Cooking spices from around the world

Of all the words related to spicy food, 'spices' for me conjures up images of crowded markets, heavy with the scent of rich, aromatic cooking spices and emblazoned with bright and warm colours. And really they don't disappoint! Spices have had a huge influence on the history of the world - they had the power to build empires but also destroy lives. Fortunes were made and even new countries discovered, in the quest for these treasures. And our enthusiasm certainly doesn't seem to be diminishing either as we wait eagerly for the next 'big' flavour, ingredient or cooking technique to increase our enjoyment of spicy food and cooking.

Here we look at some spice basics: How to select and store them their classifications as well as a list (as comprehensive as possible, ever-increasing but not fully exhaustive!) of spices. We also explore how spices are used in cooking and food in other areas of the site (see Cooking, Spice Mixes and Condiments).

Cooking spices can be found in several forms, usually dependent on how it will be used and its flavour components:

  • Dried
  • Fresh
  • Whole
  • Ground
  • Blends or mixes
  • Essential oils - these are the natural aromatic oils extracted from plants, via steam distillation or a cold press process, which carry the distinctive scent or essence of the plant. They are not really oils but a concentrated mixture of organic compounds which exist within the cells of the plant. Each oil is derived from a single plant type and can be extracted from any part of the plant, as needed.
  • Oleoresins - these are naturally occurring, thick or semisolid mixtures of an oil and a resin derived by solvent extraction from some plants. Oleoresins are not as volatile as essential oils (which can steam-distill if heated, due to the moisture present) and as such are preferred as flavouring materials in food manufacture. They also have a fuller, deeper flavour of the particular spice and are not usually available for home use.

Spices may be grouped in one of several ways.

Into flavour groups, or by what the cooking spice does:

  • Sweet (e.g. cinnamon, vanilla, allspice) - without which food can be flat
  • Hot (e.g. pepper and chilli) - can mask other flavours, can be overpowering in large quantities
  • Pungent (e.g. cloves) - these add lightness and freshness and counteract fattiness, use sparingly
  • Tangy (e.g. tamarind, kokum, sumac, amchur powder) - these add a degree of acidity
  • Amalgamating (e.g. ground coriander, sweet paprika, turmeric) - can go with sweet or savoury dishes and bring other flavours together

From which part of the plant it is obtained:

  • Bark - cassia
  • Roots/Rhizome - ginger, turmeric
  • Buds - cloves
  • Seeds/Berries - peppercorns, sumac
  • Bulbs - garlic
  • Arils - mace
  • Resins - asafoetida
  • Stigmas - saffron

By country of origin:

  • Mexican - cumin, chilli powder, garlic
  • Indian - coriander, cumin, cinnamon
  • Chinese - szechuan peppercorns, star anise, ginger


Spices may be either dried or fresh.

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