Middle Eastern spices gives the region’s cuisine its unique flavors. Alone or in mixtures, they can work culinary magic. Spices can do everything from make dinner to delicious to heal your body. (Ayurvedic healing – and of course Ayurvedic cooking – use spices based on the principles of this ancient Indian healing philosophy.) Knowing more about these spices and how they are used can liven up your recipes, dare you to try new things, and help your health. Some say that you will even eat less when you eat something more flavorful, so spices could be your key to healthy eating.
What Are Spices?
A spice is classified as a food flavoring made of the dried seeds, bark, roots, or other matter of plants. Mustard and black pepper are both spices derived from dried seeds. Cinnamon is a common spice that comes from the bark of trees. Ginger and turmeric are both roots. Cloves are dried flower buds from the Syzygium aromaticum tree. Saffron is made from the delicate stigmas inside one species of crocus flower; the stigma is the tip of the stalk that is covered in pollen. A wide variety of plant materials give us the spices we know and love.
A spice is distinguished from an herb by what part of the plant it comes from. Herbs also flavor our food but are different from spices: they are made from the leafy greens of plants. Herbs include basil, oregano, and rosemary. These are all the leaves of plants, and are more easily grown in your own garden. You may have to head to specialty store in order to procure the spices you want!
Spices provide the warm flavors of fall cooking – the fresh zest of summer dishes – and the familiar tastes we enjoy all year long, from eggnog to Easter ham.
Cooking With Spices
When cooking with spices, first learn what you like. Sample different cuisines in restaurants – from Indian to Asian to African to Middle Eastern – to discover the spices you find delicious. Perhaps cardamom is a favorite but saffron is a turn-off for you! You will not know until you sample and taste and discover your own preferences. Just ask your server what is involved in the dish you enjoy. That will help you identify the spices you like – as well as those you do not.
You can also try new recipes with these spices – or better yet, try adding the spices to something you already like. That way you will know it’s the new spice, and not the whole new dish, that you do not like the taste of. Try smelling and experiencing the scent of the spice, as then taste it on its own. (Just a small sample will do!) If cumin does not appeal to you, why bother adding it to your meat dish at all?
Try heating the spices up – preferably in a 325 degree oven for about ten minutes and not in a frying pan where they may burn – to bring out their flavor just before using them in a recipe. And handle the spices lightly when cooking with them a first time. A tiny taste will do – do not overdose your dish with any particular spice.
The intensity of the spice will differ depending upon its state – fresh or fried, whole or ground, heated or cold. Grinding and heating both release a spice’s flavor. A great way to grind your whole spices for cooking is a coffee grinder! Just wipe it out thoroughly between uses.
Also, as with all other plant products, from bananas to nuts, spices can grow old and expire. They will not make you sick when they are past their due date – but they will have lost their flavor and usefulness. Buy small quantities for your spice rack, and refresh them with frequency. Use a glass container for spices – metal containers can interact with the ingredients within – and avoid humidity. That means you will prolong the shelf life of your spices if you spoon them out of the jar instead of shaking them over a steaming pan.
Learning about these spices will help you recognize, remember, and identify them in recipes.
Cardamom is the world’s third most expensive spice: it is surpassed only by vanilla and saffron. It is the ground seeds of the plant Elettaria cardamomum, which is a member of the ginger family. Native to India, cardamom is now grown across the globe, from Sri Lanka to Guatemala. There are green and black varieties of cardamom, with green being the standard variation. In Scandinavia, it is a popular addition to baked goods, like the Lenten bun semla. In South Asia, cardamom appears in spice blends like garam masala and curries. In Middle Eastern cooking, you can find cardamom as a flavorful addition to coffee (especially Turkish coffee) and tea. Cardamom has a warm flavor – think of it as cinnamon’s exotic cousin – with some citrusy and aromatic undertones.
Cinnamon is a familiar warm, almost sweet, spice. It is derived from the bark of a tree. It is sold either ground or as small furled strips of dried bark. The original – and more subtle – version of cinnamon is derived from the Cinnamomum zeylanicum tree of Sri Lanka. But the similar tree Cinnamomum cassia now provides more of the cinnamon on market. We most commonly associate cinnamon with sweets and cookies, but in Middle Eastern cooking it is also a delicious way to spice up meats, rices, and coffee. Cinnamon bridges the gap between sweets and savory, and is well-suited to stews that involve meat, fruits, and vegetables together. Try using cinnamon as a dry rub on lamb kebabs, for instance.
Nutmeg is native to the Spice Islands in what is now Indonesia. The nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans, provides us with two spices, in fact. Nutmeg is the seed inside the fruit of the tree. Mace comes from the lacy covering over that seed. Production of nutmeg has expanded beyond the shores of the Spice Islands, and now ranges from India to Grenada in the Caribbean. You may be familiar with nutmeg as the traditional sprinkling on top of a glass of eggnog at Christmas. Its flavor is warm, almost sweet, and slightly nutty. (It is not, however, actually a nut. It is a seed.) Like cinnamon, you will find nutmeg appearing both sweet and savory dishes in Middle Eastern cuisine. You can find it in lentil soup or spicing up Jordanian maklouba, the “upside down” rice, vegetable, and chicken dish.
