Spices of the Middle East a guide

The first thing I do in a new country is to check out the herb and spice aisle in the shops and acquaint myself with a new cuisine. Spices can also bring the world to us with their distinctive flavours and aromas along with an interesting history. Spices in the Middle East have been used for many purposes other than culinary for centuries.

Spices date back aeons and some of the first evidence of spice use goes back as far as 50,000 BC. Early spice traders in 2000 BC were trading pepper and cinnamon throughout the Middle East. Archaeological evidence has shown that many cultures used these medicinally as well as in food and of course in the case of the Egyptians as embalming ingredients.

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History of spices in the Middle East

The earliest uses of spices and herbs were usually traditional as in medicine and magic. Later when religions became established they used herbs and spices in their rituals. One of the first spices found in an archaeological dig was a clove that was found in a kitchen around 1700 BC in the Middle East.

Arabic spice merchants travelled the spice route through India and the Middle East and the port city of Alexandria in Egypt and North Africa became the main spice centre as the overland routes were perilous and long.

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It was Venice that controlled the spice routes and as a result, Venetians became immensely wealthy from the 8th century to the 15th. Food historians estimate that the most popular spice – pepper – was the biggest import at around 1000 tons. All other spices combined added up to around 1000 tons in total.

Spices of the Middle East at a spice market bags of multicoloured spices

Archaeological and historic data shows that papyri found in ancient Egyptian tombs used health-enhancing herbs such as coriander, fennel, juniper, cumin, garlic and thyme. Records from the construction of the great pyramid of Cheops show that workers ate garlic and onion to ensure good health.

A scroll discovered in Assyria dating back to 668 BC has a list of plants, and seeds used for cooking, health enhancement and personal rituals. These included sesame oil, poppy seeds, garlic, anise, coriander (both the leaf and the seed), sesame seeds, thyme cardamom, cumin, dill, turmeric and saffron.

In Babylonia, the King in around 710 BC grew 64 types of plants in his garden and recorded how to grow and use them. It was believed that the god of the moon controlled medicinal plants and some had to be harvested by moonlight to ensure efficacy. 

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During the ancient Roman Empire, the trade of spices grew exponentially with trading mainly coming from Arabia, spices and olive oil was found in sunken Roman ships. Spice traders supplied items like cinnamon, cassia, pepper, and other spices but kept their suppliers a secret.

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It was Arabic scientists who discovered how to distil flower scents and essential oils and created the techniques that were used for centuries.

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Recommended cookbook:

Olives, Lemons and Za’atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking

Essential Spices of the Middle Eastern Pantry

This is a list of the most common spices used in Middle Eastern foods, what the spice is used in and its flavour. You may want to add these to your spice pantry.

  • Aleppo Pepper
  • Anise
  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Coriander
  • Cumin
  • Fenugreek
  • Mahlab
  • Mastic
  • Mint
  • Nigella
  • Saffron
  • Sumac
  • Zhug a spice paste
  • Harissa a spice paste
  • Rose & Orange waters
  • Baharat
  • Ras el Hanout
  • Za’atar
  • Dukkah
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Aleppo Pepper

Peppers from the Halaby chile plant which when ripe turns a very dark shade of red. It is dried and then ground. Originally from Aleppo Syria, it is now supplied from Turkey

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Aleppo pepper has an earthy flavour but isn’t nearly as hot as the standard cupboard chile flakes. It has much more flavour than heat a sort of cumin flavour with a hint of raisins, citrus and salt.  

Anise

Native to the Mediterranean and Egypt and countries known as the Levant region (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Turkey (Hatay Province), Israel, Jordan, and Palestine) everyone has heard of Anise as it is one of the oldest known spices in the world. A liquorice flavour is often added to candy and alcoholic drinks and is very common in Asian cooking

Cardamom

There are 3 varieties of cardamom, black white and green although white is simply the green pod that has been bleached. This bleaching process gives the pods a sweeter flavour and is used dominantly in Scandinavian baked goods.

In the Middle East cardamom is used in many foods and they make cardamom coffee which I first tried many years ago with my Middle Eastern students.

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Cardamom has quite a complex flavour profile its floral citrus notes have a hint of pepper and mint with a kind of camphor undertone.

Spices of the Middle East - white cardamom pods

Black cardamom is an essential ingredient in North Indian cuisine and it’s stronger with a smoky peppery flavour.

Cinnamon

Sweet and spicy cinnamon has been used for centuries in Middle Eastern foods.  Used in Egypt as early as 2000 BC in the Middle East it is used in drinks, as well as savoury and sweet dishes.

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©Cinnamon trees Dinesh Valke from Thane, India CC BY-SA

Cloves

Most folks know cloves and their strong warm flavours used for drinks, and warming sweets and desserts, particularly around the holiday season. In the middle East, they are used sparingly in soups and stews and to season meats.

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Coriander

In many parts of Europe Cilantro, the green part of the Coriander plant is known as coriander. A herb and spice that grows wild in N. America and America’s cilantro is the preferred term.

All parts of the plant are edible and the seeds are ground to make the spice coriander which has a lemony flavour. The seeds are used in pickling and go particularly well with chicken and fish. The leaves are used predominantly in Mexican and Latin American dishes. Cilantro is a love it or hate it herb as for some people it tastes like soap.

