Spice blends are the unsung hero of the kitchen cupboard. Reliably long-lasting and easy to put together, they offer near-instant gratitude to the discerning, yet time-strapped cook. They are the hidden weapon in the culinary arsenal, ready to turn bland, beige dinners into mouthwatering feasts.
We all know the importance of salt and pepper to the success of a dish; the salty crust on a chargrilled steak, or the peppery carapace on pan-fried tuna; the simplicity of this seasoning is incontrovertible. There are times, however, when such restrained minimalism is not the order of the day. How about that steak but with a dry chimichurri rub of basil, oregano and garlic massaged into it? Or Hawaiian-inspired tuna with a coriander, cayenne and paprika coating? As US TV chef Ina Garten would say, this is food ‘with the volume turned up.’
No matter the culture or the region of the world, spice blends are an integral part of home cooking. Across the globe, they offer succour in their mix of delicious ingredients, whilst the act of preparing them reassures in its promise of easy, scrumptious meals to come. Below are eight of my favourite spice blends, a combination from around the world so diversely luscious you’ll be rustling up a different one for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you walk through the spice markets of Cairo, you will come across vendors selling dukkah in paper cones. A magical combination of herbs, toasted nuts and spices, this crunchy spice blend is a culinary game-changer. The combination of ingredients varies from seller to seller, and this is the joy of spice blends – differing ratios of herbs and spices mean that each batch is unique in flavour.
For a simple dukkah, toast blanched hazelnuts/almonds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, nigella seeds and sesame seeds in a 180C oven until fragrant, and then pound the ingredients using a pestle and mortar or blitz to a nubbly mixture in a food processor (should neither of these options be available, a freezer bag and a rolling pin also work perfectly well). Dukkah is at its best served simply with pita and olive oil, however, feel free to use your imagination – it is delicious stirred into a shakshuka, as a topping for feta or halloumi salads, and even as a crunchy addition to roast potatoes.
Shichimi-togarashi, also known as Japanese seven-spice, is a tastebud-tingling spice mixture perfect on ramen noodles or Asian broths. Dating to the 17th century, shichimi was originally produced by Japanese herb dealers in Edo (what is today Tokyo), a fact explained by the ingredients used in the blend: ground chilli, ground sanshō pepper, Chenpi orange peel, black and white sesame seeds, nori seaweed and sesame seeds. Making your own shichimi is certainly not a difficult process, however, sourcing some of the ingredients may be difficult and/or expensive. That’s why ordering a ready-made mixture online or from an Asian supermarket is the best option – there are some real top-quality brands out there, all ready to give a fiery umami kick to whatever slurpy noodle dish requires it.
Georgian food is not really on anyone’s foodie radar; yet. Khmeli Suneli will hopefully redress this issue, for it stands as one of the most delicious blends of herbs and spices I’ve come across. The key to the mixture is the contrast of grassy and bitter flavours. The former is provided by the likes of coriander and dill, whilst the latter comes from the subtle hint of fenugreek. To create a homemade version of this spice blend, blitz to powder fenugreek seeds, bay leaves, coriander seeds, dried dill, salt and pepper. Like most of these mixtures, it is fantastic stirred into soups and stews, or it is perfect combined with olive oil and smeared over baked chicken breasts.
Gomasio, otherwise known as Japanese sesame salt, is the perfect addition to wok-fried greens and all manner of vegetable dishes. Toast sesame seeds for a few minutes in a pan until light brown and fragrant, then add to coarse sea salt. If a finer salt is desired, the sesame salt can be pulverised a little in a food processor.
If you’re a fan of seeds, panch phoron is the spice blend for you. Literally ‘five spices’, versions of panch phoron are found across the Indian subcontinent, forming a crucial part of East Indian, Bangladeshi and South Nepalese cuisine. Usually consisting of fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds and black mustard seeds, the spice mixture is almost always used whole and never ground. Added to vegetables, potatoes, or lentils, panch phoron offers an explosion of flavour as the whole spices explode in the mouth. To get the best out of the whole spices, panch phoron is ‘tempered’, that is the spices are fried in ghee (Indian clarified butter) until they begin to pop; after this, other ingredients are added which soak up the intensified flavours of the spices.
Ras el-hanout is the backbone of many a Maghrebi dish. Used throughout the countries of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, the spice blend is to this region what garam masala is to Indian cuisine. It is a heady mixture of well over a dozen spices, the details of which vary from family to family, vendor to vendor. Indeed, the name ras el-hanout translated from Arabic means ‘head of the shop’, the implication of which is that vendors would use the best spices they had for this mixture.
There are, however, some common ingredients – cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, cloves, coriander seeds, chilli powder, coriander and nutmeg are frequently utilised. Other more regionally specific ingredients may be used as well, such as rosebuds, orris root and grains of paradise. Whilst you can make a version of ras el-hanout at home, I would highly recommend shopping around and trying different commercially available blends; you will notice the subtle differences in flavour that make your cooking all the more exciting.
Sazón is the sprightly flavoured seasoning mix found across numerous Latin cultures. Highly aromatic, this spice mix doesn’t bring any heat to the table, just bagfuls of savoury toothsomeness. On top of this, it’s ridiculously easy to make; simply mix together ground cumin, ground coriander, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, and most importantly, ground achiote (you can get this easily online, but if you cannot be bothered, then saffron or paprika are good substitutes). I love this on steak fajitas, fish tacos or in a veggie burrito.
Berbere is an unapologetically fiery spice blend integral to the Ethiopian and Eritrean culinary canons. Perfect used as a dry rub on meats (try it on barbecued chicken), it also makes the most divine Ethiopian lentil stew (misir wot). I would probably advise against making this one from scratch at home, as the ingredients that give it its unique flavour profile are difficult to find (including korarima, rue and ajwain). However, you can get pretty close by pounding together dried bird’s eye chillies, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, fenugreek seeds, cloves and black peppercorns.