A Spicy Kitchen
Spices here are non-leafy parts of plants that are added to foods for their taste. (Leafy parts are herbs.)
Many spices contain anti-microbial compounds that can assist to preserve food, others are used to
change the texture of foods (add crunch, thicken liquids), still others as food colorants,
perfumes, medicines, components of religious rituals or philosophies. Many were valued in the
past to cover up unwanted tastes in food before modern refrigeration allowed us to keep foods
indefinitely. However, this being the modern world, I focus on taste treats.
Here are the ones I've tried so far:
- allspice is the fruit of Pimenta dioica, a tree native to the central Americas. It got
its name because its flavour combines elements of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. I often use it in
spice cakes, sometimes on eggnog instead of the traditional nutmeg.
- anise is the fruit of the Asiatic annual herb Pimpinella anisum, found wherever Romans
roamed. Sugar coated it's the Dutch treat muisjes, its anethole oil is used to flavour many
alcoholic drinks. I love it sprinkled on cookies just before
baking so the lipids in the cookie batter don't blur its clear flavour.
- star anise is the fruit+pericarp of Illicium velum, an evergreen tree native to
southern China. It's taste is more solid and woody than anise seed and is the flavour North
Americans now know as licorice candy. Cheaper to grow than anise, it's used commercially to
make anise oil.
- annatto is mostly used for the red colour you see every time you buy orange cheddar
cheese and in Mexican achiote paste. It's almost impossible to grind; its red colour can be
extracted by warming 1 part berries in two parts oil for half an hour. The taste of annatto pastes
(achiote) always focus on other spices.
- asafoetida, also known as hing, is latex exuded from the root of Ferula asafoetida, a
perennial herb native to Iran's deserts and Afghanistan's mountains. It's a dark brown resin with
a fetid smell that fills a house almost instantly. If it's yellow with moderate smell, it's
"compounded" (adulterated) and anything goes: if it's labelled "100%", that means 100% compounded
powder, not 100% resin. By taste tests I estimate my "100%" is at most 10% resin; one package I
found at a local Indian store was actually labelled 0.1%! A pinch (1/8 tsp, 0.3 g) of
compounded powder fried in ghee is used in just about every Indian dish whose cook follows the
Ayurvedic belief system.
- caper is the flower bud of the Mediterranean shrub Capparis spinosa, salted and pickled
so it forms rutin, a citrus flavonoid glycoside with the special taste that is irreplaceable with
salmon and works well with chicken too.
- capsicum: The fruit of most species of Capsicum contains capsaicin, a chemical
that produces a strong burning sensation in the mouth. Their potency is measured in Scoville Heat
Units (SHU) and range from 0 (sweet bell) to 16M (pure capsaicin). Most are cultivars
of the malleable annual species C.annuum. They are usually sold fresh in an immature green state,
fully ripened red being reserved for drying. The ones I have are:
- sweet bell is grown locally; I buy it fresh, remove seeds and membranes, dice, freeze
pieces separately, then store it airtight in a freezer for use all year in salads. SHU 0
- pimento is red sweet bell flesh with no seeds, membranes or skin, usually sold dried or
post-drying-reconstituted in water. I prefer frozen sweet bell. Usually SHU 100 or less
- paprika is often so mild it's used more as an orange colouring than for its taste. I
prefer the rich taste of Hungarian smoked. SHU 0-500
- smoked paprika is a major part of Hungarian cuisine, the best is considered to
come from there. A good one is loaded with smoky taste. SHU 100-900
- ancho is dried ripe (red) poblano. SHU 1k-2k
- jalapeño is a distinct genetic clade of C.annuum with lots of unique taste.
