Here at Fine Dining Lovers, we’ve an ongoing series called On the Spice Trail, in which we’ve explored the natural and cultural history of individual spices. But when I’m cooking, I like shortcuts. For a quick injection of flavours from around the globe, I’ll always reach for spice mixes.
This approach is entirely practical for anyone who cooks a broad array of cuisines. If I were a grandmother in Jaipur, then I’d have an arsenal of regional Indian spices that I would use regularly enough that it would make sense to buy them individually (and keep them in glass pots, to show off their gem-like colours).
Were I Chinese, I’d have a largely different array of spices to throw into my dishes as they sizzled away in a wok.
When I’m at our house in Italy, I call on more herbs than spices, and when I make Slovene food, neither herbs nor spices particularly feature – mostly salt and that secret weapon, a shorthand umami injection, the bouillon cube.
But since I like to cook the specialties of many countries, it’s impractical for me to buy the dozens of individual spices that comprise the flavour spectrum of each culture in quantities – my chufa might be used just once or twice a year, and otherwise grow stale.
So spice mixes are the way to go, and the premixed ones are perfectly good (I get them at my local spice shop in Ljubljana, Hisa Zacimb), though with the caveat that spices gradually lose flavour as they get older. Thus, they should be used as soon as possible after they are ground or pulverised. I keep quite an ensemble of renowned spice mixes in my cupboard – more mixes than individual spices. I can’t live without salt, pepper, smoked paprika, cinnamon, chilli flakes and garlic powder. I could make my own mixes, and my Syrian chef friend, Rami Murad, has his own personal recipe for falafel spice with over 30 components.
But, I’m interested in mixes with tradition behind them. I want to know the story behind what I eat. So for today’s column, I decided to go around the world in spice mixes, to learn what comprises each of the ones I use most often, and what traditions they hail from.
North African Ras el-Hanout
The name means “head of the shop,” a shorthand for the best spices the shop has for sale. Some mixes, like this one, do not have a specific recipe, so the ras el-hanout that you buy at one shop may differ from another. Some say that it must contain 12 spices, but which 12 spices is a matter of debate, and differs from region to region.
The standard components are allspice, ginger, chili, coriander, turmeric, mace, nutmeg, clove, cumin, cardamom, hot paprika, sweet paprika, pepper and fenugreek. But in case that’s not enough, there are some even more exotic components, such as chufa, orris root, galangal, monk’s pepper, cubebs, dried rosebud, ash berries, and even cantharides (an aphrodisiac now banned in Morocco) – I’d heard of almost none of those, but I’ll put ras el-hanout in just about anything, from meat to fish to rice. So, bring on more cubebs!
A herb, more than a spice mix, this features oregano (which scholars have linked to the Biblical herb, hyssop), basil, thyme and savory, with the addition of sesame seeds, dried sumac and salt. Now trending in Brooklyn eateries, it can be used for cooking or as a dip (a toasted flatbread dipped in olive oil first, then za’atar is pretty killer).
“Baharat” just means “spices” in Arabic, and so this is a sort of shorthand for any Middle Eastern spice mix, but it normally features allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cassia, cumin, nutmeg and paprika. The Turkish version, however, stands out, since it also includes mint, and is particularly nice on roasted meat with a yogurt sauce (mint and yogurt being a heavenly pairing). In Saudi Arabia you might find a version with added loomi (dried black lime).
Saudi Arabian Kabsa
A relatively simple mixture ideal for fish, which includes turmeric, coriander, pepper, black cardamom, ginger and fennel.
Chinese Five Spice
Fennel, Sichuan pepper, Chinese cinnamon, clove and star anise are the big five and immediately make your kitchen smell like the local Chinese restaurant. If you have a gas stovetop, a wok and sesame oil, then you can reproduce basic Chinese food at home thanks to this mixture.
The core of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine is a mixture of chili, garlic, ginger, basil … and then it gets exotic. How about some korarima, rue, ajwain, nigella and fenugreek? Fresh out of those in your cupboard? Just grab some berbere instead!
Harissa, derived from a cluster of chili peppers (roasted red, Baklouti and serrano), plus garlic, coriander and caraway, can be dried and powdered or a paste. Along Africa's Mediterranean coast and throughout the Levant, you’ll find harissa used as to add smoke and spice to whatever's cooking, whether as a sauce, dip, crust or marinade.
Indian Garam Masala
Throughout India and Pakistan, you’ll find garam masala spice mix, the quickest route to bold subcontinent flavours. Garam means “heat,” not in the spicy sense, but spices were believed to heat the body, providing a sort of fuel that unspiced food cannot provide. Black and white pepper, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, clove, bay, cumin, and black and green cardamom are the staples, though if you happen to have too much asafetida in the house – I know I do – you can add that, too.
Baltimore Old Bay
The final spice mix is an outlier in today’s column. The others have been part of long-standing traditions, with much variation and no definite points of origin. But Old Bay seasoning is a specific product invented by Gustav Brunn in 1939 and sold by the McCormick spice company in the Chesapeake Bay area, primarily to dust on shellfish. However, I encountered it as the topping for Thrasher’s French Fries in Baltimore, for which my family drove four hours from our home in Connecticut. We drove down, loaded up several buckets of fries, caught a ballgame (go Red Sox) and drove back. Old Bay features mustard, celery salt, bay, black pepper, red pepper, clove, mace, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, paprika and ginger. Game on.