Spicing it up

Posted on 15th November, 2017

It occurred to me last week that spicing is a bit of an art. I think some cooks confuse spicing with heat and that the hotter a dish is the spicier it is. I don’t buy this idea and so I will endeavour to show you that a few well chosen spices can make or break your next culinary adventure.


I won’t lie to you, I have so many different spices I’ve probably forgotten what some of them are however all are stored in airtight containers and will keep for a very long time in a dark drawer or cupboard. I never buy those small jars of spice you get with spice racks, I buy large bags from the many and varied international food shops that have sprung up in our towns and cities and transfer the contents into recycled screw top jars. I also have spices and herbs bought in markets and souks from as far as India and Jordan, the heady aromas when those tightly sealed jars instantly transport me back there.


In my spice stores at the moment I have:-

Cumin (ground and whole seeds)

Coriander (ground and whole seeds)

Black mustard seeds

Yellow mustard seeds

Garam Masala

Tandoori Masala

Ground chilli

Flaked chilli

Whole dried chillies (home grown)

Turmeric (sadly only ground but if you see fresh turmeric it’s worth the effort)



Cardamom seeds

Sesame seeds

Fenugreek seeds


Smoked paprika

Black peppercorns



Ground ginger

White pepper

Juniper berries



Fennel seeds



Whole frozen chillies

Ginger root (will keep for a couple of weeks wrapped in the fridge)

Garlic cloves (plus ready ground garlic in a tube which is a great cheat)

Vanilla paste


Dried herbs-a good standby




Coriander leaves

Bay leaves (picked fresh from my mother’s bay tree and dried)



Fresh herbs in the garden-still usable over winter




Thyme (plain and lemon)



I don’t expect you all to rush out and stock your cupboards with all of these but keep an eye out for offers and spices you wouldn’t normally buy. Be brave.


One of the ways you can learn about spicing is simple experimentation. Use your sense of smell to determine which spices go together. Indian dishes, for example, are rarely as hot in India as they are here. Each area has its own take on spicing, the dishes from the North are massively different to the dishes of the South. Thai food uses different spices and herbs so a Thai curry is nothing like a Keralan curry, think of the takeaway’s you’ve had and think about the spicy notes. Was it hot because of chilli? Or was it hot because of pepper? Or mustard? Was there an overriding fragrance such as lemon grass or cardamom?  Was the spicing sharp? If so maybe the chef used tamarind. Your nose as well as your tongue can pick out the flavours so you can start with the obvious ones such as turmeric, cumin and chilli and move on to the more unusual such as asafoetida and nigella seeds. There’s a world of interesting taste sensations out there waiting to be discovered.


Go subtle at first, don’t overpower the dish by spooning in copious spices, but don’t be too shy otherwise any spicing simply disappears. It’s all about the balance, keep tasting, keep tasting, keep tasting…


Don’t dismiss the British ingredients that can liven up a classic pie or casserole. Horseradish and mustard for heat. Mint, thyme, parsley and sage for comforting fragrance and a fresh taste.


With the onset of dark evenings with the rain beating on the windows I look forward to cooking a spiced stew. Follow the link for my take on African stew, the spicing is fragrant rather than hot, and it makes an interesting change to a plain British stew. I served this with a white maize pap (a traditional African porridge) the perfect accompaniment to this dish but mashed potato would work just as well. Be adventurous, you won't be sorry.



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