This is also grown locally and I store it the same way as sweet bell. SHU 2k(green)
- isot, also called urfa pepper after the Turkish region that makes it. Lots of earthy
taste, completely different from smoked, moderate heat. SHU 3k-8k
- chipotle is smoke-dried red jalapeño. Concentrated uniquely jalapeño
taste with a hint of smoke and moderate heat. SHU 3k-10k
- cayenne, C.baccatum. Pure heat; chipotle is far more interesting. SHU 30k-50k
- habanero, Capsicum chinense, the hottest natural capsicum and far too hot to interest
me. SHU 100k-250k
- caraway is the fruit of the biennial Carum carvi native to Europe and nearby Africa and
Asia. It's synonymous with rye bread, I use it in all kinds of breads.
- green is the immature seed+husk of Elettaria cardamum, a perennial herb native to
southern India. It has a wonderful fragrance; I use 1-2 crushed pods per cup of flour in sweet
breads. If the seed is allowed to mature, the pod turns white and the seed black; at this stage
a higher percentage of aromatic oils can be extracted but the quality is lower than when the pod
- black/brown, Asian genus Amomum
- Chinese is the mature seed of Amomum costatum, a perennial herb from the
mountainous region where Laos, Vietnam and China join. Also known as cao guo and tsaoko, it's
a nutmeg-sized cousin of Nepal cardamom; its individual seeds are more angular than those of
Nepal. It's taste has appreciably more bite than Nepal cardamom.
- Nepal is the mature seed of Amomum subulatum, a perennial herb native to
Nepal and the surrounding high mountains. I like Nepal to add to coffee and keep it in a
grinder for that.
- Madagascar, African genus Afromomum. This genus is currently a taxonomic mess. Two
species (see melegueta-pepper below) have always been sold as peppers; most species are called
alligator pepper when sold in the husk. Traditionally, Madagascar cardamom, A.angustifolium,
was the sole spice from this group sold as cardamom, but recent explorations have uncovered what
may be others, notably Ethiopian/Atico cardamom (A.daniellii?), and 'sweet alligator pepper'
with no bite whatsoever, just a powerful lemon taste.
- carom, ajwain in the Middle East, is the fruit pod of Trachyspermum ammi, an annual
herb native to India and Arabia. It's widely used in Indian vegetable cooking and mine and is
spectacularly fragrant added to pancakes.
- celery seed is the fruit of Apium graveolens, common celery, a biennial herb native to
the Mediterranean. Its slightly bitter flavour goes well on potato dishes, salads and soups.
- chia is the seed of the annual herb Salvia hispanica native to southern Mexico. It
contains 15% short-chain omega-3 and swells in water like tapioca. Not much taste, and its touting
as a miracle food has pushed its price to absurd levels.
- cinnamon is the bark of the evergreen Cinnamomum cassia tree native to southern China.
There are 3 other species of Cinnamomum but C.cassia has the strongest flavour and it stands up to
cooking the best. C.verum, a similar tree native to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), has a market due to its
botanical name ('real' cinnamon) and confusion of coumarin with Coumadin; I find its taste has
less cinnamon and more wood than C.cassia and prefer the latter.
- clove is the dried flower bud of the tree Syzygium arometicum native to the Indonesian
Spice Islands; it played a large part in the spice trade and wars since antiquity. It's commonly
used to spice meats and fruit dishes; I confess to using it only on hams as I prefer the taste of
allspice in most baking.
- coriander is the fruit of Coriandrum sativum, an annual herb native to northern Africa.
It's used worldwide, often paired with cumin; I use it with rice and cooked vegetables.
- cumin is the dried fruit of Cuminum cyminum, an annual herb native to the eastern
Mediterranean and western Asia but now spread worldwide. It finds major use in Indian cooking
particularly in curries; I use it in breads and rice pilaf.
- dagad phool has no flavour by itself, to me at least, but is held to add to other
flavours in South Indian cuisine when heated in oil. (I can't detect that effect either.) It's a
lichen, Parmelia perlata, possibly the only one used as a spice although many lichen are used as
- dill seed is the seed+pod of Anethum graveolens, an annual herb native to eastern
Europe. I like it in white rice dishes, it's also popular in soups.