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Cumin

Cumin is a seed that is ground to cumin powder or used whole as a seed. It has a warm fragrant distinctive aroma that adds real depth to bean dishes, stews and meats.

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Fenugreek

A very ancient herb that archaeologists say originated in Iraq but is now dominantly Indian it comes from the same family as soy does. It is used as both a herb a spice and a vegetable. It has a sweet nutty flavour and is often used in remedies for digestive issues, skin concerns and is one of the oldest medicinally used spices.

Mahlab

Not my favourite spice to be honest as it kind of tastes like marzipan and I have an aversion to that almondy sweetness. Mahlab’s origin is the Middle East and it is a type of cherry plant whose seeds are extracted and ground to a powder. It is used mainly in sweet dishes and baked goods.

Mastic

An interesting product that is originally from Greece. It’s a resin that comes from a specific tree. These days mastic comes from one place in Greece on the island of Chios.  Used in Lebanon it is added to jams, puddings and custard as it gives a gelatin-like texture. As a flavour, it’s resin-like with a strong aroma.

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Mint

A very well known herb mint is used in cooking, medicinal products, candy, vegetable dishes and a variety of Middle Eastern dishes. Yoghurts are often flavoured with mint as well as soups, rice and stuffed grape leaves. Mint tea is one of the most popular beverages in the Middle East.

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There are two types of mint, spearmint which is sweeter and more cooling and peppermint which has a higher level of menthol and so is stronger.

Nigella Seed

Also known as black cumin and kalonji nigella belongs to the buttercup family of flowering plants and is a pretty plant with a tiny blue flower. The seeds have a slight onion flavour and are sometimes called onion seeds but they are not from the same family as onions. The most common uses are in bread and cheeses as well as lentil and vegetable recipes.

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Saffron

Saffron the most expensive spice in the world has to be hand-picked from the saffron crocus. Most of today’s saffron comes from Iran. Saffron adds a sweetish hay-like flavour to rice dishes, baked goods and recipes like paella in Spain and tagines in the Middle East.

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If you get a chance to try Persian food make sure you have Saffron Rice it is on a whole different level.

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Sumac

There are 250 types of Sumac so don’t try and dry the berries from any old sumac tree. The spice is a red or purplish-red powdered spice made from the berries of the Sicilian sumac which is also known as the tanner’s sumac. The spice has a fruity sour flavour and is often used as an alternative to acids like citrus or vinegar.

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Used as a condiment in the Middle East sumac sits on the table and is added like you would salt. It can be added to any savoury dish and is a key ingredient in fattoush a Middle Eastern bread salad.

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Zhug

Zhug is a middle eastern spice paste or sauce made from red or green hot peppers seasoned with coriander, garlic, salt, black cumin (optional) and various spices. Some also add caraway seed. Zhug may be red or green depending on the type of peppers used

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©Sacrepan / CC BY-SA

Harissa

Harissa is a hot chile paste from North Africa that a lot of us have used to spice up our cooking. The ingredients include hot peppers, garlic, coriander (the ground seed), cumin and olive oil. It is spicy and has tons of flavour.   

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Rose and Orange blossom waters

The delicates scents and flavours of roses and orange blossoms perfume these must-have floral waters. Used in many Middle Eastern desserts such as muhalabieh a milk custard, rice puddings, rosewater cakes and rice.     

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Middle East Spice Blends

Baharat

Ingredients: black pepper, coriander, paprika, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, cloves, and cinnamon

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A spice blend in every Middle Eastern home baharat means “spices” and it is used with any kind of meat, fish or poultry as well as in soups and stews.

Ras El Hanout

Ingredients: cinnamon, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, chilli peppers, clove, dried ginger, sweet & hot paprika, fenugreek and turmeric, cardamom, mace, allspice, dry ginger, pepper.

Ras El hanout means “head of the shop” or more simply the best. Hailing from North Africa the blend literally is created by the head of the shop or family and each maker has their own special blend of herbs and spices.

It isn’t spicy but has a warming flavour with a sweet edge. Perfect for those traditional tajines and stews.

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Za’atar

Ingredients: dried thyme, dried oregano, sumac, sesame seeds and salt

A spice blend whose name in Arabic means thyme and depending on the region may add other spices. For example in Palestine, they add caraway, in Syria, they add sumac to the mix.  

pizza, turkish pizza, turkey

 

I’ve seen recipes for Za’atar pitas where the mix is sprinkled on a pita that has been coated with olive oil and it is often used as a meat marinade or in salads. It has a nutty flavour from the sesame seeds and a kind of citrus herbal flavour from the sumac and dried herbs.

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Dukkah

Ingredients: Mint, thyme, marjoram, nuts such as hazelnuts, sunflower seeds or roasted and crushed chickpeas, coriander, cumin, salt, fennel, nigella, paprika and pepper

Originally from the North African region, dukkah recipes can be highly personal within families. The crunchy tanginess of dukkah pairs well on a salad or in a rice pilaf. It also makes a fantastic crispy topping for fish or chicken.

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 As you can see there is a vast range of spices, herbs and flavourings used in Middle Eastern cooking. Have you tried any of these? If you have what is your favourite?

Spices from the Middle East can add a lot of flavour to your spice pantry and it can be easy to add these spices to your dishes and add layers of flavour.

Do you have a favourite Middle Eastern Spice?

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