Middle Eastern Spices (Ultimate Guide)

Middle Eastern Spices

The warm flavors of Middle Eastern spices are well worth learning about and including in your cooking.

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

So important, in fact, the ancient Egyptians even used spices in the mummification process.

The Middle East became a big hub for spices, given the Silk Road trading route passed through its center. 

The oldest known spice is cinnamon, often used in Middle Eastern cuisine, commonly blended with cumin, coriander and pepper.

Spice blends like ras el hanout, and seven spices are commonly used in North African and Levantian foods, respectively.

These ground spice mixes will include spices such as cinnamon, clove, coriander, and allspice, to name a few.

Even cardamom seeds are ground along with coffee beans for an added warm flavor.

The Spices

middle eastern spices

Aleppo Pepper

aleppo pepper

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

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

USED IN: Meat dishes.



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Known as Aniseed, it is native to the eastern Mediterranean and is part of the Apiaceae family.

Used medicinally as tea to reduce bloating, and congestion, it is known for helping with sleep. It has the flavor of fennel and liquorice.

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



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Baharat simply 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 variety of paprika, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, and coriander.

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

Caraway Seeds

caraway seeds

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Caraway seed has a flavor that is a cross between aniseed and cumin but less potent.

It can improve digestion, reducing bloating and flatulence. The probiotic effect encourages growth of good flora in the intestines.

USED IN: Vegetable dishes and for making cheese


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Cardamom has a very pleasant, warm, almost minty flavor that is most often used by grinding the seeds.

Chewing on the whole pod acts as a mouthwash, cleansing the breath.

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



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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 indigenous 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. several spices.



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

This is another very fragrant, sweet tasting spice that is most often 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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The fresh plant is known as Cilantro in the US, it is an annual herb. Both the fresh leaves, and dried seeds are used.

The fresh leaves have a fragrant citrus flavor whereas the seeds have a warm, nutty and spicy flavor.

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



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Cumin is a bold spice and comes from a flowering plant that is native to the Middle East.  Its flavor is warm, nutty, earthy with hints of lemon.

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



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Ginger is a flowering plant in which the root is used for culinary or medicinal purposes. Long known for its ability to help with digestion, it is also 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 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 is used in cooking.

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



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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: Bread and desserts.



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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.

Nigella Seed

nigella seed

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The Nigella 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.

Ras El Hanout

ras el hanout

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This is a blend of spices that translates as the ‘best the shop has to offer’. In the old days this sometimes meant a mixture made up of 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: Meat or vegetable dishes from North Africa.



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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 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 is an essential ingredient in Arabic cooking. 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 is related to the ginger family. The root is ground up to create a very vibrant spice that has many health benefits which can 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 somewhat of a bitter aftertaste.

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



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

Salt, sumac, and sesame seeds are added to create a dip and rub. The flavor of the leaves of the plant is earthy, and woodsy, with an herbal finish. Lovely when eaten with olive oil.

Middle Eastern Spices

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

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  1. Pingback: Middle Eastern Cuisine: Lebanese food & Spices. ~ CHEF KNOWS

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