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Ultimate Guide to Middle Eastern Spices

middle eastern spices

Spices are such an important part of our food today, and one of the reasons that I wanted to write this Ultimate Guide to Middle Eastern Spices.

Spices have been used for culinary, and medicinal purposes for centuries.

The ancient Egyptians used spices in the mummification process, humans seem to have been fascinated with spices from the beginning of their discovery.

The Middle East became a big hub for spices given parts of it was the route of the Silk Road, and the trading of products from the East to West.

One of the oldest spices is cinnamon (maybe the oldest known), which is utilized in a lot of Middle Eastern and North African cooking.

Spices play a very big part in Middle Eastern cuisine.

The additions of Middle Eastern spices are not as complex as Indian food for example, and they tend to be sweet mixtures of spices.

Ground spice blends like ras el hanout, and seven spices are commonly used in North Africa and the Levant respectively.

These mixes will have spices like cinnamon, coriander, clove, and allspice to name a few.

Very few dishes in the Arab world are spicy hot.

People in that part of the world enjoy hot peppery tastes which are usually delivered via hot sauces served on the side.

Spice is even used in the local coffee, with cardamom seeds being ground with the coffee beans for the thick Turkish coffee.

Or also boiled along with whole beans to create a sort of cowboy coffee.

The following is what I see as the ultimate guide to Middle Eastern spices, that are very frequently used in Middle Eastern cooking.

Aleppo Pepper

middle eastern spices

Aleppo Arabic is Halab, and so this pepper is also known as Halaby pepper.

It is a burgundy chile and a type of Capsicum annuum, and is about half as hot as other pepper flakes.

USED IN: Meat dishes.

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Anise

middle eastern spices

Also known as Aniseed, is native to the eastern Mediterranean and part of the Apiaceae family.

It is used medicinally to reduce bloating, and congestion, by being made into tea as well as helping with sleep. It has a flavor of fennel and liquorice.

USED IN: Broths, soups, meat dishes and some desserts.

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Baharat

middle eastern spices

Baharat means spices in Arabic. This is not one spice but a blend that will vary slightly depending where you are in the Middle East.

You will most likely get a variation of paprika, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, and coriander.

USED IN: Meat, fish, vegetables, soups, rice.

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Caraway Seeds

middle eastern spices

Caraway has a similar flavor of a cross between aniseed and cumin but less strong.

It can improve digestion, reduces bloating, and flatulence, and the probiotic effect is good for your intestines encouraging growth of good flora.

USED IN: Vegetable dishes and for making cheese.

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Cardamom

middle eastern spices
Has a very pleasant warm, almost a minty, menthol flavor that is most often used by grinding the seeds found in the pod.

Some people chew on the whole pod which acts as a bit of a mouthwash cleansing of the breath.

USED IN: Arabic coffee, and many different types of dishes, usually as part of several spices.

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Cinnamon

middle eastern spices

Aside from the many health benefits, cinnamon is widely used in Middle Eastern food, for its sweet and aromatic properties.

It comes from the inner bark of a tree and is indigionous to India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh and known as ‘true cinnamon’.

USED IN: It is included in many dishes, freshly ground, or as whole sticks to flavor broths.

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Cloves

middle eastern spices

Cloves are indiginous to Indonesia, and are the aromatic flower buds of a tree.

This another very fragrant, sweet tasting spice that is usually used in combination with other spices.

USED IN: Used widely around the world from mulled wines to cookies and everything in between.

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Coriander

middle eastern spices

The fresh plant is also known as Cilantro in the US and is an annual herb, where the fresh leaves, and dried seeds are the most often used parts of the plant.

However, the fresh leaves taste very different to the dried ground seeds. The fresh leaves have a fragrant citrus flavor whereas the seeds have a warm, nutty and spicy flavor.

USED IN: Okra, salads, salsa or even in mashed potatoes.

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Cumin

middle eastern spices

Cumin is a bold spice and comes from a flowering plant that is native to the Middle East.