The word “clove” originates in the Latin word clavus, which means nail. These dried unopened flower buds from a tree in the myrtle family resemble metal nails, with a bulbous end and a tapered point. The flowers are pink when they blossom but as a spice they are rusty brown. Cultivation began in the Spice Islands but now ranges from Africa to South America to Southeast Asia. Warm, aromatic, and pungent, the strong flavors of the clove can easily overwhelm a dish. Use it sparingly. You might be familiar with the sight of whole cloves studding the outside of a ham. The whole clove can also be added, in Middle Eastern recipes, to rice dishes. Ground, cloves appear in spice blends and flavor meat dishes. Chewing on cloves after a meal helps freshen the breath. It can also have a numbing effect, so clove-chewing is recommended for those with a toothache.
Cumin is a dried seed and is the second most popular spice worldwide, right behind black pepper. Cumin comes from the plant Cuminum cyminum, which is a member of the parsley family. Cumin cultivation originated in the Near East, and is even mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. You will find cumin spicing up dishes from India to Morocco to Mexico. (You are probably most familiar with its flavor from taco and chili!) In the Middle East, you can find cumin – with its warm, almost bitter, spiciness – in many dishes, such as the rice, lentil, and onion dish mujaddara. It also flavors the Egyptian staple ful medames, made of mashed fava beans. Turkish sujuk sausage is flavored with cumin, too.
Turmeric is a member of the ginger family native to southern India. The roots of the plant Curcuma longa are boiled and then dried for use as a spice and a dye. Turmeric gives curries their distinctive yellow color, and it will impart a similar hue to your dishes as well. Turmeric is thought to have healing powers and health benefits, too. Its flavor is earthy and mustardy, with some warmth. You can make your own Persian stew, tas kebab, using turmeric along with meat, vegetables, and fruit like quince or apples.
Sumac the spice is derived from the berries of sumac plants, in the genus Rhus. (The non-harmful spice-yielding species is related to what we know as poison ivy!) Sumac has a sour lemony flavor, and is often used in place of lemon itself in Middle Eastern cooking. The berries are dried and ground into a powder that has a purple or red hue. Sumac pairs well with chicken, or is perfectly suited to be sprinkled atop the mashed chickpea favorite hummus.
Coriander is a widely known spice, used from Asia to Europe, with a long history. The seeds of this plant are what we call coriander – and its leafy greens are what we call cilantro. They taste nothing alike! The coriander seed is small and spherical with a light brown color when dried. You can buy the whole seeds to use as they are quite brittle and easy to grind yourself. Buying the spice already ground is possible, too. Coriander has a mild warm flavor, with an almost orange-like sweetness to it. You will find coriander in Indian curries, Italian mortadella sausage, or Egyptian duqqa, a mixture of ground hazelnuts and spices used as a dip. You will also taste coriander spicing up harissa, the North African red pepper sauce.
Ginger is the bulbous root of the plant known scientifically as Zingiber officinale. We know the familiar flavor of this spice from zesty ginger ale sodas to the pickled ginger, gari, served with sushi. Ginger spices up baked goods, herbal teas, and many different dishes from India to England. The taste of ginger is warm, sweet, and woody, with a slightly pungent bite. It pairs well with garlic in cooking.
Other prominent spices in Middle Eastern cuisine include saffron, fenugreek, caraway, and aniseed. The more you discover Middle Eastern food – from restaurants to recipes – the more you will learn about the wide variety of spices that make it so delicious.
Each of these individual spices features prominently in Middle Eastern dishes, from simple bean dishes to elaborate meat stews. These spices liven up breakfast and dinner, and sweeten desserts and bring heat to main courses. However, combinations of these spices are also very popular in Middle Eastern cooking. Recipes and proportions for these popular spice mixes vary between regions and even between neighbors.
Baharat is the most popular blend, and typically combines four, seven, or nine spices. It can be rubbed into meat before cooking, sprinkled over sautéed vegetables, or cooked with fish. No one spice flavor should stand out – it should be a warm curry-like combination that brings its own unique flavor to the food. Mixtures of baharat can include black pepper, cumin, coriander, paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom.
Ras El Hanout is another blend that hails from North Africa – it can contain ginger, aniseed, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, cloves, cardamom, lavendar, rose, turmeric or more. It comes from the Arabic for “head of the shop” meaning that it contains whatever the proprietor chooses to blend together.
Lebanese Seven Spices pairs well with beef or lamb dishes. (It is not the same as Arabic Seven Spices, or Baharat, so be aware of the nomenclature when buying a pre-packaged mixture.) Mix equal measures of nutmeg, ginger, allspice, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon, and black pepper to make this regional speciality.
Hawaiij is a Yemeni spice mix that combines cumin, cardamom, turmeric, black pepper and coriander.
Za’atar is a widely used spice and herb mix in Middle Eastern cooking, spicing up everything from meats to vegetables. It combines sesame, sumac, and dried herbs like thyme or oregano. It can be mixed with olive oil as a dip for bread.
You can try out your own mixtures or buy ones at a spice shop to liven up your healthy cooking. These zesty spice additions will make your meals stand out!