Asking me to write an article naming 10 international spices everyone must have in their pantry is like asking me to name only 10 books I would want if stranded on a deserted island (hint: I love to read). I love spices and nothing makes me happier than seeing rows of bottles filled with pretty colors and smelling all the amazing aromas. Cooking becomes an adventure as different spices can take us to different parts of the world and without a passport. Just by opening a few bottles, we can add complexity and depth to any dish.
The problem is there are so many different spices out there. How do you know which ones to buy? You certainly don’t want to spend a lot of money just to have unopened and unused spices in your cabinet. Spices lose their potency after six months, so unless you are cooking international dishes all the time, buying too many kinds will just lead to waste. So when I had to come up with this list of 10 “must-have” international spices, I thought about the ones I use constantly. I did not include herbs (that could be a whole separate article) nor did I include salt and pepper, which everyone should have. Also not on the list are aromatics such as onion, scallion or garlic. What I did include are the spices that everyone can get a lot of use out of, ones that can be used in more than one ethnic cuisine and the ones that will help you make the most flavorful dishes. So read on and stock up your international spice cabinet.
I have to begin with my all-time favorite spice. Cumin is used in lots of spicy foods, and you will see it used in Indian, Middle Eastern, Eastern, Mexican, Spanish and Portuguese cuisines. Cumin is found in many curry powders, savory spice blends and Latin/Spanish spice blends. Open a jar of cumin, close your eyes and take in its unique aroma. It smells warm, spicy, and sensual. Its flavor is pungent, savory and slightly bitter. Cumin can be bought as seeds or ground into powder.
Use cumin in Mexican/Spanish/Latin dishes such as chile, casseroles, enchiladas and Spanish rice. Try it in my Mexican-Spiced Tofu Scramble and these Jicama Burgers. Cumin adds warmth to Indian dishes like Tempeh in Spicy Onion Curry and Sophie Dal. Moroccan dishes get added flavor from cumin as in my Moroccan Tofu in Lemon-Olive Sauce and this Sweet Potatoes and Chickpeas dish.
Paprika is my next favorite spice. Like cumin, paprika is savory and speaks to those taste buds that love umami flavor. Paprika is native to South America but it is also grown in Europe, particularly in Spain and Hungary. Spanish paprika is mild while Hungarian paprika is much stronger. Paprika is ground from Capsicum or chile peppers and comes in varieties of sweet and smoked. Paprika is a lovely red color and has a warm and sweet aroma. Depending which type of paprika you buy, its flavor can be sweet and mild or strong and smoky. I use it whenever I want to add some savory spiciness to a dish without the heat of cayenne or chile powder.
Paprika is common in Hungarian dishes such as paprikash and goulash. Try using sweet paprika in this Vegan Goulash recipe. Paprika is often found in sausages like these vegan Italian Sausages and in spice blends for seasoning flour used for breading. Smoked paprika is ideal for recipes when you want to add a warm, smoky flavor like this Coconut Bacon, this Middle Eastern Vegan Bake and in barbecue sauces. In India, paprika is used in tandoori dishes, giving the food not only flavor but color as in this Tandoori Tofu.
3. Red Chile Flakes
Red chile flakes, also known as crushed red pepper or red pepper flakes, is my next choice. Made from a variety of red peppers such as ancho, bell and cayenne, you may know this spice from the shaker bottles on the tables at Italian restaurants and pizza places. However, the origin of red pepper flakes is India. While fresh chiles have direct heat and sweetness, dried chile pepper is more full-bodied and smoky. And hot! Red chile flakes are hot. You only need a pinch or two in a recipe to add heat and once you touch them, don’t put your fingers near your eyes (a lesson I learned the hard way) or they will burn.
Red chile flakes are used in pickling, tomato sauces, soups, sausages, salads and pasta dishes. Use it anywhere you want serious heat. It is also a life saver when you want to make a hot Indian or Mexican dish but don’t have fresh chile peppers. Try using crushed red pepper to make Marinara Sauce, Spicy Nachos, and vegan Pepper Jack Cashew Cheese.
4. Chinese 5-Spice Powder
Technically, Chinese 5-Spice Powder is a blend but, unless you are making it yourself, it comes in one bottle. It is a staple in Chinese cooking and there are different varieties, but the most common blend includes star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel and Szechwan peppers. The aroma is heavenly with the star anise dominating the scent as well as the taste. I love this spice so much that I use it in most of my Chinese dishes. Even if I don’t use it in the main dish, I add 5-Spice Powder to my brown rice or chickpea scallion pancakes that get served on the side of my General Tso’s Tofu or Moo Shu Vegetables. Chinese 5-Spice Powder is also used in my Hoisin Black Bean Burgers with Spicy Sesame Sauce as well as in my Chinese 5-Spice Potato Latkes with Plum Hoisin Dipping Sauce. Add 5-Spice Powder to condiments such as ketchup to give them an Asian twist.
5. Garam Masala
Garam Masala is also a blend of spices from India. Garam means “hot” and masala means “spice blend.” Garam Masala is beautifully aromatic with the scent of toasted warm spices. It is said that garam masala increases body temperature and that people feel a warm glow after eating a dish that contains it. That may happen because of the warming spices such as pepper or cinnamon that is in it. Different regions use different blends and in Indian households, garam masala is considered a very personal recipe. Common spices used to make garam masala include coriander, cumin, cardamom, mustard seeds, bay leaves, fennel, fenugreek, black peppercorns, cloves, mace and cinnamon.