Its flavor is warm with slight hints of lemon, nutty, and earthy.

USED IN: Blends of spices (for savory dishes like chicken shawarma), fish dishes, and very good with lentils.

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Ginger

middle eastern spices

Ginger is a flowering plant in which the root is used for culinary and medicinal purposes.

Long known for its ability to help digestion, it is used to lessen muscle soreness from exercise. The flavor is warm, spicy and peppery.

USED IN: Meat and fish dishes as well as rice and salad.

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Mahlab

Mahlab has a complex flavor palette, with a hint of almond, vanilla, roses, and cherries.

But this glorious start is followed by a very bitter aftertaste. To counter this mahlab should be cooked.

USED IN: Cookies, breads and other Middle Eastern sweets.

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Mastic

Also known as Gum Arabic, and Miska in Arabic, it is the resin of the mastic tree that is a predecessor to our modern chewing gum and something humans chewed on to improve their breath.

It has a flavor of pine and cedar, and is sun dried to produce small hard bits of resin that are then ground up.

USED IN: Breads and desserts.

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Mint

Mint has a sweet and cooling flavor that can be quite strong.

Both peppermint and spearmint have menthol in them, with peppermint having the higher content. Mint is very good in relieving indigestion and gas, by speeding digestion.

USED IN: Salads, yogurt, sauces.

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Nigella Seed

This seed has a bitter and peppery taste, and in the Middle East is used in cooking, bread and cheese making, as well as taken directly in the form of a ground up seed paste for medicinal purposes.

It has many purported health benefits such as reducing inflammation, and controls bacteria and parasites in the gut.

USED IN: Bread, making cheese, vegetables and beans.

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Ras El Hanout

This is a blend of spices that translates as top of the shop meaning the best the shop has to offer. In the old days this could mean a mixture made up as many as 50 spices. Today it is more in the range of nine spices.

There can be regional variations as to the spices included. Generally they include cumin, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, coriander and cloves.

USED IN: North African dishes that contain meat or vegetables.

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Saffron

Saffron threads are collected from the saffron crocus, and have a beautiful deep red color.

The most expensive spice by weight, saffron is widely used in Middle Eastern cooking. It has a delicate floral flavor, with hints of honey.

USED IN: Rice dishes, soups and seafood dishes.

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Sage

Sage is used to help treat many stomach ailments, and is used very often in the Middle East to make tea.

Shown to reduce bloating, heartburn, loss of appetite, and even diarrhoea it is the go to tea drink in the Arab world. It has a strong flavor with eucalyptus and citrus notes.

USED IN: Bean dishes, along with rice and salads.

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Sumac

Sumac is an essential ingredient in Arabic food. It has a tangy lemon flavor but is more balanced and less sour than a lemon.

This bush is native to the Middle East where the berries are dried, ground and used in cooking.

USED IN: Marinades, rubs, salads, meat and vegetable dishes.

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Turmeric

Turmeric is related to the ginger family. The root is ground up to create a very vibrant spice that has many health benefits which help prevent heart disease and cancer.

It is used as a way to give food a yellow/orange color. The taste is strong and somewhat pungent, with a bit of a bitter aftertaste.

USED IN: Vegetable and rice dishes, along with smoothies.

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Za’atar

Za’atar is a blend of spices that includes a local species of oregano, that is often referred to as thyme as this variety is not found in other places.

Salt, sumac, and sesame seeds are added to create a dip and rub. The flavor of the leaves of the plant is earthy, woodsy, herbal taste.

USED IN: As a dip, fresh in salads and some baked savory pastries.

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Hello! I’m Chef Tariq.

I’m a food, travel & lifestyle blogger who is passionate about creating recipes from my Arab American background. I love to travel and share my experiences and top tips along the way.

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Hello! I’m Chef Tariq.

I’m a food, travel & lifestyle blogger who is passionate about creating recipes from my Arab American background. I love to travel and share my experiences and top tips along the way.

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