- fennel is the seed-like fruit of Foeniculum vulgare, a perennial herb native to southern
Europe. It's taste comes largely from anethole, also found in anise and star anise. I use it in
- fenugreek is the dried seed of Trigonella foenum-graecum, an annual herb native to the
eastern Mediterranean. It's a common part of Indian curries; I use it in
- flax seed comes in brown or golden varieties; in either case it's the seed of the annual
herb Linum usitatissimum that exists only in cultivation as a source for the fibers used in linen.
It contains 23% omega-3 oils; the seed coat must be broken before eating to digest them. Not much
taste to me and as an older male I can't use the short-chain omega-3.
- galangal is the root of Alpinia galanga, a relative of ginger native to southern Asia.
It's used in Thai cuisine in a similar way to ginger. Dried root has no taste to me and won't
reconstitute even with simmering. Fresh, it has a brief sharp bite with very little undertaste
and even the bite vanishes with cooking. The remaining taste is nice but a lot of root is needed
to contribute to a recipe.
- garlic is the bulb of the perennial herb Allium sativum, originally native to central
Asia. It's grown locally so I buy it fresh, freeze the bulbs whole and store them airtight in the
freezer. Separate cloves as needed from frozen bulbs, peel each by firm rubbing with a warm thumb
before they thaw, chop or grate with a microplane, and use in every kind of stew. Fast-order-cook
peeling technique is to smash each bulb into cloves against the counter with cupped hand, dump
everything into a covered bowl then shake furiously for a few seconds. However, I find the peeled
cloves don't keep as well in the freezer as unpeeled ones.
- ginger is the rhizome of the perennial herb Zingiber officinale, native to southern
China. The bite is from gingerols, produced when the root is dried or cooked. Young root is
soft and mild and sold in Ottawa food stores; I store it airtight in a freezer and grate it
(keeping it frozen) with a microplane as needed. A universal ingredient in Chinese cooking, I keep
it in root form for stews, smoke-dried for gingerbread, and
candied for cakes, breads and cookies.
- Indian gooseberry, amla in India, is the fruit of Phyllanthus emblica, a deciduous tree native
from southern China south to Australia. I like its unique slightly-bitter fruity flavour in rice,
a Tbsp powder/cup, and ignore the Ayurvedic theology that surrounds it.
- hemp seed comes from the annual dioecious wind-pollinated herb Cannabis portal native to
western Asia. Hemp and culinary seeds are produced from varieties selected for low levels of THC,
the psycho-active ingredient. Not enough taste to be worth the price.
- horseradish is the root of the perennial herb Armoracia rusticana. Originally from the
Mediterranean-Black Sea area, it now grows world-wide. In Canada's Eastern Townships, this is
the first fresh vegetable to come up in spring, and was gratefully eaten raw a century ago as a
relief from long-stored cabbage, usually the only vegetable that survived a long winter in storage
before modern refrigeration and shipping. It's normally sold pickled in vinegar to preserve its
mustard oil and is ladled on to roast beef, but it's a great addition to sandwiches and salad
- juniper 'berries' are the female cones of Juniperus communis, a dioecious shrubby
evergreen circumpolar in the northern hemisphere, and are mostly used to flavour gin. They were
used by American indigenous peoples as a blood tonic to alleviate symptoms of anemia, to
re-energize the body and as a cure-all for the common cold and other aches and pains. It's a
conversation piece when used to flavour glazes with its hints of pine and peppermint.
- kencur is the root of Kaempferia galanga, a relative of ginger native to Indonesia used
there in a similar way. Dried root has no taste to me; I've not been able to find it fresh.
- lemon zest, Citrus limon. I wrap an entire lemon tightly and freeze it whole, then use
a microplane (keeping the fruit frozen) as needed. Once the zest is gone, I let the fruit thaw
and use it for juice. It, lime or orange zest, gets grated into all kinds of icings or over
salads for a fresh zing and dose of colour.
- lemon-pepper, also called mountain pepper, Taiwan pepper, maqaw or atayal, is the seed
of the evergreen tree Litsea cubeba native throughout south-east Asia. Its taste combines lemony
bite with ginger overtones.
