Spices have some great crossovers into many cuisines due to the Silk Road, so you can easily start with some basics that you know you’ll find in many recipes even if they are from as far away as Egypt or India.
Cumin – from the Middle East, this spice is referenced in the Bible and regarded by the Romans as a symbol of greed; cumin managed to make its way into the kitchens of Europe and even China. As a whole spice, it will store well for up to two years and is generally in many well-known blends. It marries well with allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, paprika and turmeric.
Coriander – its warm and woody tones compliment almost anything. A very hearty native from southern Europe and the Middle East, the fresh plant has distinctive tartness that arouses adverse reactions in some, but the seeds certainly don’t have the same flavour. Said to be included in the Pharaoh’s love potions, whole coriander seeds will keep well for long periods but when ground, lose flavour and scent very quickly. It loves being with cumin, fennel, ginger, cardamom and pepper.
Cinnamon – not just for sweet dishes, cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka where the Laurel tree’s bark is stripped and rolled in lengths up to a metre long and then left to dry. The stunning aroma can’t be beaten and the Egyptians used it in their embalming process for that very reason. Good quality ‘quills’ hold their flavour well but once ground the more exciting and delicate tones disappear. A friend to nutmeg, allspice, cumin, star anise, chilli and allspice, it features in so many different cuisines it could really be called the king of spice.
Fennel – The strong aniseed tone has been well loved for centuries and it is well known for its digestive powers. In cuisines from India to China and through to Europe, fennel’s benefit is that is grows almost anywhere and, with its amalgamating flavour profile, it can be seen in curries, sauces, marinades and sweets the world over. Working with allspice, cardamom, cumin, paprika and cinnamon, whole seeds are often added rather than ground, and a teaspoon will ease tummy pains.
Allspice – a little less used, but a must-try for any spice lover. A native of Jamaica, the unripe berries from the allspice tree can be grated into sweet and savoury dishes alike. Pungent and oily, with a peppery and almost thyme-like taste, allspice works well with cinnamon, chilli, coriander, cumin and paprika. And do try it with chocolate!
Green Cardamom – its distinctive liquorice taste and breath-freshening quality sees green cardamom appearing in many sweets, but it truly comes into its own when added to coffee and, of course, chai. As a native to Sri Lanka, it features in plenty of wonderful aromatic curries, pastes, chutneys and sweets. Its woody outer casing keeps flavours safe and traps those oils in well, so look for closed casings that you can bash open to extract the perfect taste. A little goes a long way with cardamom, so use sparingly.
Mace and Nutmeg – these two spices come from the same plant; mace is the lacey embryo that attaches itself to the central nut(meg) of the fruit, which looks like a small nectarine. Native to just one small island, Banda Island in Indonesia, they are one of the more expensive spices and certainly have one of the most incredible taste profiles. Mace ‘blades’ are a tender apricot colour once dried, rather the shocking blood red before they go through the drying process. When fresh, the scent is orange blossom and wood, warm spice and a hint of musk – intoxicating and intriguing! One of the ‘pungent’ spices, Europe embraced this unusual taste in pâtés and sauces and found it also went well with fish, but in its region of origin, mace appears in wonderful curries. It marries well with cloves and black pepper and needs to be fresh to get the most benefit from its incredible profile.
Nutmeg has a sweet profile and features more in sweets and classic puddings, but is beautiful when it meets classic slow-cooked meats, in Spanish and Italian sauces and even roasted vegetables. Nutmeg will work well with allspice, cinnamon and cloves.
How should spices be stored? Keep small jars, as they are a good way to store spices, which don’t like light, so tuck them away in a cupboard. As much as spice tins and caddies look great, the tastes and smell will very soon amalgamate, so we prefer to store spices separately. We’ve got some great options in store to help you start your own collection.
What’s the difference between using whole spice or ground? Whole spices keep their flavour for longer than the ground, but ground spices are easier to cook with as they take less time for the flavour to go into the food.
When cooking with whole spices and seeds, make sure you toast them before grinding to amp up their flavour.
Blooming spices, or gently frying them in oil, is a quick way to deepen their flavour when you add them to a dish. Cook the spices off in oil until they smell nice and toasty before adding the rest of your ingredients to a dish.