In my spice class, I review close to thirty different spices. That’s about one spice every minute. And then I talk about a dozen different spice blends. And I preface everything by saying that I barely scratch the surface of the world of spice available to us.
Spice blends are an iconic representation of their respective cuisines. Garam Masala is unmistakably Indian, and anyone can tell you that Cajun spices are fiery. Ras Al Hanout (“Rosh Hachanut” the “Head of the Shop”) is a mixture brought to us by our brethren who were chased from their homes in Morocco. Jamaican jerk seasoning is sweet and hot. Chinese Five Spice balances the five flavors of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and earthy.
Recipes for spice blends often handed down in families, jealously guarded secrets that are pitted against one another in competitions. Ironically, spice blends are the least consistent ingredients in an otherwise “authentic” dishes.
We are taught that when Yosef was sold into slavery, his brothers gave him over to a caravan carrying spices, which Hashem coordinated to save the tzadik from the foul odor of their usual cargo, naphtha. Spices were an integral part of the daily Temple service. Spices fueled global exploration, bringing the remote, exotic flavors of distant lands to Europe. The use of spices in food was the hallmark of wealth.
More prosaically, spices were used to mask the flavors of meats past their prime. They made their way into curing mixtures to add flavor to preserved meats. Nowadays, you can walk into your local supermarket and have a surfeit of international flavors conveniently packaged in little shaker bottles.
When buying spices, you want to get whole spices rather than ground whenever possible. If you need to buy already ground spices like paprika or garlic powder, you should get enough spices to last you no more than a couple of months, and buy from a place that is busy; quicker turnaround means fresher spices.
Below are a list of some popular spice blends from around the globe. Use them as inspiration for your next
Montreal Steak Seasoning – with origins in the kosher delis of Montreal, this is a piquant blend of coriander, black pepper, salt, cayenne and a few other flavors is now popular all over the world.
Jamaican Jerk – allspice and hot peppers are the stars of this Caribbean spice blend.
Kansas BBQ – brown sugar caramelizes as the meat slow cooks, and cayenne pepper delivers a punch.
Caronlina BBQ – hints of cumin give this style of barbecue a deep, earthy flavor.
Espresso Rub – espresso, mustard, brown sugar and paprika are the main ingredients in this deep-flavored blend.
Au poivre – plain cracked black pepper is the simplest of spice rubs, and one of the spiciest.
Berbere – an Ethiopian spice blend with paprika, cinnamon and chile pepper.
Cajun – cayenne pepper is balanced with sweet basil, earthy oregano and garlic.
Ras Al Hanout – cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, and ginger can be found in most versions, but the varieties are endless.
Hawaij – popular in Israel as a soup seasoning, it uses turmeric, cumin and cardamom, among other flavors.
Chinese Five Spice – Szeshuan peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, star anise and fennel seed.
Quatre Epices – white pepper, ginger, cloves and nutmeg are the four ingredients in this classic french spice blend.
Panch Phoron – fenugreek seed, nigella seed, cumin seed, black mustard seed and fennel seed. This Bengal mixture isn’t ground; the seeds are actually used whole.
For more spice blend ideas, visit my recipe section for spice blends. Use my recipes as a starting point and adjust them to the tastes of your family.
One of the most important points I want to leave you with is this: commercial blends will more often than not have salt as the main ingredient. Because it’s cheap, salt can improve the bottom line of the company more than it can improve the flavor of your food.