- licorice is the root of the perennial herb Glycyrrhiza glabra native to Eurasia and
northern Africa. Its flavour constituent glycyrrhizin has an upper sharp note and a separate solid
underpinning to its taste that is superficially similar to the anethole of star anise but obviously
different. It's mostly used as an additive to smoking tobacco due to its broncho-dilation action;
'licorice' candies are actually flavoured with star anise now because of the cortisone-like
side-effects of glycyrrhizin. It's neat to see the reaction of guests to real-licorice icing,
obviously licorice but not the one they're used to.
- lime zest, Citrus aurantifolia, used the same ways as lemon.
- fermented locust seed, called dawadawa or sumbala, is from Parkia biglobosa, a tree
found throughout Africa although it's fermented only in northern Ghana. It has a moderately pungent
odour until cooked in soups and stews, where I don't find it contributes usefully to taste.
Unfermented it's carob, used as a chocolate substitute.
- mace is the aril surrounding nutmeg fruit. It's traditionally used in pound cakes; I
- mahleb is the seed kernel of Prunus mahaleb. It's the bread spice of the south coast
of the Mediterranean, 1/4-1/2 tsp fresh ground per cup of flour in breads.
- sour mango is the dried unripe fruit of Mangifera indica, amchoor in India. It's mildly
sour, fruity and tangy, fitting well with potato or chickpea dishes at 2 Tbsp powder/cup,
blending well with the carom+coriander that's usual with them.
- melegueta-pepper, Aframomum melegueta, from Ghana has a bit more more gingerol bite
than its cousin Nigerian A.granum-paradisi, but has a very similar complex taste otherwise. Both
are more interesting fresh ground as a garnish than the ubiquitous black pepper. A.melegueta has
a tuft of pale-coloured fibers projecting from the seed umbilicus,
A.granum-paradisi doesn't. Both of these, and several others as well, are sold as grains of
paradise when in seed form, but as alligator pepper when sold as pods.
Historically, A.melegueta was traded overland from Ghana to the Mediterranean as African pepper
in Roman times, but the medieval spice came via the new sea trade with Nigeria and was
A.granum-paradisi according to Kew (England) herbaria.
matches my botanical sources here in Ottawa Canada. Most modern cooks using 'grains of paradise'
will be using A.melegueta since Ghana's production is now far greater than that of Nigeria.
The heat of mustard is degraded by heat, acid and time, so the hottest mustard of any type
is made by grinding with cold water and using after 10-15 minutes. Some find mustard this fresh
to be bitter, but I love it.
- black is the seed of the annual herb Brassica hirta native to Eurasia and adjacent
Africa and makes the strongest paste.
- brown is the seed of the annual herb Brassica juncea native to northwest India. It
has almost as much bite as black, is used for Dijon mustard, and is my favourite. I keep it in
its own pepper grinder on the counter for use on anything with a damp surface that will activate
the enzyme reaction, such as freshly washed salads.
- white is the seed of the annual herb Sinapis alba native to the Mediterranean. The
mildest mustard, it's made even milder in the USA by the addition of acid and turmeric for use on
cold meats, hot dogs in particular.
- nigella is the seed of Nigella sativa, an annual herb native to south&west Asia.
Its pungent bitter aftertaste, best lightly roasted, goes well with curries and bean dishes.
- nutmeg is the fruit of Myristica fragrans. I grind mine fresh as needed on a
traditional grater onto the top of cakes or drinks, especially eggnog.
- orange zest, Citrus sinensis, used the same ways as lemon but especially useful
true peppers are members of the tropical genus Piper; most are vines whose fruits
contain piperine, an alkaloid with a pungent taste. I have:
- ashanti, the dried fruit of P.guineense native to west Africa, is pungent with a
- black, the dried unripe fruit of P.nigrum native to Southern Asia. Tellicherry corns
are those larger than 4.25 mm diameter; larger corns have less piperine but more aroma, which
I prefer. The best is supposed to come from northern India.
- cubeb, the dried unripe fruit of P.cubeba, an evergreen shrub native to Indonesia, is
mildly pungent, somewhat bitter with a woody aroma. Its pungency comes from a lignane cubebin
rather than from piperine.
- longum, the dried inflorescence of P.longum containing its tiny fruits, has a similar
taste to P.nigrum but hotter and was used interchangeably with P.nigrum until after Roman times.
Its size and shape precludes its use in the usual pepper grinders, a mortar&pestle is required.
- white, the mature hulled seed of P.nigrum, with a more earthy flavour and less bite
than black. Corns from Sarawak Malaysia are considered by many to be the best. I prefer its
flavour to black with most foods and keep it in its own pepper grinder on the counter.
- voatsiperifery is the fruit of P.borbonense, a tree parasite native to Madagascar.
- pink-pepper is usually the fruit of Schinus terebinthifolius, native to Brazil,
Argentina and Paraguay; the similar S.molle native to the Peruvian Andes is used mostly for
aromatic oil production. Both are dioecious evergreen trees related to sumacs. It's not at all
peppery to me but its sweet aroma is interesting. It's mostly found as a colourful addition to
peppercorn mixes where it should be used with caution due to its significant levels of toxic
- Tasmanian pepperberry is the dried fruit of Tasmannia lanceolata, a dioecious shrub
native to south-eastern Australia. Initially sweet tasting, its peppery aftertaste comes from
- prekese is the bean of Tetrapleura tetraptera, a tree native to lowland tropical Africa.
It's used especially in palm nut soups and for its aroma when a bit is tossed on cooking fires. I
don't find its nondescript taste useful in food.
- pomegranate seed, anardana in India, is from Punica granatum, a deciduous shrub native
to Iran and northern India. It's a souring agent used in sauces for meats and vegetables.
- poppy seed is the seed of the annual opium poppy Papaver somniferum. Its nutty taste and
light crunchy texture make it a natural for pastries, either in the dough or as a filling; it has
none of the latex that produces opium.
the genus Zanthoxylum of thorny dioecious shrubs has over 200 species; many
are confused in botany and spice stores. Virtually all contain hydroxy alpha sanshool that numbs
the lips and tongue. The fruit husks (pericarp) that contain most of it are used as a spice over
much of Asia. I think the ones I have are:
- red Sichuan (Z.bungeanum). Bright red, it's the most potent of them all, zingy and
fragrant. The best is traditionally considered to come from Qingxi, Sichuan province (south-west
- green Sichuan (Z.schinifolium) Pure green, it's much lower in numbing power than the
others, but with a strong piney/anise taste.
- mah kuan Thai (Z.limonella/Z.rhetsa)
- mogwi Korean (Z.ailanthoides)
- sansho Japanese (Z.piperitum/Z.sansho) grassy odour
- tirphal Indian (Z.rhetsa) citrus lime
- saffron is the stigma+style of the autumn-blooming perennial Crocus sativus, a sterile
monomorphic triploid that probably originated in Greece some four millenia ago and has been
maintained by humans ever since. It gives a unique yellow-orange colour and is best soaked in
water before use. I use it occasionally with rice as a treat for visitors; its taste is subtle,
expensive, and is wasted in any but the most bland of dishes.
- scallion: green onion, the immature form of Allium cepa. I store it airtight in a
freezer and slice off pieces as needed for pancakes, salads or soups.
- selim is the seed+pod of Xylopia aethiopica an evergreen tree native to Ethiopia. A
crushed pod adds a fascinating taste to soups; remove it before serving.
- black sesame is the unhusked seed of Sesamum indicum, an annual herb native to India.
Its nutty flavour is preferred in Asia, especially in meat dishes.
- white sesame is the hulled seed of Sesamum indicum. About 50% oil by weight, it's best
toasted and used to top pastries or be cooked in candies.
- sumac is the fruit of the deciduous shrub Rhus coriaria, native to the eastern
Mediterranean and a common ingredient of za'atar, a common spice mix along the south coast. It
has a sour lemony taste that's neat on salads.
