Let's Eat

Spice up your life! How new ingredients have changed our kitchen cupboards

Mystified by the wealth of new spices now available in the shops?


Parsley, pepper and perhaps dill or garlic were probably the only spices our Ashkenazi grandparents would have had in their larders alongside the salt cellar.

But recently, spice sections in supermarkets have become an explosion of new flavours and names.

Sumac, baharat, za’atar, mahlab, ras el hanout — the list goes on, most as unfamiliar as the dishes being introduced by the Israeli chefs arriving on our shores.

As foods from different countries come into vogue, the trickle-down effect to home cooking adds yet another jar to your kitchen shelf. But how many of these new ingredients do you really need?

Spices have always played a huge part in Emma Spitzer’s cooking. When she cooked her way into this year’s MasterChef finals, it was all about big flavours. What her food may have lacked in Michelin-star looks it made up for in punchy flavours.

“Spices add so much — they can lift a fairly ordinary dish into something quite spectacular,” she says.

It was her mother-in-law, who had been taught to cook by her Algerian mother, who awakened Spitzer to the power of spices.

“She has an amazing spice cupboard, and uses them almost intuitively,” she says.

“Her tip recently was to put a teaspoon of ground cumin in the water when boiling broad beans. It gives them a fantastic flavour and is far less harsh than sprinkling it on at the end as I was doing.”

Fabienne Viner-Luzzato’s Tunisian mother also used plenty of spices.

“I learned to judge how much to use by the colour and flavour of my food,” she says. “I always add turmeric to my rice — it gives a certain flavour and a lot of colour. If I don’t add it my children want to know why the rice is white,” she laughs.

Viner-Luzzato feels many Ashkenazi cooks equate spice with heat and are shy of using too much.

“Most spices just add flavour. When I do a cooking demonstration people are often shocked by the quantity I use. You have to be generous, not afraid,” she says.

She uses herbs and flower waters with her spices to add depth of flavour.

Spitzer also experiments with spices and herbs. “If I’m buying an unfamiliar spice mix, I’ll smell it and use my palate to work out what it will go with.

“I recently bought a new ‘five spice’ mix from my local Turkish supermarket — a Middle Eastern equivalent to Chinese five spice — and am using it on chicken and fish or sprinkled over bulghur wheat or salads. Just enough to give it a little flavour and maybe mixed with olive oil.”

More than one spice, says Spitzer, adds a new dimension. “Layer for greater depth of flavour — different spices complement each other well and some, like turmeric, can be harsh on their own. I throw things in together if I think they might work.”

For those without her kitchen confidence, there are many spice mixes out there: traditional pre-blended mixes like ras el hanout, baharat or dukkah can be bought from supermarkets as well as mixes conjured up by spice companies to complement certain foods or as a short cut to creating types of cuisine.

Spice Way at Battler’s Green Farm near Radlett sells Israeli-imported spice mixes and blends — produced on a moshav near Nazareth. Its products include spice blends and its Fast Gourmet range — which combines ingredients like lentils, onions and garlic with spices — can be mixed into cooked rice or couscous.

Spitzer and other culinary purists would generally advocate making up your own spice blend, but it’s not always practical. Unless you can buy spices in very small quantities you’ll end up with half-used jars, which lose their potency in time, and many whole spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cloves require a spice or coffee grinder, which many people don’t have, to process them to a fine powder.

When sourcing spices, Spitzer and Viner-Luzzato both shop in Middle Eastern supermarkets near their north-London homes.
“Cost-wise there is a huge price disparity between supermarkets and Middle Eastern shops. You can buy a big bag of sesame seeds in a Middle Eastern grocery store for the price of a small supermarket pot,” says Spitzer.

She recommends buying a mixture of ground and whole spices. Whole spices keep longer but are not always easy to grind at home. One tip Spitzer picked up on MasterChef was why you should always toast whole spices before using them.

“I thought you toasted them to improve the flavour — which is true — but John Torode told me that whole spices can build up bacteria if not used for a while, so you should also roast them to kill off those bacteria.”

What are you waiting for? Go spice up your life.

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