So a friend of mine who has been following my blog asked me the other day, “Pete, what spices should I have in my cupboard?” Part of the joy of my food journey has been the slow dawning realization that I could make so many of the wonderful foods that I enjoy for myself, given the proper ingredients.
Over time, as I’ve absorbed countless cookbooks, watched tutorial videos, and learned by doing (which is really the best way for me to learn, at least), it’s become clear to me that it’s best to cook with whole spices, if you can. Pre-ground spices have their place, and I use them all the time, but if I really want the flavor of a spice to be at the forefront, I’ll use the whole spice, or I’ll grind it from the whole spice myself. It’s just better. I think if you do the same you’ll get similar results.
Now for the list. These are the spices that I consider most essential. If you have these you can do any number of things. There are a ton of more exotic spices that I could list, and they add wonderful flavor notes to dishes as well, but that’s another post for another day. This list is what I consider the backbone of my own cuisine.
Now, the list:
Cinnamon is actually pretty interesting. A lot of what passes for cinnamon in America is actually ‘cassia,’ which is a related plant to ‘true cinnamon’. All varieties of cinnamon come from the bark of trees native to South and Eastern Asia. Cinnamon has a long history, and was imported by the Egyptians, perhaps from as far away as China. The Ancient Greeks used it to flavor their wine.
Cinnamon has essential oils that give a twofold effect. First, there is a slight sweetness to the flavor. There is also an underlying warmth, present especially in larger amounts.
Obviously cinnamon is very useful for desserts. It is also essential to the flavor profiles of many Asian cuisines. I find it indispensable for cooking Indian, Thai (and other Southeast Asian cuisines), Ethiopian and North African cuisines. I also like to sometimes add a dash to both chili and spaghetti. Some cinnamon freshly grated onto the top of a tall mug of whipped cream topped coffee is amazing (especially if you’ve got a shot of some liqueur in the coffee).
There’s a reason dentists used to use cloves to numb the pain of a toothache. Cloves have a numbing, tingling effect, and a sweetness to rival cinnamon. Cloves, native to a small number of islands in Indonesia, have been recovered from an archaeological site in Syria dating to 1700 BC. The hunger for this spice, and others as well (cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg) are a large component if not the main component that drove both the discovery of the New World and the greatest shift in human populations and cultures in history.
Clove can be easily overpowering. However, a small amount of clove in a spice mixture can have a warming, almost alluring and sensual effect. For Indian curries I’ll often fry some clove and whole black pepper in oil to flavor the oil, before adding my other spices or onions and garlic.
Nutmeg! It’s not just for giving prisoners a cheap and possibly deadly high! Seriously, though, nutmeg is important in a vast array of cuisines, from Southeast Asian, to Indian and more. Nutmeg has a sweet almost camphorous quality to its flavor notes. However, it has a large array of essential oil flavor components, making it a subtle and complex spice to use. It adds depth to dishes, especially if used in restrained and subtle amounts. For instance, when making a quiche, or when cooking some sort of greens, a small amount of nutmeg will actually help bring out the other flavor components in the dish by contrast.
Allspice is interesting, historically, because it’s one of the few spices (other than hot chile peppers) that is native to the New World, rather than the Old. The English coined the term ‘allspice’ in 1621 because they thought the spice tasted similar to cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. I find it adds a subtle depth when used in conjunction with cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, and I like adding it to my curries at times. It is essential for Caribbean cuisine, Middle-Eastern cuisine and is often used in desserts in Britain.
Cumin adds an earthy, savory depth to dishes. Fresh cumin, when ground, I find to have an almost unpleasant aroma, very strong. Cumin is probably best when used in conjunction with other spices, highlighting its earthiness. It’s a common component in chile powders, garam masalas, and curry powders. Frying whole cumin in oil is a great way to start some Indian dishes, as it really brings out the flavors. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a jar of powdered cumin, though, and I often use it instead of whole for convenience sake.
6. Dried Chiles
Post 1492 there was a great shift in the culinary traditions of the world. The gift of the hot pepper has to be one of the greatest things the New World offered the Old (along with chocolate, vanilla and allspice). What would Indian food be without hot chiles? Or Thai food, for that matter? Can you imagine Kung Pao chicken without chiles? Neither can I. When I make homemade kimchi, I use dried chiles for the heat, grinding them before coating the cabbage. When I want to make a really hot curry, I fry dried chiles in oil (along with other whole spices). It’s essential (along with cumin and black pepper) when I’m making my DIY chili powder. And a bag of them at the grocery store is usually pretty cheap, especially if you look in the Mexican food section rather than the spice section.
Ginger adds spicy sweetness and warmth to many dishes. Obviously, many people think of dried ginger and desserts like cookies and cakes. However, ginger, when grated or sliced and fried with onions and garlic, transforms into something completely transcendent, and is the backbone of a great number of Asian dishes. I also like to grate it into Asian sauces and salad dressings. (It’s also amazing in a simple syrup if you’re into making your own DIY ginger ale concoctions)
What people in America call coriander is actually the seed of a plant that we here call cilantro. It’s never made sense to me that people in the UK or other places would call cilantro coriander, since they’re two completely different things, both in terms of flavor and texture. (Two cultures separated by a common language, as it were) At any rate, coriander, similarly to cumin, adds a subtle body and earthy warmth to dishes. However, it also can add a slightly citrusy flavor and aroma when toasted. I use coriander in DIY garam masalas and a number of South East Asian dishes (like Thai red curry paste, or roasted pork for Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches). Coriander/cilantro is pretty easy to grow in a pot, but be warned, in the hot Summer months it has a tendency to ‘bolt’ or stop producing so many leaves and start to produce seeds. The seed pods, when used green, have a flavor that’s halfway between coriander seeds and cilantro leaves. I use it in green curry pastes, sometimes.
Turmeric is a relative of ginger, and will leave your hands stained yellow for days. Be especially careful if you’re cooking in a white tshirt. If there’s any spice that is THE flavor of curry, it’s turmeric. It’s also essential for niter kibbeh, one of the major components of Ethiopian food. Not only is turmeric useful in South East Asian dishes, but it’s also been found recently to have a number of phytochemicals that seem to have powerful anticancer properties. See? Eating good spicy food IS good for you.
10. Black Pepper
And finally, we come to black pepper. This is perhaps THE backbone of almost all the food I cook. There is no substitute for freshly cracked pepper. The pre-ground pepper is a crime against humanity and should be outlawed. Not that I feel strongly about it.
This spice, along with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and ginger, was a major motivating factor for the Age of Discovery. Flavor is a powerful force.
And that’s my top ten. Runners up are cardamom, fennel, carroway, mustard seed, star anise and more exotic spices like ajowain, kala jeera, fenugreek, juniper berries, Sizhuan pepper and galangal. But that’s a followup post for another day. I hope this has been helpful for you. Remember, cook with whole spices when you can (it really does add subtle depth of flavor), and grind whole spices right before you’re going to use them, if you can.
As far as where I get my spices, often when I go to a larger city I’ll scope out and find any Indian or Middle-Eastern markets, as they often have whole spices in fairly abundant and inexpensive supply. We also sometimes use Penzeys spice catalog. They’re really an amazing supplier of spices, and if you love to cook, you should consider using them as a source for spices if you can.