Spices can be intimidating: Not everyone knows sambaar from za’atar. What’s an inquisitive cook to do?
First, relax: The most important thing is that once you have the basis for the blend, you can get creative. After all, a garden-variety curry is a spice blend. Ever used Bay seasoning or a barbecue rub? Then you’ve used a spice blend.
But since there is something inherently mysterious and exotic about spices, here’s a primer on a few blends you might not have tried. Once you get familiar, use your favorite spice blends to cook Sweet Potato Ravioli from Doug Turbush of Seed Kitchen and Bar and Cocoa-Crusted Rack of Lamb from Deborah VanTrece of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours at myajc.com.
Adobo: An all-purpose Latin spice mix used for everything from beans to broccoli, it’s a blend of garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, black pepper, citrus peel and Mexican – not Mediterranean – oregano.
Chinese Five-Spice: The spice blend of star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves and Sichuan peppercorns is well-known by name to most cooks. Use it with fatty meats such as duck or pork shoulder to bring out the anise and fennel flavors.
Duqqa (also dukkah): A toasty blend from Egypt and northeastern Africa of nuts (usually hazelnuts) or chickpeas, seeds, (such as cumin, coriander and sesame) spices (like black pepper) and herbs (dried mint) used as a dip for bread or veggies. Really more a condiment than a spice blend, it’s a little like more widely known hummus. Try spreading it on toasted bread with melted dark chocolate for a tasty starter.
Furikake: A classic Japanese blend of sesame seeds, nori, bonito flakes and dried anchovies and shrimp used as a flavoring for rice. Shake things up by trying it on French fries, popcorn, or steamed veggies.
Masalas: Various Indian spice blends from chana and chaat to garam and kala, these mixes are as common as curry, but lack a curry’s heat from chilies and the base of turmeric, according to Tony Hill, owner of World Merchants Spice, Herb & Tea House in Seattle, and author of “The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices” (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). They often contain cinnamon and/or cardamom, making them perfect for baked goods and cream-based desserts.
Mitmita: A fiery orange-red Ethiopian blend of African bird’s eye chile peppers mixed with cardamom pods, cloves, often cinnamon and ginger, and sometimes cumin. Traditionally used with beef, try it with stews and soups, or mix with yogurt for a spicy dip.
Ras el hanout: Like an Indian curry, each Moroccan ras el hanout is as different as the cook who makes it. But it’s most often a blend of “sweet” spices such as cardamom, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon, as well as black pepper and chile peppers. Try it as a new flavor in squash dishes or casseroles, or as a spice seasoning for fruit pies (like apple or pumpkin) or caramel, butterscotch and chocolate desserts and pastries.
Togarashi: This Japanese blend of chilies is used as a condiment in much the same way Westerners might use salt and pepper, mixed with orange or tangerine peel, seaweed flakes, ginger, sesame seeds and poppy seeds. Use it for firing up chicken wings, salad dressings or grilled meats or add it to barbecue sauce to heat things up.
Za’atar: An ancient Middle Eastern herbal blend of hyssop, sumac, sesame and salt; the name is also the Arabic word for thyme, which is often included in modern recipes of the blend. Use it on grilled meats or chicken or add it to that old-fashioned French onion dip we all know and love (it’s great with yogurt and other dairy).
How well you you know your spices? Take this quiz to find out how spice savvy you are: