What defines a spice is not always straightforward. Spices may be roots, bark, seeds, buds, and fruits. Usually they are dried and may be whole or ground. Mostly, spices come from plants which grow in tropical climates. We have compiled this quick guide “Spices – the knowledge” which we hope will be of use in your spicy culinary journey.
A quick guide to spices you may come across
- Ajwain (Trachypermum ammi) – the fruit has a bittersweet taste and a peppery bite. It’s used on breads and in curries, bean dishes and pickles, in India and Africa.
- Allspice (Pimenta dioica) – dried, unripe fruits. They resemble a peppery mix of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Used all over the world in savoury and sweet dishes.
- Amchur (Mangifera indica) – made from unripe mangoes and usually in powder form with a sour, astringent, fruity flavour. Used in curries, marinades and sauces.
- Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum) – greyish brown fruits also known as anise. Used in meat dishes, with shellfish, root vegetables, cabbage, cheese and desserts.
- Annatto (Bixa Orellana) – an orange-red seed often used as a natural colouring. If it’s used in large quantities it can add an earthy flavour to cooking.
- Asafoetida (Ferula assa-foetida) – a tree gum with a strong smell. Its flavour is like garlic when cooked. Used mainly in Indian cooking.
- Black Cardamom (Amomum subulatum) – a fruit dried by partially roasting and smoking. Used in savoury dishes in Nepal, northern India and Pakistan.
- Caraway (Carum carvi) – small ripe fruits with a warm, aromatic flavour. Used in rye bread, goulashes, cakes, biscuits, sauerkraut and desserts.
- Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) – seeds with a sweetish, pungent taste. Used in curries, rice, vegetable and meat dishes, sweet desserts, bread, cakes and biscuits.
- Chilli (Capsicum annuum) – the same spices as paprika, but these are hotter, more pungent varieties. They are used all over the world in a wide range of dishes.
- Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) – indigenous to Sri Lanka and southwest India. It has a sweet aroma. Quills from the inner bark are used in sweet and savoury dishes.
- Cloves (Syzgium aromaticum) – dried flower buds. A sharp, spicy, hot, fruity, numbing taste. Used in spice mixes, baked goods, desserts, pickling, meat dishes.
- Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) – seeds with a citrusy, earthy aroma. Used whole or ground in savoury and sweet dishes, and Indian and Asian spice blends.
- Cubeb (Piper cubeba) – lightly peppery, allspice-like with eucalypt notes. Used in meat and vegetable dishes in Indonesia, North Africa and Sri Lanka.
- Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) – small, dry fruits. A distinctive flavour associated with curries. Used in North African lamb stews and northern European meat dishes.
- Curry leaves (Murraya koenigii) – important in Indian dishes. When bruised they have a musky, spicy aroma. The taste is lemony and a little bitter.
- Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) – the seeds have a caramel-like aroma when cooked, with bitter notes. They’re used in pickles, spice mixes and stews.
- Galangal (Alpinia galangal) – a pungent and peppery root, similar to ginger. It’s characteristic of Thai and Malaysian cooking. Used in soups and curries.
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale) – a fiery, pungent root, particularly when dried. Used in many Asian cuisines in savoury and sweet dishes. In Europe in baking and drinks.
- Grains of Paradise (Amomum melegueta) – from West Africa, hot, and similar to black pepper, but fruity and with more flavour. Related to cardamom and ginger.
- Juniper (Juniperus communis) – berry-like dark purple cones with a pine aroma. Used with meat, cabbage, in marinades. They add a fresh, aromatic, peppery taste.
- Kokum (Garcinia indica) – the black-purple fruit wall is used in sour curries, fish curries and lentil dishes. Particularly, along the western coast of India, and Sri Lanka.
- Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) – fleshy leaf bases and young stems. Mainly in Southeast Asia in curries, stir-fries, soups and stews. It has a subtle lemon flavour.
- Lime Leaf (Citrus hystrix) – they are used in Thai and Vietnamese chicken dishes. And in soups, stews, fish and seafood recipes.
- Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – a root used in confectionery, beer, herbal teas, stews and sauces. It adds a hint of sweetness to savoury dishes.
- Mace (Myristica fragrans) – the red network around the nutmeg seed, with a more delicate flavour, used in the same way. Dried blades can flavour drinks and stocks.
- Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) – a tree resin with a strong taste and floral fragrance. It’s used in sweet dishes and soups and stews in eastern Mediterranean countries.