You can make your own Garam Masala or buy a bottle and try using it in these Tofu Pakoras and these Sweet Potatoes and Kale Patties. Use it to spice up your ordinary slaw turning it into an Indian Coleslaw or spice up your eggplant to make grilled eggplant steaks. I like to add garam masala to the brown rice I serve on the side of Indian curry dishes. Since garam masala had warming spices similar to baking spices, it is perfect for adding to pumpkin or butternut squash soup and desserts.
6. Curry Powder
Curry powder is a spice mix from South Asian cuisine. There are many varieties of curry powder and most include cumin, coriander, fenugreek, turmeric, chile peppers and garlic. Other blends may have ginger, clove, cinnamon, fennel, cardamom, mustard seeds, nutmeg and black pepper. Don’t be fooled by the name. Not all curries contain curry powder, but curry powder does contain a lot of the spices found in curries. Depending which type you buy (or make), curry can be mild or hot.
Try using curry powder to add rich, deep flavors to your dishes, whether they are Indian or not. Curry powder adds zip in this Tangy Curried Chickpea Salad as well as these Spicy Bean and Coconut Burgers. Make an Indian Curry Spice Rub for your next barbecue or use curry powder to make a creamy, curried ketchup. Of course, use curry powder to make curries such as this Raw Vegan Curry with Marinated Mushrooms and Onions or this Spicy Coconut Curry with Green Beans, Fried Tofu and Bean Sprouts.
I love turmeric so much, I wear it on my clothes. Just kidding … kind of. I do have turmeric on some of my clothes, but that’s because it stains so you need to be careful when using it. Turmeric is an ancient spice native to South East Asia. It is used as a dye in Hindu rituals, as well as a spice. Ground turmeric is commonly used in Indian and Moroccan dishes. Turmeric is often used as a food colorant, making tofu scrambles and Spanish rice yellow (instead of saffron). It is what gives curry powder its color. Turmeric smells earthy and has a warm, aromatic and slightly bitter flavor (especially if you use too much).
Besides tasting good, turmeric is well known for its health benefits. It is said to help swelling and pain, improve healing and have antibacterial properties. I try to use it every day. Try it in this super-healthy Sunshine Smoothie and this Thai Carrot Soup. Add color to white foods as in this recipe for Roasted Potatoes with Turmeric and Thyme and this Ayurvedic Tomato Rice with Indian Seasonings. I add it to all my tofu scrambles, quiches and to my dough when making vegan Challah to give both recipes that “eggy” color.
I was debating whether to add ginger to this list since I consider it more of an aromatic like garlic than a spice, but technically, it counts as a spice, so here it is. Ginger is native to India and China and has been important in Chinese medicine for centuries. It became popular in Europe and was even used to fight the plague. It is used in beer in English pubs and of course, in ginger ale. You can buy ginger fresh as the root or ground in jars. Fresh roots have the brightest, freshest taste but ground, powdered ginger can come in handy especially when baking. Ginger is warm, sweet and pungent and has a definitive, easily recognizable aroma. Its flavor is pungent with a bite to it, and too much ginger can burn your throat.
Ginger is one of those spices I don’t think much about until I don’t have any and can’t make any of the hundreds of recipes it’s used in. So many Asian dishes begin with ginger and garlic as aromatics. It is used in curry pastes, chutneys and pickles. Ginger is also popular in baking. Enjoy Ginger Cookies and this Pumpkin Cream Cheese Pie with a Gingersnap Cookie Crust. Make Stir-Fried Brussels Sprouts with Ginger and Curry Leaves or Forbidden Black Rice with Ginger and Coconut. Add ginger to salad dressings and to soups. Drink ginger in smoothies and teas.
Allspice sounds like a blend, but it is really one spice that amazingly smells like it’s a combination of spices, particularly cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. Allspice is indigenous to the rainforests of South and Central America. It is also grown in Mexico, but it is said that the finest allspice comes from Jamaica, and those are the recipes where I use it most. Allspice comes from berries and it is used around the world for a multitude of purposes besides cooking (think men’s spicy aftershave). You can buy allspice whole or ground. It smells aromatic like the aforementioned combination of nutmeg, cloves, ginger and cinnamon. It is a warm spice that is sweet yet pungent and has a bit of peppery flavor.
Allspice is found in Jerk dishes, marinades, pickling and mulling spices. It is also commonly used in baking and can substitute for cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves. Try a pinch in this Seasonal Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. I use allspice to make Jamaican Rice and Peas as well as Jerk Tofu using my own Jerk Marinade.
Fennel gives us both an herb and a spice. As a kid I used to eat fennel bulbs as a snack, enjoying their licorice flavor. Now I also enjoy cooking with fennel seeds and ground fennel. Native to the Mediterranean, fennel is an ancient plant known to the Greeks and Imperial Rome. It is also grown in India, Australia, South America and the United States. Fennel has a warm, sweet, aromatic scent that smells like licorice. The flavor is also that of licorice but mild. It is often a component of Chinese 5-Spice Powder, curry powders and liquors.
Fennel is used in Italy to season sausages and is one of the important spices in my Spicy Italian Vegan Sausages. I also use it to add depth to my Marinara Sauce. Try fennel in this Sauteed Spinach in Fennel Tomato Sauce.
These are the 10 must-have international spices that I use every time I cook. Once you experiment with different spices and learn how to add ethnic flavors to dishes, you can decide which international spices fall into your “must-have” category. Tell us in the comments section which spices are your favorites and how you use them.
Lead Image Source: Vegan Goulash