Common Spices in Greek Cooking

Close up of spices on cutting board
Adam Gault/OJO Images/Getty Images

Every global cuisine has its own combination of herbs and spices that show up in recipes time and time again, and Greek food is no exception. Those who aren't fans of spicy-hot foods can rejoice because Greek foods tend to use herbs and spices to create a savory dish rather than one that's full of heat.


Known as bahari (bah-HAH-ree) in Greece, allspice is a surprising ingredient in Greek food because it's grown exclusively west of the Atlantic Ocean. However, it's used in desserts such as baklava and kataifi. You can purchase the dried berries and grind them yourself or buy them already pulverized.


Cardamom, referred to in Greece as Karthamo (KAR-thah-mo), is used primarily in sauces and as a seasoning for vegetables. It comes in large pods, but it can also be used ground; in the Middle East, it's more likely to show up in dessert recipes in ground form.


Cloves are often used in cakes, pastries, and sweets in Greece, including kourambiedes, traditional Christmas cookies. In Greece, cloves are known as garifalo (ghah-REE-fah-lo), and they're also inserted into pork before it's roasted. It can be used in its whole-seed form, grated into soups, or as part of seasoning for meat, fish, poultry, or vegetables.


Like anise, coriander, or kolianthro (koh-LEE-ahn-throh) is a member of the parsley family. Native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, it's used as a medicine as well as in traditional Greek cooking. It has a strong, earthy flavor, but much of this is leached during the cooking process, leaving a more delicate taste. 


This spice is made from the seeds of a species of wild sour cherry, and it has a unique fruity taste. Mahlepi (mahk-LEH-pee), the Greek word for mahlab, used in tsoureki, a traditional sweet bread associated with Greek Easter, as well as in cookies and other pastries.


Mastiha (mahs-TEEKH-hah) The Greeks often use mastic in the making of liquors, and it's rarely found outside the country. The Greek island of Chios lays claim to producing some of the best mastic. It derives from the pistacia lentiscus tree and is used in Greek Easter bread, as well as in rice pudding and ice cream. 


One of the prime ingredients in the quintessential Greek dish of moussaka, nutmeg, or moschokarido (mos-ho-KAH-ree-thoh), is key in pastitsio, a pasta dish made with ground beef and a bechamel sauce. However, the Greeks use nutmeg in all sorts of dishes, from desserts to sauces and liqueurs.


The Greeks recognized the medicinal value of the saffron back to before the Middle Ages. The plant, known as zafora or safrani (zah-for-AH or sah-FRAH-nee), is still cultivated today, and the spice is commonly used in rice-based recipes and dishes. It's an expensive spice, but a little goes a long way for both flavor and that telltale yellow-orange hue.


Sumac, or Sumaki (soo-MAH-kee) tastes a bit like vinegar, with a tart and lemony flavor. It's used extensively in Greek cooking, particularly in dry rubs for meats, as well as marinades and dressings.