With scent being one of the strongest sensory ties to memory, spices can easily transport us to another time and place. Cumin and turmeric might conjure memories of market stalls in India. Oregano might transport you to an oceanside town in Greece. Ginger’s bite may bring you to a tropical, warm garden in Southeast Asia. Centuries ago, cooking with spices and herbs from faraway lands was a sign of wealth and people would go out of their way to bring them into their home. Now it’s easier than ever to access fresh spices and herbs; all it takes is a quick trip to your local supermarket or spice shop to elevate your next meal.
Here are seven spices, herbs, and seasonings to add some kick to any home chef’s routine.
Basil is a tender, leafy plant grown in warm areas and commonly used for cooking around the world. This species has several different types, all belonging to the Lamiaceae family (mint). Sweet basil is probably the best-known—it’s typically used in tomato sauce, pesto, and soups. Genovese, Napoletano, and large leaf basil are commonly found in Italian dishes of all kinds. Holy or sacred basil (tulsi) is deeply respected in Hindu religion and is often steeped in teas. Greek basil tends to smaller than it’s leafy counterparts, making it a great addition to meat dishes, while Thai basil is one of the spicier varieties available.
A staple mix of spices originating from the Indian subcontinent, today it is commonly used in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. This sweet and spicy aromatic blend is typically made from a mixture of seeds such as cardamom, coriander, cumin, fennel, mustard, cloves, cinnamon, and red chili peppers. Every recipe is a little different. They are toasted, ground to powder, and can be used in any dish that calls for a kick—from curries and tikka masala, to roasted potatoes and mashed squash.
Red chili powder
You’ll find different versions of red chili powder in regions all over the world. Kashmiri chili powder originates in India. Relatively mild but vibrantly hued, it makes a great addition to chicken curry. Thai red chili powder is slightly more orange, made from toasted and ground Thai chili peppers. It’s extremely versatile, but green mango salad is a go-to. A more Americanized version of red chili powder features a blend of sweet and hot peppers, garlic, and paprika. It’s probably best known for spicing up a classic game-day favourite: beef chili.
From the same Lamiaceae family as basil, this herb’s Latin name—Origanum vulgare—translates to "joy of the mountains,” which is where you often find it growing in Mediterranean regions. You’re probably most familiar with oregano from Italian and Greek dishes you’ve had, and rightly so—it adds complexity to any tomato-based dish. Use it as a fresh herb or crushed dried plant, tossed with grilled vegetables or lightly sprinkled on a pizza or pasta dish for a finishing touch.
One of the most popular spices on the planet, cumin is native to the vast area that stretches from the Middle East towards India. The plant’s seeds are used whole or ground, and today are popular in Latin American, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisine. Not only does it have anti-inflammatory benefits, it’s believed to have been used as a mummification element in ancient Egypt! Cumin adds an earthy note to chili, salad dressings, and barbeque rubs—it’s often the answer when you feel like your recipe is missing a little something-something.
Cinnamon is made from the inner layer of bark from trees in the Cinnamomum genus that grow in hot climates such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, and parts of China. It’s sharp, spicy-sweet flavour shows up in recipes of all sorts, both sweet and savory. In either the full quill form or ground to a powder, it’s used in everything from hot beverages and autumn baking, to slow-cooked meats and curries. But cinnamon doesn’t just make a flavourful addition to your dishes—it’s also beneficial for your health, with its infection- and inflammation-fighting properties.
Grown in the warm climates of China, India, and the Caribbean, ginger spice is made from the root of the ginger plant. Similarly to cinnamon, ginger is used across all types of cooking and baking: from a simple tea made by boiling slices of fresh ginger root to Thai ginger chicken. It also boasts health benefits as it’s believed to relieve stomach ailments—particularly nausea and indigestion.
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