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A Chef's Spice Reference

Aug 17, 2007
This guide is a quick look-up table for the commonly-used spices.

Allspice - Comes from the unripe berry of the Pimienta dioica tree. It has a flavor that is similar to cinnamon, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg, and so it gets its name from the effect of combining those flavors. Mainly used in the "Jamaican Jerk" seasoning blend. Also used in everything from curry to sausage recipes. You can't get spicier that allspice!

Anise - The dried seeds are the seasoning component. Has an aroma close to that of star anise, fennel and liquorice, but with a strong mint effect. A strong seasoning most commonly used in pizza sauce and other Italian sauces needing a sharp zing. The stalks and leaves are also sometimes used in flavoring a stir-fried dish. Anise also has medical uses, where its oil is a treatment for toothaches and digestive problems.

Asafoetida - A variety of wild fennel which comes from Iran, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. Extremely strong, so much so that leaving it uncovered in your pantry will taint the other foods! It has a taste very much like onions, and is used for an onion replacement. Also sometimes used to flavor pickles.

Basil - A green, leafy, summer herb, with the leaves ground and used as a seasoning mostly in Italian foods. It forms the base for pesto sauce, and is used to season many Italian foods including Italian sausage. Not to be confused with Holy Basil (which tastes more like a pepper), Lemon Basil (an herb served raw in Indonesian cooking), or Thai Basil (which tastes more like mint).

Bay - Leaves of this member of the laurel family are ubiquitous in the kitchen, used in soups, stews, roasts, seafood, and vegetable dishes. Especially present in European and American cooking. Comes in two varieties; the California is the sharper and the Turkish the milder.

Caraway - Native to Central Europe and Scandinavia, caraway seeds are most famous for their liberal use in rye bread and some pumpernickel breads. The seeds are usually used whole and have a pungent, anise-like flavor and aroma that comes from its natural oil. Also used in sauerkraut, Danish Havarti cheese, and some Germanic liquors and casseroles.

Cardamom - A pungent, aromatic spice very much like ginger. The ground seeds are the chief ingredient in Indian curry, and also make for some strong flavoring in Turkish coffee. It is also used for medical purposes throughout the Far East.

Cassia - Also known as "Chinese cinnamon" because it is a harsher, but cheaper, variety of cinnamon and it is used in the same way: its bark is ground and used where cinnamon would normally be used. Comes from the Far East, especially Vietnam and Indonesia.

Chicory - Not exactly a spice in and of itself. This border-line herb is famously used as a hot drink base similar to coffee, and has some medical uses as a base for the production of inulin. Real coffee drinkers blanch at the mention of the word "chicory".

Cilantro - Actually this is just the leafy part of the coriander plant, which has such a different flavor from coriander seeds that it's like getting two herbs in one plant. Has a parsley-like flavor with a citrus hint. Cilantro is actually only to be considered as a fresh herb, however, since dried out and ground it loses all of it's flavor. Used in Mexican salsas, served as a garnish, and makes a tasty omelet ingredient. An interesting side note is that some people taste a soapy flavor in cilantro, and it has been suggested that the ability to taste the different flavors of cilantro comes from a genetic trait!

Clove - A powerful and pungent flower bud of an evergreen tree in the Myrtaceae family, which is native to Indonesia. Used in dishes throughout the world, popping up in odd places like stewed apples, candied crab apples, and rice pilaf. Its oil is so potent that it is also widely used in medicine as an antiseptic and anesthetic, and cloves are also smoked in combination with tobacco.

Coriander - A complex flavor with a lemon-like citrus taste and an under-taste of a warm, nutty character. Used throughout Latin American, Indian, Ethiopian, Arabic, and Southeast Asian cooking. It is a base ingredient in Indian curries and garam masala. A relative to parsley and carrots, this plant is also the seed component of the cilantro plant.

Cumin - A very weak spice, which has to be used quite heavily to be effective. Native to the Mediterranean region, it has been adopted almost exclusively as a Mexican spice, and is the key ingredient in commercial chili powders. Essential in tacos, burritos, and tamales.

Curry - Although the curry leaf is ground up and sold dried in curry powder, it is much more potent fresh, much as you would use a bay leaf. Curry is of course, the main body of Indian curry dishes, and is as necessary to make an Indian dish as Cumin is to make a Mexican one.

Dill - A short-lived annual herb, native to central Asia. Most famously used to flavor pickles, dill by itself has a tart, tangy flavor almost like vinegar. It is used as seasoning in recipes involving borscht, pickled salmon, and some soups.

Fennel - Fennel itself has a flavor close to anise and liquorice. It is mostly used in Italian cooking, particularly in pizza and pasta sauces. It also has a strong showing in European breads of the rye family. Its usage has spread to various uses in Indian and Chinese cooking.
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Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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