- tamarind is the pulp surrounding the fruit of Tamarindus indica, a massive tree found
in tropical Africa. I use paste, which is usually sold pure; when sold as a powder it's often
heavily adulterated, especially with sugars, so check the label. It has a unique fruity taste
with a sour edge that's excellent for sweet&sour dishes.
- Australian bush-tomato is usually the dried fruit of Solanum centrale, a small shrub
native to northern Australia and known there as kutjera, yakatjiri, akatjurra or desert raisin.
It's the most common 'bush tomato' and has a caramel-like flavour and slightly tangy acidity that
makes a great addition to muffins.
- tonka bean is the seed of Dipteryx odorata, a hardwood tree native to Central America.
It's banned in the US due to confusion between coumarin and Coumadin. The coumarin in tonka smells
and tastes similarly enough to vanillin that it's used to adulterate some vanilla extracts in
Mexico. I prefer the overtones of vanilla bean.
- turmeric is the rhizome of Curcuma longa, a perennial herb native to southern India.
It's almost always sold dried and grated; it gives an earthy, peppery taste and mustard-like aroma
to any plain dish such as rice and a unique colour to just about anything.
- vanilla: Vanillin and over 100 other aromatic chemicals are extracted from beans of Vanilla planifolia with ethanol, double-fold extract is the strongest. Most is grown in Madagascar.
Just about every food made in the USA seems to contain some (usually artificial); I use natural
extract where its flavour can shine such as white cakes, glazes and custards.
- wasabi is the stem of the perennial aquatic herb Wasabia japonicum native to Japan.
Related to horseradish, it tastes different but like it with a hot mustard bite; it's often faked
or adulterated with them to save money so only buy from trusted sources. I use it for variety any
time I'd use mustard. Mix powder with an equal quantity of water; use within 10-15 minutes.
- zereshk is the astringent dried fruit of the deciduous shrub Berberis vulgaris, native
to Eurasia and adjacent Africa. It's high in pectin so is used to make jam; I like it in rice
(a Tbsp/cup rice).
- zedoary is the root of Curcuma zedoaria, a perennial herb native to India and Indonesia
also known as kentjur and white turmeric. It has as strong a bite as good ginger, but is more
Exceptional Spice Sources
- Herbie's Spices:
Ian & Liz Hemphill carry a wide variety of high quality unusual spices and mixes (Australia).
("Herbie's Herbs" has nothing to do with the Australian firm I recommend.)
- Raw Decadance: Cary Cairncross is by far the most
authoritative source of African spices (South Africa)
- Spice Trekkers, Épices de cru, Philippe and Ethné de Vienne travel the world of spices to bring them back to Montreal (Canada)
- The flavour of most spices depends on unusual bio-chemicals. If you are susceptible to food
allergies or intolerances, be careful trying new ones.
- I keep most of my spices whole and grind them as needed. A granite mortar&pestle deals
with most; I keep those most often used for garnishes in individual ceramic-cone pepper grinders.
A blade-type coffee grinder helps with barks and dried roots/husks such as star anise that tend to
just smear a mortar&pestle, but requires care to avoid overheating the spices. A microplane
works well for wet roots: ginger, garlic, shallots.
- I love olive oil for most things, but not for cooking spices: you need ghee, clarified butter,
to reach the temperature required. Basically, boil the water out of unsalted butter then strain
it; you'll find detailed directions on the web. (Don't even try to buy it legally in Canada given
our government-guarded dairy monopolies.) It keeps for years even without refrigeration; I do
refrigerate mine though.
- There is common confusion, particularly in discussions of cinnamon, between the sweet-smelling
coumarin found in some spices and often used in perfumes, with the brand name chemical
Coumadin used for the blood-thinning vitamin-K-antagonist component of Warfarin.
They're totally different chemicals to our bodies.
- Dioecious plants are one sex each, spices are borne only on female plants with a male plant
within pollinating range, essential to know if you try to grow them.
other notes on food