DAVID GREENE, HOST:
NPR's Gregory Warner sent us a postcard from the African spice island of Zanzibar. He's taking a fresh look at three familiar spices - so common they might be flavoring your morning cup of coffee right now - but three spices with very different origins.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: One of these is a bean discovered in Mexico. Another's a tree native to India and another - the seed of a fruit discovered in Indonesia. But today, they can all be found in any spice farm in Zanzibar, the East African island used as a spice plantation by the 18th-century Omani Empire. Our guide is Fadhil.
FADHIL MOHAMMED: Fadhil Mohammed. You're welcome Zanzibar Spice Island.
WARNER: And the three spices that we'll be looking at today?
MOHAMMED: Vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg.
WARNER: Now, we're going to start with vanilla because vanilla is a prima donna. A type of orchid, it flowers only once a year - so no time for a bee to find it. A farmer has to pollinate it by hand with a stick, trumpet flower by trumpet flower.
MOHAMMED: Pollinate each and every flower - always early in the morning.
WARNER: And you only have one chance?
MOHAMMED: One chance.
WARNER: Because if this temperamental bloom has not been touched by noon, it dies just hours after it blossomed. And no pods will ever emerge - pods that after nine months of maturing need more careful work. They have to be boiled and then dried.
MOHAMMED: You have to dry it to the direct sun for only one hour - only one hour.
WARNER: Like I said - a prima donna and thus expensive. That's why the vanilla in your coffee is probably synthetic imitation made in a lab. But our next stop on the tour is, by contrast, a low-maintenance, fast-growing laurel tree.
(SOUNDBITE OF BARK SCRAPING)
WARNER: Scrape off her bark - you get delicious cinnamon, a digestive and antiseptic. While should you feel an oncoming cold or flu, just move down to her roots and chew on them. What do you taste?
MOHAMMED: Eucalyptus in it, sweet basil in it, menthol in it. So Vicks Rub - looks like Vicks.
WARNER: Is the cinnamon tree like "The Giving Tree?" Every part of it is...
MOHAMMED: You can use it.
Our last spice on the tour is the most secretive. We walk up to a tree of what looks like apricots. But Fadhil tosses away the fruit and holds the precious pit. He strips away the waxy red webbing.
So you broke open the shell. And now you're digging out the meat from the nut.
WARNER: This is nutmeg, used in cake and coffee, of course, but also locally in nutmeg porridge, an alleged aphrodisiac.
MOHAMMED: This is aphrodisiac. But when you eat this one, make sure your husband very close.
WARNER: Wait, you mean if your husband is not around...
MOHAMMED: If your husband is not around, don't eat nutmeg porridge.
WARNER: Such is the power of the nutmeg powder. The island of Zanzibar has a soil and climate ideal for spices. And it's situated in the crosshairs of ancient trade winds. So it was a key stop on the spice route between Asia and Europe. But I asked Fadhil to choose one spice - his favorite - his desert island spice.
MOHAMMED: Zanzibar is Spice Island. So we got this name around 1818. We got this name because of the one thing - it's called cloves.
WARNER: Cloves used to be produced on this island in such number that arriving sailors used to catch their scent from giant warehouses by the harbor. Madagascar has now supplanted Zanzibar as the chief exporter. But Fadhil Mohammed says that cloves will always remind him of his home.
WARNER: Gregory Warner, NPR News.
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