What’s life without a little spice?
For most North Americans the local supermarket is the place we find most of our spices. The selection usually isn’t too bad and they all come in these convenient little jars. However, there are a few problems with going this route. First is the cost. Convenience comes with a hefty price tag–sometimes the cost can be literally ten, twenty or even fifty times more than the bulk price. The second issue is selection, particularly when it comes to Asian cuisine. While you will find the usual dried oregano, basil, sage, etc., you typically won’t find amchur powder and shaved bonito.
First to the issue of cost. Bulk is obviously better. Whenever you have the option of picking a bag of bulk spices over a little jar of the same, go for the bulk. There is a caveat to this though: only buy quantities appropriate to the amount you expect to use over the short-term. Spices will lose their power and become stale if they sit around too long. Good storage jars and a freezer will extend the shelf life of bulk spices, but not indefinitely. Also buying whole spices and grinding them as required will also make them go a lot further. I tend to buy bulk seed spices and whole leaf spices where possible and grind them as I go (more on this below).
When it comes to finding spices a lot depends on location. While we’re blessed with a wide range of choices here in the lower mainland of BC, you may not be so fortunate. However, with a little hunting and pecking you will be able to find most spices or substitutes. Strategies include hunting in the back corners of your corner Asian grocer, seeking out the (hopefully) local gourmet supply store, or a trip into the deeper bowels of nearby ethnic communities. I buy most of my bulk spices either in supermarkets (common European and Western spices), at a local Indian grocer, or occasionally at the Gourmet Warehouse or Bosa Foods (Italian supermarket).
- Use a small electric coffee grinder to grind spices;
- Save large pasta jars and the like for storing spices;
- Buy bulk whenever possible;
- Whole spices last longer and taste fresher;
- Buy smaller jars for use in the kitchen from a dollar store;
- A labeler is a handy way to help you mark identify jars on the go.
Here’s a starter list of spices that I use regularly. I’ve separated them into dry and fresh, and where appropriate added notes. I should point out that this list list is far from exhaustive and I’m sure there are many that you would forgo or add.
Amchur Powder – Powdered dried green mango. Used in many south Asian cuisines this spice adds both flavour and acidity.
Bay Leaves – There’s hardly a more important spice in European and Mediterranean soups and stocks, and it plays an important role in many South Asian sauces. The California Bay Leaf plant grows well in temperate climes and I get a regular harvest from my neighbour’s plant.
Cardamon Pods, green and black – Usually added to curries and stews just lightly crushed. The two varieties are totally different in flavour with the green being closer to the flavour most westerners associate with ground cardamon, while the black imparts a heavy smokey, almost medicinal flavour.
Cardamon Seeds (shelled green) – The seeds are so finicky to separate from the pods that this is one spice that’s worth the extra expense to buy. From sweets to Northern Indian curries and meat dishes, you will find that a little goes a long way–particularly if you hand grind it from the seed with a mortar and pestle.
Cinnamon, bark and ground – This is one spice that is difficult to grind, so I buy both bark and ground versions.
Cinnamon, leaves – Tough to find locally, Bay Leaves are often suggested as a substitute in South Asian dishes.
Chilies, whole, ground, flakes – There are so many varieties of chilies and I want them all. Unfortunately I can’t justify having more than three or four varieties on hand. My favourites are the standard stemless red hot whole chilies available in most Indian grocery stores, and the dried ancho chilies with their distinct flavour so essential in many Mexican dishes. I use the red chilies either whole or ground, and the ancho peppers either whole or softened and chopped or processed. Lately I’ve been branching out with Korean dishes and I’ve been purchasing a mild coarsely ground red chili for some recipes. I buy the flaked chilies available in most supermarkets mostly as a condiment or in some Chinese dishes, but I prefer to use others where possible.
Cloves, whole and ground – Don’t try and grind cloves yourself. The oil from the seeds will melt plastic (I learned the hard way).
Coriander Seed – Another mainstay in my cooking. A must for Indian and Southeast Asian cooking. The plant is commonly called cilantro, but most will refer to the seed as coriander.
Cumin Seed – This is my master spice and you’ll see there’s hardly a recipe that I make that doesn’t involve at least a little of this lemony spice. Buy whole seeds and either add to dishes directly or grind. Great toasted prior to grinding for many Indian and Sri Lankan dishes.
Fennel, seeds – Strong licorice flavoured spice. Use whole or ground. Buy in Bulk (small quantities).
Garlic, salt and powder – A guilty pleasure and a must for meat rubs and tacos.
Kari or Curry Leaves, dried – When you run out of fresh leaves or the ones you buy fresh have finally dry out in the fridge, these can be a lifesaver. Used heavily in Southern Indian dishes. See below in fresh spices.
Katsuobushi (Shaved Bonito Flakes) – Is it an ingredient or a spice? You be the judge. Often smoked, this is the very soul of Japanese cuisine (in my humble opinion).
Mustard Seed, Black and Yellow – Substitute brown for black if unavailable. I buy the black in bulk, but use only small quantities of the yellow.
Nutmeg, Seeds and Ground – Seeds are tough to grind using the coffee grinder, but work well with a traditional nutmeg grater. Fresh grated nutmeg is a must for eggnog. The preground version is good for garam masala and for dishes such as vindaloo or anywhere where larger quantities are called for.
