Spice Blend:
Each spice lover should mix these in a small bowl (you’ll have some spice blend left for next time) — amounts depend on your tastes:
About 1 tbsp. sea salt
About 1 tsp. garlic powder
About 1/2 tsp. finely chopped dried parsley
What You Do:
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Wash the sweet potatoes, dry them with a paper towel.
Make a slit in the skin with a sharp knife, then wrap each one in aluminum foil.
Put the foil-wrapped sweet potatoes on a baking sheet, then bake them for about 1 hour.
You can tell they’re done because they’ll be very soft and tender—and they’ll smell amaZing!
Unwrap the potatoes, put them on a plate and carefully cut open the tops.
Put a pat of butter on your potato, sprinkle with your spice blend—and eat happily ever after!