My Spice Drawer

Last updated on 06-Sep-2023

Ok, it’s time for some spicy talk! 😉

I LOVE to cook and even though I make Brazilian dishes frequently at home, I’m also very open to trying new tastes, exploring other cuisines, different spices, and cooking methods. We like to eat at ethnic restaurants often and to adventure into the local food when travelling abroad, and I also enjoy trying to prepare some of my international favourites at home.

According to Wikipedia, “Brazilian cuisine is… characterized by European, African and Amerindian influences. It varies greatly by region, reflecting the country’s mix of native and immigrant populations…” Even with that, before coming to Canada, the variety of cuisines I had experienced was limited. Italian and Portuguese food are quite common in Brazil, but because those communities have been part of the country’s cultural fabric for so long, their food also feels very familiar or have been adapted to the local preferences. I did already enjoy Lebanese/Middle-Eastern, with many dishes being very well-known or “adopted” into the Brazilian repertoire as well. As for some more “exotic” options, I already loved Japanese food and liked some Chinese dishes but didn’t get much further than that.

Over the years, I have noticed (and heard from others) that the options have become much more varied back in the largest country in South America, but coming to Toronto was like hitting a flavour caleidoscope jackpot! The largest city in Canada is a living example of multiculturalism and concentrates a whole United Nations of flavours within its borders or in close proximity. Here you can get food from pretty much any part of the world, to suit any mood and craving, or to satisfy any curiosity – at places ranging from super fancy to simple and budget options, often from early morning to late at night – a foodie’s paradise!

For a while, we made the commitment to try a new ethnic restaurant every month, and through this experiment, we either discovered or got more familiar with cuisines from India, Mexico, Thailand, Ethiopia, Myanmar (Burma), Tibet, Vietnam, Philippines, Trinidad & Tobago and other Caribbean nations, and more. It’s so interesting to see how food is transformed across borders, and even within the same country!

From beginner to veteran cooks, I believe anyone can get out of their comfort zone and, with little effort, be able to reproduce dishes or incorporate nuances from different cuisines at home. However, before investing in special pots and elaborate equipment, the best way to become more comfortable with those flavours is by building a more diverse spice collection. It doesn’t have to be a huge selection, it can start with some small additions and grow with new interests over time. I try to look for organic spices, and buy from ethnic/bulk stores whenever possible, so I can get as little or as much as I need/want.

All of this brings me back to the topic of the post ~ I want to share what’s in my spice collection and provide a few tips on how I like to use these seasonings. Hope you get inspired to try some new spices and to make some exciting food!

