Spices can change everything in a dish. They are the dynamics to your music, the accessories to your outfit, the decor to your room. A meal without seasoning is like a blank canvas without paint: but simply add to it a few additional strokes, and you’ve got a whole collage of flavours.
Not only do herbs and spices transform food, but they also have a place as the natural world’s medicines. Cinnamon is great for digestion and balancing blood sugar levels; rosemary boosts memory and concentration; and cayenne pepper can makes colds go disappear. Yet with so many different spices out there, it can be difficult sometimes to know which to use. And there’s nothing more frustrating for a mildly adventurous cook than to stumble across a fantastic recipe, and find that the ingredients include a bunch of herbs and spices you can’t even pronounce, let alone track down in the shops.
Thankfully, there are ways to cut corners: if you don’t have time to track down strange seasonings, or want a lower-budget version of an expensive spice, then there are other substances with which you can fool the palette.
Instead of asafoedita in curries, use onion or garlic powder. A mix of cayenne pepper and ground paprika can be substituted for chipotle powder. Use lemon juice and salt if you can’t source sumac for your kebab meats or salads; and replace harissa with chilli flakes ground with caraway seeds in a few drops of olive oil – or just a hot chilli sauce.
Remember that a little always goes a long way: you don’t want the flavour to be overpowering. This short assemblage of the top five flavours will really improve your meals.
It’s a given: fresh herbs don’t keep well. Basil, coriander, or parsley garnishes are only worth buying if you’re certain that they won’t wilt at the back of the fridge. Dried oregano is popular in middle eastern and Italian cuisine to flavour meats. With its aromatic, slightly bitter flavour, oregano is perfect if you want a herby flavour in soups, on pizzas, or in pasta dishes.
An essential part of many Mexican and Asian dishes, and absolutely necessary to give chilli its musky flavour. A good source of iron and proven to aid digestion, ground cumin has a nutty and peppery flavour. Try adding cumin to stews, vegetable soups, and curries.
Made from crushed red chilli peppers, chilli flakes add a kick to just about anything, and remove the need to buy real chillies and painstakingly (and often painfully) chop them. With added benefits including aiding weight loss and pain relief, chilli flakes are a store cupboard essential. Use sparingly, as a little goes a long way. That way you can work your spice tolerance up.
A milder alternative to chilli flavours, smoked paprika is great for those with a more sensitive palette. Perfect for seasoning meat, sweet potato wedges, and stews. To spice up your morning breakfast and metabolism paprika is also a great addition to eggs in the morning.
Yes, ok, lemons are neither a herb nor a spice, but fantastic for giving food a citrusy zing. Great with fish, in salads, and in some curries and Mexican dishes. Rather than buying lemons whole which can often go off, bottled lemon juice is readily available in supermarkets and will keep in the fridge for longer.