Know your kitchen plants like a botanist

How many names of the fruits and vegetables do you know in the market or your kitchen? To know their common name, it is easy! That is because all plants are labeled before we purchased them from the market. However, do you know what is a vegetable and fruit scientifically?

When we buy some vegetables at wet markets or freshly from the farms, we often see tomatoes are selling together with other vegetables such as spinaches and cabbages. How many people know that tomato is not a vegetable but fruit! What? Yes, tomato is a fruit, same as pumpkin, eggplant, chili, bell peppers, squash, cucumber, beans, peas, olives, avocado, corn, zucchini, and ladyfinger (okra). Botanically, the classification of fruits and vegetables depend on which part of the plant they come from. Botanical classification on fruit is that it is a seed-bearing organ or structure that developed from the ovary of flowering plants. On the other hand, any parts of the plant apart from the fruit are known as vegetables. This meant that the leaf or stem of the tomato plant is referred to as a vegetable.

So, why does a tomato, pumpkin, eggplant, and other fruits always found in the vegetable area in the market? Scientifically, they are fruits, but in the culinary aspect, the fruit is something that gives sweet tastes and those “fruit vegetables” are mild or savory rather than sweet which typically considered as vegetables by chefs which commonly eaten as a part of a side dish or main course. Fruits, such as apples, pineapple, and citrus often gives sweet, tart, or sour taste which has a huge difference from that of fruit vegetables. They are generally used in desserts, snacks, or juices in culinary perspectives. The term, fruit vegetable, arises for those who still cannot accept tomato and other fruit vegetables as fruits. It might take some time for people to process, digest, and accept them.

How about a carrot? How about a potato? Sweet potato that is sweet? And broccoli? The term, vegetables, are commonly labeled as something that is edible which are green in color—for instance, cabbages, spinaches, kales, and leeks. Yes, carrot, potato, sweet potato, broccoli, yam, celery, and lotus root are known as vegetables. Some of them are classified explicitly into flower vegetables, for instance, broccoli, cauliflower, and artichoke. Stem vegetables like asparagus, leek, sugar cane while spinach, lettuce, kale, mustard, and cabbage are referred to as leafy vegetables. Taproot vegetables such as carrot, turnips, beets, and rutabagas, tuberous roots like yam, and sweet potato, and root-like stems such as Florida arrowroot. Garlic, onion, and shallot are known as bulb vegetables, whereas, turmeric, lotus root, taro, water lily, ginger, and potato are modified plant stems.  These vegetables are starchy, some are sweet, which may be used in baked goods and desserts. Generally, vegetables do not contain seeds.

How fruit and vegetables share similarities and differences in nutrients? Both share a number of similarities in terms of nutrition such as high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and plant compounds; low in sodium and fat. As compared to most varieties of vegetables, fruits contain a higher amount of natural sugar content, fiber, and calories. On the contrary, most leafy vegetables compose of higher water content than most fruits.

In vegetables, they are further classifications which are spices and herbs. From here, are you able to differentiate what is a herb and a spice? Before this, why do humans add spices and herbs to the food? The first use of spice and herbs is to mask the odor of rotting food such as fishy smell from the fish or seafood. Spices and herbs are used to neutralized unpleasant odors on some meats like steak and mutton. Spices and herbs that have antibacterial and antifungal properties are commonly used to marinate the food to make the food last longer. They also are high in nutrition and yield “physiological” high that makes the food more sensually enjoyable.

What is the magic of the spices and herbs behind the story? Most of the chemical responses that function to give distinctive taste and smell have actually come from the plant compound which is known as an essential oil. The essential oil of the plants is commonly used in the culinary and perfume industry. It is referred to as volatile oil that is usually terpenes or other compounds which diffuse readily into the air. The function of the essential oil in plants is used to attract animals such as pollinators or fruit dispersers while some are used to repel certain pests.

What is a herb? What is spice? Botanically, herbs are the leafy plant parts while spice has no botanical definition but it is always referred to as the stem, bark, root, flower, or seeds of the plants that have strong scent and fragrance. Herbs come from leaves such as dill, coriander, cumin, pandan, thyme, basil, mint, oregano, sage, rosemary, chervil, parsley, curry leaves, and lemongrass. Spices are generally giving much stronger scent as compared to herbs like ginger, galangal, black and white peppers, cloves, nutmeg, mace, curry powders, anise, and cinnamon. Vanilla that containing vanillin is falling into the spice category due to the strong scent found in the volatile oil in the seeds. Until now, there is still an unclear boundary on some species whether they are herbs or spices.

Do we forget something? How about coriander seeds, garlic, and onions? These are classified into both herbs and spice, which depend on the culinary recipe. Earlier on, we mentioned that corn is a fruit. Yes, if we take a whole bunch of corn, it is referred to as fruits. However, the corn kernel itself is known as grain that usually dried and powdered into corn starch. Grain, edible grass species that have small, hard, dry seed, with or without an attached hull or fruit layer. Rice, wheat, barley, and sorghum are cereal grains which are the staple food in this world. They are known as grass plant, monocot from the grass family, Poaceae. There is another food we eat, mushrooms. It is neither a vegetable nor a fruit but edible fungi. Upon reading this article, can you tell what plants are fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and grains from your kitchen?