How to take your cooking to the next level with spice blends

We're often asked why we make spice blends.

In Israel, they say that spices are what gives food its soul. And so bland food is by definition considered banal, hundrum, dull, soulless, boring. Spices transform food from functional and forgettable to an enjoyable, tasty, memorable and (sometimes) even remarkable experience.

In some cultures, like the Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia, you'd be hard pressed to find any kind of food or cooking that doesn't contain spices and herbs. It's as basic, fundamental and essential as the main ingredient itself. Indian cuisine won't work without cardamom, nutmeg, turmeric and fenugreek. Cumin and coriander seeds are a must in North African cuisine. Eastern European cooking demands paprika and garlic. Middle Eastern cuisine won't be quite the same without sumac and thyme. South Asian food is captured by chilli and ginger.    

Everyone knows that great food creates memories, connects us to our roots, brings us together.

As most cooks and chefs will tell you, in food as in life, it's the small details that make all the difference. Flavour is what sets a dish apart. It's what makes food, and by extension life, a little more interesting, less bland, more fun, a little more vivid and pleasurable.

There are hundreds of culinary spices and herbs out there. To spice nerds like us here at Sprinkle, the really fascinating part is that every continent and cuisine in the world has developed its own distinct spice blends. And those come in dozens of variations documented in closely guarded secret recipes. The ancient art of spice blending has evolved over centuries but is still having a major impact on how we cook and enjoy food today.

Ancient history meets modern cooking

Spices have a long history, going back thousands of years. Black pepper and cinnamon were traded in Asia and the Middle East as far back as 2000BC. Ancient Egyptians' demand for exotic spices stimulated global trade. Herbs were used for medicinal purposes and religious rituals in India and China as far back as 1000BC. Spice traders and explores travelled the world and imported spices from China, India and the Middle East to Europe and the Americas. 

In Europe during the middle ages, spices were synonymous with wealth and privilege. Cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, cumin, ginger and cloves were some of the most coveted and expensive substances, enjoyed only by the aristocracies. European monarchs craved spices to flavour their wines and food and paid exorbitant amounts of money to have them imported from faraway African and Asian plantations. Until the 15th century, Venice was the centre of global spice trade, supplying the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal with highly desired spices. The discovery of the New World by Columbus brought chilli peppers and allspice to Europe's richest kitchens.

Defining global cuisines

What is so alluring about spice blends is the huge array of mixes that evolved over centuries in different continents and was passed on from one generation to another. Today, there are well known spice blends such as Indian and Asian 'masalas', Egyptian dukka, Jamaican jerk spice and American cajun. But there are so many more spice blends that have shaped entire cuisines and food cultures around the world and become staple ingredients. 

Take, for example, old bay spice blend that was invented in Baltimore in the US in 1939 and is still one of America's most famous seafood spice blends. Or Montreal steak spice, used across Canada and the rest of the world to flavour grilled meats, which started off as a pastrami spice in a small deli. Or the Portuguese "piri piri" spice blend which in fact originates in Africa but made Nandos famous for their spicy grilled chicken. And Herbes de Provance, made famous by a charming combination of rosemary, thyme, marjoram and lavender, used widely in French cuisine.

Other spice blends are so common in some parts of the world that they're almost a national emblem and no local would ever consider eating or cooking without them. 

Take za'atar, a fragrant herbal mix that dates back to the 13th century, popular in Israel and across the Middle East. Traditionally, it's a mix of dried hyssop, sumac and sesame seeds, you can find it with orange zest in Lebanon, cumin in Jordan or dried dill in Israel. Some add marjoram too. Some believe that it helps with focus, energy and brain activity. But mostly it's a must-have ingredient on anything from salads to flat bread to meat, poultry and fish.  

Baharat is a Middle Eastern mix that comes in many variations and is used in Greece, Turkey, Tunisia and the Persian Gulf to season lamb, beef, fish, chicken, soups and stews. It can contain anywhere from six to thirteen spices including allspice, black pepper, cassia, cardamom, cumin, paprika and chilli. 

Berbere is a key ingredient in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines consisting of chilli, garlic, ginger, ajwain, nigella seeds and fenugreek. 

Ras-el-Hanout is a pungent spice mix used heavily in Moroccan and North African cuisines to flavour soups, tagines, fish and meat dishes or stirred into couscous or rice. It typically comprises warm, earthy spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cumin and nutmeg as well as ginger, turmeric, paprika and mace. You'll find as many ras-el-hanout recipes as there are Moroccan grandmothers. 

Pumpkin spice is an American spice mix typically consisting of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. It is referenced in cook books dating back to the 1890s!

Shichimi is a Japanese chilli based spice blend containing seven ingredients such as black and white sesame seeds, orange peel, poppy seeds and hemp seeds. It dates back to the 17th century and often used with soups, noodles and on rice crackers.

Adobo is a Spanish paprika-based seasoning dating back to the 19th century and used to marinate and flavour meats, soups and stews. It also contains garlic, oregano and chilli and is used across Latin America. Puerto Ricans add lemon zest and use it as a dry rub for grilled meats. In Peru, it's used to marinate pork and vegetables.

Many more spice mixes are used in India, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Yemen, China, North Africa, Central and South America, England and France.

What's in a blend?

What all of the above blends have in common is that they finely balance various spices and herbs to create a mix that's greater than the sum of its parts. Add too much or too little of an ingredient and you'll end up with a completely different flavour profile.

Spice blends, just like wine, choclate or coffee are all about artfully bringing together different flavour characteristics and making them all work together in harmony.

Spice blends can be piquant, sweet, spicy, savoury, tart, peppery, hot or nutty. They can have a floral, herbal, citrusy, smoky or earthy aroma. Often, they're a combination of those flavours and aromas. And that's the real magic of spice blends. They marry spices and herbs that originate in different parts of the world and create a unique flavour combination that pairs with so many different foods. Incredible when you think about it.

One of our blends, for example, combines Israeli sweet paprika, Indian cumin, North African coriander seeds, European sage, Mexican chilli, Turkish garlic and Australian salt. 

The beauty of spice blending is that the options are endless. Yes, traditional mixes will always have a place in the pantry but new, innovative combos are constantly emerging, challenging the old ways of cooking and exploring new flavours. 

Trust us, there are few things more satisfying than creating a new, fresh blend from scratch. The process of roasting spices, grinding them and mixing into a magical substance is creative, exciting and rewarding all at once. And that's why we do what we do. 

If you'd like to get started on cooking with spice blends or are an experienced spice aficionado looking for a new spice blend to refresh your pantry, head to our Spice Blends page for more information or the Recipes page for inspirational healthy recipes.  

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