Spice, a general name for aromatic and pungent plant substances used for seasoning food. Essential oils (that is, fragrant, readily evaporated oils) in the plants are largely responsible for the aroma and flavor of spices. Various parts of the plants are used as spices. For example: sesame comes from seeds; pepper from fruits; cloves from flower buds; cinnamon from bark; licorice from roots; and ginger from rhizomes (underground stems). Most spices come from tropical regions, many (as in ancient times) from tropical Asian islands such as the Moluccas (Spice Islands).

SpicesSpices are aromatic and pungent plant substances used for seasoning food.

Prehistoric peoples probably used spices. Spices are mentioned in the Old Testament and are referred to in ancient Egypt's hieroglyphics. At the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, many of the spices used today were items of commerce.

For hundreds of years the importation of spices into Europe was controlled by the Arabs. They kept the source of the spices a secret and would tell wild tales of alleged dangers involved in gathering spices. In the Middle Ages, Venetian and Genoese merchants practically monopolized trade in spices with the Arabs and amassed great fortunes by reselling the spices in other parts of Europe. Some spices were so rare that they were often used in place of money.

The beginning of the downfall of the Arabian monopoly of the spice trade stemmed from Marco Polo's accounts of seeing spices growing in various parts of Asia and of spice trading in India. Europeans eventually realized that these places could be reached by ship, and they began to seek shipping routes to the East Indies. Both Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan made their famous voyages in quest of a sea route to the spice lands of the East.

In time Portugal, Spain, England, Holland, France, and eventually the United States sought control of the Asian spice trade. Although many of the spices used today in the United States are still imported from Asia, many are also imported from the West Indies, Central and South America, and Africa; in addition, many are grown in California.