Cloves are the dried flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum, an evergreen tree native to Indonesia. It is a powerful medicine that soothes digestion and numbs pain. The essential oil, which consists primarily of eugenol, has been used as a topical anesthetic for thousands of years. In the United States, cloves are most often associated with sweets, but they provide a heady, potent flavor to savory dishes as well.
The orange is another one of those fruits that is used as both food and medicine. Although Citrus × sinensis originated in Southeast Asia, the most memorable medicinal use is by European explorers during long sea voyages. Then, the high vitamin C content was used to combat scurvy; today, it’s used to boost the immune system. Oranges are a winter fruit, which makes their medicinal qualities and bright, tangy flavor particularly welcome.
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan identifies the apple as one of the four most important plants domesticated by humans. Apples serve us by satisfying our desire for sweetness. But we also serve them. We have contributed to their genetic diversity through artificial selection and extended their habitat beyond their native Central Asia. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Prior to 2003, spinach was considered a close relative of beets and quinoa. Genetic evidence paints a slightly different picture, although spinach and quinoa remain close cousins. The two superfoods share one little subfamily (Chenopodioideae), yet they were domesticated in different hemispheres. Spinach mostly likely originated in Iran and was brought east through India and China. A few hundred years later, it started to appear in Europe. Rich in iron and calcium, spinach is often used as a natural supplement for vegans and vegetarians.
The apple features prominently in the mythology of Europe and the Middle East. For early Germanic peoples, apples represented eternal youth and fertility. Later, they came to symbolize evil and the forbidden. The Latin word for apple, mālum, is similar to the word for evil – mălum. And this is where the generic name Malus comes from. Malus is in the Rosaceae family, making it closely related to another highly symbolic plant – the rose.
Sweet potatoes have more in common with morning glories than they do with potatoes. They have even less in common with the yam, even though the names are often used interchangeably. Chances are, when you see vegetables labeled as ‘yams’ they are really sweet potatoes. To make it even more confusing, the potato got its name from the Taíno word for sweet potato – batatas. The Taíno were a people native to the Caribbean, relatively near the sweet potato’s center of origin in South America.
Because garlic is sterile and cultivated asexually, its origins are a bit mysterious. Evidence suggests it originated somewhere in Central Asia, and gradually spread through the rest of the world. Garlic has been used for millennia as both food and medicine. Its strong antibacterial properties make it indispensable during cold and flu season. Combined with the warming effects of Capsicum annuum, sopa de ajo is a wonderful, healing treat during the cold months.