- Mountain Pepper (Tasmannia lanceolata) – hotter than true pepper, but prolonged cooking reduces its pungency. Leaves and berries are used, fresh and dried.
- Mustard (Brassica nigra, B. juncea & B. alba) – three species of black, brown & white mustard. Used in pickling, sauces, as a condiment, and in Indian cooking.
- Nigella (Nigella satvia) – a black seed with thyme notes and an onion flavour when cooked. It’s used in curries, pickles and sprinkled onto breads.
- Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) – the seed is used ground and freshly grated, in sweet and savoury dishes all over the world. Also, in alcoholic drinks.
- Pepper (Piper nigrum) – the fruits may be green, black or white, all with a sharp, pungent taste. Used in savoury and sweet dishes, as a condiment and a seasoning.
- Pink Pepper (Schinus molle) – ripe fruits are pink or red and have a pungent, resinous, spicy taste. Used in sauces, with fish, poultry and game.
- Paprika (Capsicum annuum) – the same species as chillies, but usually sweet and non-pungent. Adds colour and flavour to a variety of savoury dishes.
- Pomegranate (Punica granatum) – red-pink seeds used as an acidifier in cooking, especially in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.
- Poppy (Papaver somniferum) – blue seeds are slightly nutty and sweet. Used in Europe in baking. White seeds are more mellow and used in India as a thickener.
- Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) – used as a substitute for saffron as a yellow colouring, in spices mixes and teas.
- Saffron (Crocus sativus) – bright red stigmas and styles from fresh flowers. They release a yellow colour in liquid. Used in rice, seafood, semolina and milk puddings.
- Sansho (Zanthoxylum piperitum) – a dried fruit, which is similar to Sichuan pepper. Used in Japan with fatty fish, poultry and meat, and in 7-spice (shichimi togarashi).
- Sesame (Sesamum indicum) – seeds varying from white to brown to black, with a nutty taste when roasted. Used in pastes, on breads, and used as a cooking oil.
- Sichuan Pepper (Zanthoxylum simulans) – a dried fruit with a woody, slightly pungent taste with citrus. Used in Chinese cooking and in Chinese 5-spice blend.
- Star Anise (Illicium verum) – a fruit used in Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking, in curries and meat dishes. Now used in baking, drinks, confectionery and desserts.
- Sumac (Rhus coriaria) – part of the fruit and dark red to purple-red in colour. It has a pleasing sour taste and quite citrusy. It can be used as a substitute for lemon.
- Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) – the inner wall of the fruit is used. It has a sour, fruity aroma and is used as an acidifier in cooking to balance flavours.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa) – a root which is used fresh and as a dried powder. It’s used for colour and in combination with other spices to enhance the flavour.
- Vanilla (Vanilla plantifolia) – a bean-shaped fruit. The seeds are used in desserts, confectionery, drinks, baking, and with seafood and root vegetables.
- Zedoary (Curcuma zedoary) – a root with a pleasant musky taste, used in India, China and Southeast Asia. It’s used fresh
Eight ways to use spices
Spices can be used in a variety of ways. They may enhance flavours, or add aromas, add colour and change textures.
Infuse flavour into vinegars and oils using whole spices
Dry Roast whole spices to create different flavours
Fry whole spices in oil to release their essential oils
Grind whole spices into powders for easy use and to change textures
Blend ground spices into mixes for amazing flavour combinations
Rub ground spices into meat and fish for taste
Marinate meat and fish with spices combined with oil or yoghurt
Spice categories according to flavour and aroma
Deciding which spice to add to a dish can be a bit daunting. There are so many! It’s true, there’s a lot to learn if you want to build up the complex flavours of Indian dishes. But you can start by just adding a single spice to a dish you cook regularly and are familiar with. To help with your choice we’ve put the spices into categories according to their dominant flavour and aroma.
- Nutty spices – nigella, poppy, sesame
- Sweet spices – cassia, cinnamon, coriander, juniper, paprika, pink pepper, vanilla
- Acidic and fruity spices – amchur, kokum, pomegranate, sumac, tamarind
- Citrus spices – galangal, lemongrass, lime leaf
- Liquorice or anise spices – anise, liquorice, star anise
- Warm and earthy spices – annatto, black cardamom, caraway, cardamom, cumin, curry leaves, mace, nutmeg, saffron, turmeric, zedoary
- Bitter or astringent spices – ajwain, fenugreek, mastic, safflower
- Pungent spices – allspice, asafoetida, chilli, cloves, cubeb, ginger, grains of paradise, mustard, mountain pepper, pepper, sansho, sichuan pepper