Each culture is known for its particular use of spices and herbs and learning to make your own version of these blends is a great way to deepen your knowledge of different cuisines, as well as cooking. Not surprisingly, the cuisines that have some of the richest and most varied uses of spices and herbs also have some of the best growing climates for them, like India and Malaysia.
Though before you make your blends it’s good to know a few basics, including what the best kitchen tools are for the job, where to buy your spices and herbs, and a few preparation techniques. To this end, consider buying spice grinders to fill your blends with, only grinding them when you’re ready to eat. This prevents your blends from becoming oxidized and tasteless.
As for where to buy your spices and herbs, by choosing fair trade products, you will not only support a better economic model for the farmer, but you will also likely have a better quality product. Preparing your spices and herbs for use can run the gamut between using a dehydrator for herbs to nailing the technique for toasting spices. Just know that no matter the blend you’re making, it’s about getting creative and having fun.
The Mediterranean encompasses those countries which border the Mediterranean Sea but the most prominent ones in terms of food culture include Spain, Italy, and Greece. There are a bevy of spices and herbs associated with their cuisines and although not all dry and keep well (like basil and parsley), there are still plenty you can use.
To get yourself started, ask yourself what your favorite Mediterranean dishes are and then look into what spices and herbs they use. For savory dishes, herbs like rosemary, oregano, mint, sage, bay leaf, and savory are popular, as well as spices like fennel seed, dill seed, black pepper, cumin seed, and paprika.
Try these Italian and Greek seasoning recipes to begin with and adjust them as you see fit. When you’re ready for dessert, think of ingredients like cocoa, cinnamon, and orange peel. You can finish your melomakarona cookies with a dusting of cloves, cinnamon, and orange peel, or accent your flan with ground cacao nibs and orange peel.
Countries in the Middle East range from Northern Africa to Afghanistan and perhaps those with the most popular cuisines include Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel. Notable herbs include oregano and thyme while common spices are coriander, cumin, sumac, turmeric, anise seed, allspice, cardamom, and caraway. Za’atar is a famous spice blend that is widely used, including as a rub on lamb chops and a garnish for labneh or hummus. Baharat is another very popular blend and is often seen as the garam masala of Middle Eastern cuisine. Many desserts incorporate spices like cardamom and cinnamon, while pistachios and rose water are also commonly used.
These ingredients are great opportunities to create blends with both aesthetics and aromatics in mind, so consider using a mortar and pestle to make a rose petal powder shake it over top a malabi pudding. You can also give your labneh stuffed figs an alluring aroma with freshly ground cardamom and nutmeg.
India was the heart of the spice trade for centuries, as its tropical climate was hospitable for many herbs and spices never before seen by the western world. Some of the most popular examples include ginger, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek, cumin, black and green cardamom, mustard seed, and black peppercorn. Garam masala is a good place to start when familiarizing yourself with Indian cuisine because although there are regional differences between recipes, it is extensively used throughout the country.
When imagining the ingredients of a blend, ask yourself what spices and herbs would naturally grow in the climate that is home to the dishes you enjoy and don’t be afraid to experiment, as even within a region many households put their distinct spin on a spice blend. Dessert in India includes ingredients like nuts, rose water, dried fruits, and cardamom, so you may follow a similar tune to the blends found in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Mexican cuisine certainly has some uniting factors but it also has plenty of regional variety. Spices like cumin, coriander, allspice, clove, and cinnamon are widely used, as well as herbs like epazote, Mexican oregano, and Mexican bay leaf.
Here again, it’s good to find a few dishes that you especially like and use them as a base to replicate the spices and herbs used. For example, an iconic dish from the Yucatán Peninsula is cochinita pibil, a pork dish that is slow-cooked in a marinade made with achiote, also known as annatto. This unique spice adds a bright, appealing color to dishes and imparts a mildly peppery taste.
Try blending together an achiote paste and use it as a meat rub or as a base for a marinade. You can also experiment with drying and grinding an array of chiles, all of which add a distinct flavor and varying level of heat to dishes.
Chinese cuisine contains a world of nuance, as the cooking techniques of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) are often quite different from the more intensely flavored dishes of Sichuan. Spices range from ginger, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, and cumin, whereas other ingredients include sesame seeds, an assortment of chiles, and fermented bean pastes.
Perhaps the most famous spice blend from China is the five-spice powder, used to flavor sparerib, tofu, and vegetable dishes alike. You can also try creating original recipes, like toasted sesame seeds and Chinese chiles for a tasty, aromatic garnish.