The A-Z of Spices

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Found in India, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the seeds are sold whole and are best known for their use in Bombay mix as well as other snack foods and bread mixes.

A member of the myrtle family with strong hints of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves they are also known as Jamaican peppercorns. Buy them whole when possible and grind when required to maximize the flavour. Used in many sweet baking recipes, chutneys and mincemeat, try adding some to whole black peppercorns before grinding to give your standard pepper a twist.

Otherwise known as mango powder, unripe mangoes are left to dry in the sun before being ground to a fine powder and flavoured with ground turmeric. Used in curries, chutneys and soups.

Small red seeds used in the cookery of the Philippines for flavour and colour, also known as achuete.

Grown throughout the world from Central America to Russia and North Africa they have a wonderful sweet aroma and are used in a number of sweet preparations, breads and drinks such as Pernod and Ricard. Goes great with Duck, soups and fish dishes in moderation.

A derivative of the giant fennel, also known as ‘devils dung’, in its natural state it has an unpleasant aroma, which is lost when cooked. A common ingredient in the vegetarian cookery of India and Afghanistan.

Commonly used in rye bread, sausages, cabbage dishes and soups and particularly in goulash, a staple of German and Eastern European cooking. Similar in aroma to fennel or aniseed it is a useful aid to digestion.

There are three varieties of cardamom; green, black and white. The green cardamom is the best known and a staple of Indian cookery. Black cardamom has a unique smell and taste that requires a long cooking process. Used in both sweet and savoury dishes, always buy them whole then bruise the pods to get to the small seed inside. When making garam masala, simply dry fry or roast the seeds before crushing them in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar.

Found in Burma, Indochina, Central America, the Indies and China it is often confused with cinnamon. Used in Chinese five spice and red braised meat dishes it is coarser and more pungent than cinnamon. Cassia comes from the tree of the same name where the bark is stripped and dried.

There are some 150 varieties of chilli which are measured for heat in Scoville units. On this scale the sweet bell pepper measures 0 whilst the habanero of Mexico scores 300,000! For more information on this vast subject please view our section in Home Grown.

Native of Sri Lanka the quills of the bark are rolled into neat cylinder shapes (unlike Cassia) and used across the culinary map. Use the quills rather than the powder when possible-especially good in meat stews, breads and hot sweet preparations.

The use of cloves dates back more than 2,000 years by the Chinese and the Romans. These are dried flower buds from tropical trees found in Southeast Asia. Use sparingly as they are very strong.

Also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley, every part of the plant is used. The root is used in curry pastes, the leaf in soups, sauces and stews and the dried seed roasted and ground for dry spice mixes.

There are two types of cumin seed; black and white although black cumin is not the true cumin and is often confused with nigella or black caraway. The seed is preferable to the ready ground, dry fry the seed and crush them as required. A staple of Indian and North African food.

Usually sold dried in countries outside their native Asia they are essential to Indian curries when they are fried in oil until crisp. Add to lentil dishes and curry pastes.

There are many varieties of curry powder, each reflecting a country or region where that particular blend of spices comes from. For truly authentic Asian food buy the whole seeds and grind them yourself. Generally speaking it is a mix of cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger and pepper.

Grown throughout Europe, America, North Africa and India the pale green oval seed has an aroma similar to anise. Crush the seed and use in sweet and savoury dishes, it is also used in Chinese five spice and Sri Lankan curries.

Grown in warm climates from the Mediterranean to Morocco, an essential to curries where the seeds are fried whole, particularly good with fish curries where the leaves are also used.

Used widely in Chinese cookery it is a combination of cinnamon, cloves, sechuan pepper, fennel and star anise. Used in red braised meat dishes, spare ribs and desserts.

There are two main varieties; lesser and greater which are found in South-east Asia, the lesser galangal is the stronger and they are used extensively in the food of the region. Commonly found dry outside of Asia use it to flavour soups and stews. The fresh root is peeled and sliced or pounded into a paste.

