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story.lead_photo.caption Cinnamon sticks, dried chiles, coriander seed, cumin seed, ground chile and oregano are common spices used in Latin American cooking. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

This is the first in a two-part series about spices and global cuisines. Next week will feature recipes using these spice blends.

Writing a story about culinary spices is a bit like opening Pandora's box. Spices have played an integral role in human history — the good parts and the horrific parts. It is not my intention to belittle or dismiss the ramifications of the spice trade on vast populations around the globe, but that's a topic for another day.

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to stocking a spice rack. But depending on the types of cuisines you like to cook, there are some key spices to have on hand. How serious you are about authenticity and how far you want to delve into any particular cuisine will dictate the specific spices you keep.

The following information is for those stocking kitchens for the first time, or who have a fledgling interest in a particular cuisine.

I read somewhere that Americans really want Japanese-ish food, and I think the same could be said of many home cooks' approach to most global cuisines. We want flavors that are the hallmarks of the cuisine but appeal to American palates. In other words, most home cooks aren't looking for authenticity. They're looking to cook food they enjoy eating that is inspired by foods from around the world.

And that's pretty much my approach for the following — this list it is not definitive and it is not comprehensive.

ESSENTIALS

Technically, spices are made from the dried seeds, bark, berries, buds and roots of plants. Herbs are the leaves — fresh and dried. But for practical purposes, this story will consider dried herbs to be spices.

Allspice: Used in Mexican, Caribbean, American, Turkish, Polish, Scandinavian, North African, East African, West African cuisines, among others.

Bay leaf: Most commonly found in Indian, American, French, Mexican, Middle Eastern recipes.

Cardamom
Cardamom

Cardamom: This fragrant spice is native to India and Sri Lanka. It is used throughout the world, but most commonly in Indian, Malaysian, Middle Eastern and Scandinavian cuisines.

Chile: Assorted peppers in varying levels of heat, from none to fiery, can be found in cuisines across the globe. Mexican, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Turkish, Hungarian, North African, East African, West African, Korean, Caribbean and Spanish cuisines are known in particular for their use of peppers.

Cinnamon: A hallmark flavor in many European baked goods, cinnamon is also commonly used in savory dishes around the world. It is a must-have in many Mexican, Cuban, Brazilian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Armenian and Malaysian recipes.

Whole cloves
Whole cloves

Cloves: This pungent spice is commonly used in European and American baked goods, barbecue sauce, Indian, Chinese, East African, Brazilian, Malaysian and Middle Eastern recipes.

Coriander: Every cuisine that uses fresh cilantro — Indian, Mexican, Thai, Chinese to name a few — uses coriander seeds. Coriander seeds are used in where the leaves (cilantro) are not commonly used.

Cumin: The flavor of these tiny seeds is transformed by toasting, giving cumin a different flavor profile in Indian food than in Mexican food. Cumin's an essential ingredient in everything from the American Southwest's chili seasoning and Bengali Panch Phoron to biryani and Egyptian dukkah.

Fennel: Ground or whole, these seeds are commonly used in Indian, Italian, German, French, Bengali, American, Brazilian, Malaysian, Mediterranean, Egyptian and Chinese recipes.

Oregano: Technically an herb, varieties of dried oregano (including marjoram, Mexican oregano, Greek oregano and Sonoran oregano) are commonly used in Mexican, Argentine, Chilean, Cuban, Italian, Mediterranean and Turkish cuisine. Note that not all dried herbs labeled oregano are true oregano. Sonoran oregano is actually a member of the verbena family.

Paprika: A type of chile, paprika refers to specific varieties of Spanish and Hungarian peppers. It can be sweet or hot, and smoked or unsmoked. It is used in most European, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Central and South American cuisines.

Turmeric
Turmeric

Turmeric: This vibrant yellow root is most commonly used in Indian, Asian and Moroccan recipes. It is what gives yellow mustard its signature hue.

VERSATILE EXTRAS

Anise seed: These tiny seeds, not to be confused with star anise, are native to the Middle East. They impart a licoricelike flavor and are commonly used in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, German and Scandinavian recipes.

Caraway: This seed is a pantry-must for anyone interested in German, Eastern European or North African cuisine.

Star anise, saffron and a cinnamon stick
Star anise, saffron and a cinnamon stick

Saffron: As one of the world's most expensive spices, saffron is used often but sparingly in many Indian, Middle Eastern and Spanish recipes.

Sesame seed: Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Chinese, Indian and Japanese cuisines make use of sesame seeds. They are also popular in American and European baked goods.

Star anise: This star-shaped fruit is indigenous to China and North Vietnam. It is commonly used in Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian recipes.

Sumac: This tart-sour spice is common in Middle Eastern cuisine, especially Syrian, Israeli, Turkish, Palestinian and Jordanian.

Thyme: This herb, which includes many species with slightly different flavors, originated in the Mediterranean. It is commonly used in Greek, Italian, French and Middle Eastern recipes.

Sources: The Spice and Herb Bible by Ian Hemphill; East/West: A Culinary Journey Through Malta, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Andalusia by Shane Delia; Madhur Jaffrey's Quick and Easy Indian Cooking; Modern Spice by Monica Bhide; Our Syria by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi; Mr. Todiwala's Spice Box by Cyrus Todiwala; The Malaysian Kitchen by Christina Arokiasamy; Classic Turkish Cooking by Ghillie Basan; Under the Shade of Olive Trees by Nadia Zerouali and Merijn Tol; Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel E. Presilla; and Polska by Zusa Zak

A basic Indian spice box includes (clockwise from top) cumin seeds, whole cloves, green cardamom pods, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, black mustard seeds and Indian red chile as well as star anise, saffron and cinnamon (center).  Photo by John Sykes Jr.
A basic Indian spice box includes (clockwise from top) cumin seeds, whole cloves, green cardamom pods, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, black mustard seeds and Indian red chile as well as star anise, saffron and cinnamon (center). Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Indian cuisine's spice rack, or box in many cases, is quite possibly the most complex. Spices vary by region and from cook to cook. Flip through half a dozen Indian cookbooks and you'll find half a dozen different lists of essential spices for cooking Indian food at home.

According to Kumar and Suba Mahadevan, authors of From India: Over 100 Recipes to Celebrate Food, Family and Tradition, "all Indian households would use garam masala, but the ingredients differ according to recipe requirements and personal choice."

A typical garam masala might include cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black peppercorn and cumin.

There are some really good brands of garam masala available, but none can surpass the flavor of homemade. Plus, by making your own, you can tweak the amounts to make it your own.

Garam Masala

6 to 8 cardamom pods

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick

5 to 6 whole cloves

1 tablespoon cumin seed

2 tablespoons coriander seed

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Heat oven to 260 degrees.

Lightly crush the cardamom pods. Remove seeds; discard pods (or save pods for another use, such as steeping in tea or flavoring sugar as you would do with a spent vanilla bean).

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Scatter cardamom seeds, cinnamon stick, cloves, cumin, coriander and black peppercorns in pan. Roast 10 to 12 minutes; turn oven off and let spices cool in the oven as it cools. Transfer spices to a spice grinder or, using a mortar and pestle (using the parchment or foil as a funnel is helpful here), grind spices to a powder. Transfer to a small, airtight jar until ready to use.

Makes about ⅓ cup.

Recipe adapted from Mr. Todiwala's Spice Box by Cyrus Todiwala

This traditional Moroccan spice blend is aromatic without being overpowering. It is used in savory and sweet recipes. Blends vary and can often contain 20 or more spices. This is a basic version using easily accessible spices.

Ras el Hanout

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground nutmeg

2 teaspoons ground allspice

2 teaspoons ground cardamom

1 ½ teaspoons ground black pepper

1 ½ teaspoons turmeric

15 saffron threads

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.

Makes about ½ cup.

Za'atar is a common spice mixture throughout the Middle East. The exact blend varies by region, but at its core it is a combination of thyme, sesame seeds and sumac.

Za'atar

1 tablespoon sumac

1 tablespoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon white sesame seeds, toasted (see note)

¼ teaspoon dried oregano

Salt, to taste, optional

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.

Note: To toast the sesame seeds, place them in a dry skillet over medium-low heat and cook, shaking pan or stirring constantly, until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate and cool completely.

Makes about 3 tablespoons.

Star anise and Sichuan pepper give this blend its distinctive licorice aroma and tongue tingle. It is particularly delicious with pork.

Chinese Five-Spice

2 cinnamon sticks, preferably Ceylon

4 whole star anise

½ teaspoon whole cloves

½ teaspoon Sichuan pepper OR black peppercorns (see note)

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Heat oven to 260 degrees.

Place the cinnamon sticks in a kitchen towel and smash using a rolling pin or meat mallet.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Scatter crushed cinnamon sticks, anise, cloves, peppercorns and fennel in pan. Roast 10 to 12 minutes; turn oven off and let spices cool in the oven as it cools. Transfer spices to a spice grinder or, using a mortar and pestle (using the parchment or foil as a funnel is helpful here), grind spices to a powder. Transfer to a small, airtight jar until ready to use.

Makes about 3 tablespoons.

Note: To make this blend more kid-friendly, author Kanchan Koya uses black peppercorns in place of the authentic, tongue-tingling Sichuan pepper.

Recipe adapted from Spice Spice Baby: 100 Recipes With Healing Spices for Your Family Table by Kanchan Koya

This fragrant, nutty and fiery hot blend is a common kebab seasoning in West African cuisines.

Ghanaian-Style Suya Spice Mix

5 ½ to 7 ounces ground roasted peanuts

2 teaspoons ground hot chile OR ground red pepper (cayenne)

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to 3 months.

To use: For each pound of meat, use 3 to 4 tablespoons as a dry rub or mix with oil to use as a wet rub. Marinate 1 to 12 hours.

Recipe adapted from Zoe's Ghana Kitchen: Traditional Ghanaian Recipes Remixed for the Modern Kitchen by Zoe Adjonyoh

Merken is a flavorful spice mixture from Chile. Use it as you would smoked paprika or to season salsas, sauces, meats or vegetables.

Merken from Chillan, Chile

6 dried New Mexican chiles, preferably smoked

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon dried pequin chile

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons hot paprika (use smoked if the New Mexican chiles are not smoked)

Heat oven to 200 degrees.

Wipe the peppers clean with a wet cloth. Stem and cut them open, but do not remove seeds. Arrange peppers in a single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Bake 1 to 2 hours or until completely dry and brittle.

When peppers are cool enough to handle, crumble or coarsely chop; set aside.

Lightly toast the coriander, cumin, dried pequin and bay leaf in a heavy skillet or comal over medium heat, heating just until spices are fragrant. Transfer to a plate to cool.

In a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, combine the peppers, toasted spices, salt, garlic powder and paprika. Grind to a coarse powder. Transfer to an airtight container and use within 1 to 2 months.

Makes about ⅓ cup.

Recipe adapted from Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel E. Presilla

Food on 03/06/2019

Print Headline: Spice(s) of life

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