Spicing Up Your Meals: 4 Must-Have Spice Blends

Photo: Clyde Robinson 

This week, Monica Bhide, Indian food contributor and cook book author, reminded us of the power of spices. Like a palate of colors, spices can change the mood and tone of dishes entirely, even if the rest of the ingredients are exactly the same. Imagine dry rubbing a chicken with Chinese 5 Spice, Garam Masala or Cajun spice mix. The experience would be different and it would beg for an entirely different set of condiments, side dishes and beverages to compliment.

We are always tired of eating the same thing-different day but the solution isn't far either. Purchasing different cuts of meats or vegetables that we have barely heard of let alone know what to do with, can lead to a discouraging experience if things don't quite work out. But imagine what just a few different spice blends could do.

Throw in a little Ras-el Hanout and then allow your mind to drift to Morocco, or perhaps a little Sambal to take you to Indonesia. Purchase the small jars as a little goes a long way, and then just like an artist, begin to create. There are no hard and fast rules and you can absolutely throw in a little Garam Masala in to you Chile con Carne; in fact the little unassuming and very authentic Japanese restaurant I frequent downtown adds Madras paste to their sauteed ground beef dish and it works like a charm.

These spices capture the essence of a culture. Just a pinch of it will fill your home with exotic smells of cardamom, aniseed, cumin and star anise. It will also give you instant access to what many families keep to themselves, recipes which are guarded with the utmost secrecy.

Most artisan-made spice blends are available at mainstream grocery stores and of course your local ethnic specialty stores have even more variety.

So where do you start in spicing up your ordinary meals? Here are some spice blend must-haves to really change up your weekday and short-on-time meals:

Garam Masala - A smoky seasoning consisting of roasted cumin, coriander seeds, cinnamon, black and green cardamom. Often used in meat dishes.

Usage suggestion: Add 1/2 a teaspoon to a stir fry at the very end as these spices have already been roasted and start to lose flavor.

Ras El Hanout - Consists of 30 spices such as mace, ginger powder, cinnamon, anise and 26 others. This dish is often used in Tagines in Morrocco.

Usage suggestion: Throw some into a pumpkin or butternut squash soup and if you have a can of chick peas, add those too.

Chinese 5 Spice - A combination of cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, star anise and Sichuan peppercorn. The spice places that scent you can't quite put your finger on in Chinese restaurants. Often used with meats.

Usage suggestion: Use this as a dry rub for your barbecue pork ribs and then paste with hickory smoked barbeque sauce.

Berbere - The spice mixture is the go-to spice for Ethiopian food. A combination of chilies, dried herbs and many spices, your dish will be kicked up more than just a notch. Used in Doro Wat Chicken, this spice combination gives the dish its characteristic qualities.

Usage suggestions: Add some to a hearty meat or chicken stew so that they can stand up to the bold flavors.

For more food tips, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)