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How is mustard manufactured? What is its significance?

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It may surprise you to learn that mustard one of the top three imported spices in the world, coming in third only to salt and pepper; it is popular in most areas of the world. 

Mustard has an ancient history.  The name is thought to have originated from the must of sweet, old wine with crushed mustard seeds.  This blend forms a paste called “mustum ardeus,” (or “hot paste.”) The two words over time meshed together and become “mustard.”  Seeds from the plant Cruciferae (the flowers of which boom in four yellow petals which form a cross) are what is used to make the condiment, but there are several varieties of plants in the mustard family, including radishes, turnips, and horseradish, as well as weeds such as wild mustard. 

While modern mustard is yellow, it is black mustard that was likely the first to be harvested, probably during the Bronze Age.  Black mustard is a weed that was harvested as a spice and grew within cereal crops.  The seeds have been found in cooking vessels in China, and these pots have been date to 5,000,000 B.C.  Egyptian kingdoms were avid mustard consumers, and the spice was introduced to other regions of the world by way of the spice traders.  It was the Spanish who introduced mustard to both North and South America.  California has an especially colorful historical story:  in 1768, Father Juipero Serra scattered mustard seeds as he traveled to the many monasteries of the region. In the spring, bright yellow flowers can be seen from the main north-south highway. 

Black mustard fell out of favor because of its difficulty to harvest in modern agricultural fields because of the way it sheds. The plants themselves reach nine feet in height (three meters).  Its pods produce small, highly fragrant, dark brown seeds which must be frequently harvested by hand.   Because of these difficulties, spice traders began cultivating “Brassica juncea.”  These plants are shorter, typically between three and six feet (one to two meters) and the pods of these plants retain, rather than shed, their seeds when ripe, and are just as pungent as black mustard. There are two colors of seed, brown and yellow.  In addition to these two types, a third mustard species originates from the Mediterranean.  This species is white or yellow and has a distinctly different pungency. 

Mustard, in whatever variety, contains edible oils and high-quality protein.  In parts of India, after the seeds are soaked, they are fed to cattle. 

There are more than forty different kinds of mustard.  The type most common in the west is English powered mustard, which is made from brown or yellow seeds.  French or Dijon-style mustards are made exclusively from brown mustard. The bright yellow mustard many Americans love on hot dogs and hamburgers is made by using a  yellow mustard seed paste; this paste is then combine with spices, vinegar, and cereal powder, each in varying degrees according to individual recipes. 

In addition to being enjoyed in food, mustard has been used for medicinal purposes in ancient times, especially in China but also in many modern homeopathic remedies.  

Source: Encyclopedia of Food & Culture, ©2003 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved

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