  • Onion Powder & Garlic Powder – Concentrated flavour from these staples, great for rubs and recipes where you don’t want a lot of moisture added
  • Bay Leaves – Another great staple! I like them as a flavouring when cooking dry beans and in Mediterranean-style recipes
  • Cajun Spice Mix – Buy pre-mixed or make your own as needed. Great on vegetables, fish/seafood, soups, dips, or basically anything that could use a little “kick”.
  • Za’atar – blend of spices including toasted sesame seeds, dried sumac, and often salt. Great on Middle Eastern dishes like manakeesh. Used as a seasoning for meats and vegetables, or sprinkled onto hummus and other salads.
  • Dulse Flakes – Dulse is a variety of seaweed and has an “ocean” flavour. It’s a source of iodine and I like to sprinkle over eggs, onto a bowl of ramen, or add to homemade salad dressings
  • Turmeric – golden anti-inflammatory powerhouse! Use it for south Asian-inspired cooking and for golden milk.
  • Himalayan Pink Salt – Potential health benefits aside, use it in the same way as regular salt.
  • Black Salt (Kala namak) – Has a pungent/sulphurous smell and taste, which mimics eggs in vegan omelets and similar dishes. Also used in many Indian recipes.
  • Ground Cardamon – Use sparingly, adds a touch of “exotic” to sweet and savoury recipes.
  • Ground Nutmeg – Distinctive fragrance and a warm slightly sweet taste; used to flavour baked goods, puddings, potatoes, meats, sauces, vegetables, and beverages such as eggnog.
  • Ground Ginger – If fresh ginger is not available or if trying to avoid some of the “bite”, ground dry ginger is a great substitute. If using dry, remember to use half or less of the amount you would of fresh ginger.
  • Fennel Seeds – Edible “fruit” of the fennel plant, similar taste to anise, used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking and desserts.
  • Coriander seeds – Edible “fruit” of the coriander (cilantro) plant. Has a lemony citrus flavour when crushed, also warm and nutty. Best if ground fresh and heated in a dry skillet to “awaken” the flavours. A staple for Indian cooking.
  • Pumpkin Pie Spice – Great on, well, pumpkin pie! But also on other Fall baking recipes and desserts.
  • Chinese Five Spice – Usually a blend of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and Szechwan peppercorns. Adds an Asian tone to meat or seafood dishes, pairs well with soy sauce (or tamari) and/or sesame oil.
  • Curry Powder – A blend of spices and no mixture is the same as the next. From Caribbean to Indian to Japanese curries, you can try the different variations/brands, find your favourite, or just enjoy them all (like we do)!
  • Cayenne Powder – Ground cayenne peppers – these pack some heat! Good for dry-rubs, dips, stews, etc. Start with small amounts and adjust to taste. Not to be confused with (North American) chili powder, which is a blend of spices and usually much milder.
  • Indian Masala – Similarly to curry powders, masalas can come in virtually infinite variations, with different combinations and amounts of spices. A great shortcut for Indian (or Indian-inspired) cooking and available from mild to very spicy. I like to keep a mild blend on hand, as the heat can always be added.
  • Herbes de Provence – Classic mix of dried herbs traditional in the South of France, typically used with grilled foods and stews. Can be added to foods before or during cooking. Lends an earthy “Mediterranean” flavour to dishes.
  • Dried Oregano – Considered a staple of Italian cuisine (along with marjoram and basil) and known as the “pizza herb”. Also very popular in Greek food. Used in stews and sauces, as well as roasted, fried, or grilled vegetables, meat, and fish.
  • Ground Cumin – Used widely in Latin, Tex-Mex and South Asian cooking, but also appears in some European dishes. Imparts an earthy, warming and aromatic character to food, making it a great addition to stews and soups, as well as spiced gravies such as curry and chili.
  • Red Pepper Flakes – Or crushed red (chilli) pepper, is a spicy condiment commonly used in Mediterranean cooking. I like to add them to pizza, pasta sauce, stews, roasted veggies, etc.
  • Dried Rosemary – Commonly used in traditional Mediterranean cuisine. Has a slightly bitter taste and a characteristic aroma. Goes well with barbecued foods, roasted meats or vegetables.
  • Urucum/Coloral – The Brazilian name for achiote powder. Should be heated in oil prior to use, adds a subtle flavour and aroma and a yellow to reddish-orange colour to food. Can replace paprika in recipes and be used by those with nightshade intolerance.
  • Sweet Paprika – Spice made from dried ground bell peppers or sweet peppers, added to numerous dishes throughout the world. It is used to season and colour rice, stews, and soups. Can be sprinkled raw on foods as a garnish, but the flavour is accentuated by heating it in oil.
  • Smoked Paprika – One of the most used spices in my kitchen! I love that it adds colour and a deep smoky flavour to dishes. If not a fan of the smokiness, simply swap with regular paprika.
  • Shawarma Spice Mix – A classic Middle Eastern seasoning used mainly in meat dishes. Buy pre-mixed or make your own as needed. I like to use it to make “fishawarma” and to flavour rice or quinoa.
  • Cinnamon (powder and sticks) – Aromatic and flavouring condiment used in a wide variety of cuisines, in sweet and savoury dishes.
  • Bouillon Cubes – Not something I use often but can be helpful if you need some broth in a pinch.
  • Berbere spice – A staple of Ethiopian food and one of my current obsessions. Adds a punch of flavour and colour to vegetarian staples like peas and lentils, but is also a great seasoning for fish/seafood. Use with butter or ghee.

What are your favourite spices and how do you use them?

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