A blend of dry spices used in Indian cookery, usually a combination of cumin, bay leaves, coriander, peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves.

A tropical plant growing to a height of 3 feet it is grown in China, India, Australia and Jamaica. Used in many forms from dried whole root, to ground and pickled, crystallized and preserved stem in a huge range of sweet and savoury dishes. When buying the fresh root ensure the skin is smooth and thin, old ginger is tough and fibrous and difficult to slice.

Used extensively in Thai food, particularly in soups and fish curries, fresh leaves are a dark glossy green although they do dry very well.

An aromatic Asian plant also cultivated in South America, Australia, Africa and America, the stems have a tough outer husk which should be removed before slicing or bruising the bulbous end. Used to flavour soups, curries, and salads it has a strong citrus taste that can overpower.

Both come from different parts of the fruit of the nutmeg tree, a tall tropical tree. The fruits are similar in size and shape to an apricot and have a very distinct aroma. Nutmegs are sold whole or ground and mace as ground or whole blades, delicious in savoury egg and milk based dishes, cakes, biscuits and soups.

There are three types of mustard seed, black, brown and white, the latter is actually yellow in colour. The seeds are used in many Indian recipes and are usually cooked in hot oil until they ‘pop’ before being stirred into dals and vegetable dishes. There are of course many types of wet mustards from many countries, particularly good are; English, Dijon, Meux and German.

A wonderful spice made from varieties of mild peppers. Used extensively in Hungarian and Spanish cooking, most famously in goulash it is also excellent with fish and lamb dishes. Try the smoked Spanish paprika but use sparingly.

The king of the spice world it has been used for centuries and is the berry of a tropical vine. Black pepper is the green berry which has been sun dried until black, white peppercorns come from the same plant but the berries are soaked in water for several days before being dried. Fresh green peppercorns are used in a number of Thai dishes and the pickled ones in the classic French steak sauce ‘au poivre’.

Used as a thickening agent in Indian curries, also used in breads and pastries.

The world’s most expensive spice obtained from the stamens of the saffron crocus. To produce one pound in weight requires over 225,000 stigmas- all hand-picked. Infuse the strands in a little warm water before using and beware of cheap imitation saffron which has little use. It is better to spend more on the best quality and the yield will be greater. Used in Indian, Spanish, Italian and North African cookery.

The number one seasoning agent we cannot live without. Used to preserve meat and fish as well as improve their flavour there are a number of varieties to choose from. Maldon salt from England is excellent as is the coarse French Geurande. As well as celery salt there are other ways to flavour your own salt, try adding crushed sechuan pepper, fennel seeds or cloves and use to flavour meat dishes or freshly cooked vegetables.

From Southern India, it is a blend of split beans and peas,chillies, turmeric, coriander, cumin and fenugreek.

Tiny, flat black and white seeds from the tall, tropical herbaceous plant it has a number of uses. The Chinese use sesame in a number of dishes, particularly the oil, a light brown colour made from roasted white sesame seeds. Tahini is a ground sesame paste which can be mixed with garlic and lemon juice and served as a dip.

Ground sumac is used widely in Middle Eastern cookery, with fish, meat and potato dishes. It grows wild with the berries from the bush picked before ripe and dried before use.

Tamarind is a tropical tree, which is native to East Africa

Fresh turmeric is similar in size and shape to ginger. Inside the root the colour is a brilliant orange-yellow with a musky flavour. Outside of its native Asia and Africa it is most commonly found in the ground form and as an important component of curry powder. Use carefully and be sure to allow enough cooking time for the harsh flavour to mellow.

Originally from Mexico, it is now cultivated in Madagascar and the Seychelles and is used predominately in sweet dishes. The long, slender pods are cut in half lengthways and the seeds scraped out with a sharp knife. Used to flavour milk puddings, ice creams, sugars and cakes. Also found in crème de cacao and Galliano.

Very strong green horseradish used by the Japanese where it is found high up near mountain streams. Best known as an accompaniment to sushi.