Oregano – If you can get the whole leaf, dried on the stem versions from Greek or other Mediterranean retailers you will find that it has a stronger flavour than the typical dried product available in supermarkets. I usually go with the latter, but the whole leaf versions really kick up some dishes.
Paprika, ground (spanish, bittersweet, hungarian, smoked) – The cheap bulk purchased spanish paprika adds colour and a subtle flavour to many dishes and is essential for taco seasoning and the like. It’s also a great substitute for recipes calling for ground chili when you want to lower the heat of a dish. The other varieties purchased in small quantities and kept in small airtight containers are used for dishes where a stronger paprika flavour is desired (European and Mediterranean dishes come to mind).
Peppercorn, Black and White – The most ubiquitous of spices.
Sage, Leaf and Ground
Salt, Sea, Kosher, etc. – At the bare minimum you should have non-iodized sea salt and kosher or pickling salt on hand in addition to regular table salt. Exotic varieties like Fleur de Sel, Murray River or Hawaiian salts are nice touches in some dishes.
Sesame Seeds – Can go rancid in warmer climates. If you buy in bulk, store in the freezer.
Seven Spice Powder – A Japanese spice mixture involving dried citrus peels, sesame seeds and chilies. This is one spice I buy in the little table shaker.
Star Anise, whole and ground – A licorice flavoured spice used frequently in Chinese and South Asian cooking.
Sugar, white, brown, palm, etc. – In addition to its use as an acid balancer, sugar, used sparingly, will impart subtle flavour changes in a dish depending on the variety used.
Tumeric – Heavily featured in most South Asain and South East dishes this another must have. Buy in bulk.
Basil – Grow it or buy it, this unfortunately expensive and delicate member of the mint family is crucial for many European and Southeast Asian dishes. You can sometimes find “Thai” or purple basil. This variety has a very strong peppery basil flavour and tougher stalks–not really appropriate for delicate pestos and sauces, but excellent in a hot bowl of Pho or many Southeast Asian Curries.
Chilies, serrano and thai – There are some dishes where fresh chilies are a must. They don’t always live in my refrigerator, but they’re often on hand. The serrano chilies I get locally are always green, while the thai can be either green or red. There are plenty of chili varieties and I experiment regularly. There is one that I avoid if possible–the common jalapeno. I find that they are inconsistent in heat and tend to be a bit too acidic for use in Asian dishes.
Chives – I don’t buy these–they grow in my garden. If you have no garden, just buy them as you use them. They tend to be expensive and green onions are a perfectly acceptable as a substitute in most dishes.
Cilantro (Corriander) – Always on hand. Goes off fairly quickly. I’ve tried many different storage options, but keeping it in a loose unsealed plastic bag in the crisper seems to work best. Luckily it’s cheap and when it does start to turn you don’t feel to guilty about putting it in the compost. If you can, buy it with the roots attached. The roots have a very strong lemony flavour and are called for in some Thai dishes.
Dill – I love dill, but my wife doesn’t. If you grow it, be careful–it’s called dillweed for a reason. Keeps fairly well in the refrigerator.
Galangal Root – A pine scented root similar to ginger (but not a substitute), this is featured in many dishes fron Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. I keep a chunk in the freezer and use a micro-plane to shave it off the frozen root.
Garlic – Store in a dry cool place, but not the refrigerator (it will loose flavour).
Ginger Root – Look for smooth glossy and unwrinkled skins. New or young ginger is sometimes available (and is very tasty), but it’s tricky to work with and has a lower shelf life than the older root.
Green Onions – Sometimes incorrectly called shallots, these straddle the border between spice and ingredient. The green portions are peppery and jazz up many otherwise dull dishes (tuna sandwiches come to mind), the white portions are perfect for use in any dish were onions are called for, and both are an integral part of Korean cuisine. Often used as a substitute for shallots.
Lemon Grass – A tough customer (literally), this is often called for in Southeast Asian dishes. You really need to get past the tough outer leaves to find a tender enough piece to work with and even then you need to cut it paper thin (unless you add large pieces and remove prior to serving). I use a micro plane to get a usable product.
Lime Leaves – These are leaves from the Kaffir lime tree on Southeast Asia. They are incredibly difficult for me to source locally, and when I find them fresh I buy a bunch and freeze them. Essential in Thai curries.
Mint – There are tonnes of varieties, but the standard English mint typically available in supermarkets has the widest use. I grow English and spearmint in my herb garden. It has a very short shelf life so use or dry it within a day or two.
Oregano – Pick or buy fresh, it keeps moderately well in the refrigerator.
Parsley, Italian – Save the curly English parsley for tabouli salad and garnish. Flat leafed Italian parsley is a work horse in the kitchen. It has a good shelf life and is available year round in most of North America.
Rosemary – I have two rosemary bushes growing in my yard and I have access year round to this spice. I always pick the tender green new growth for use, and if you buy it you should look for the same in the store product.
Sage – Short shelf life once picked or purchased.
Sambal Oelek – Essentially crushed red chilies in a little vinegar (along with a few tasty preservatives), this gets heavy use in my kitchen. This straddles the line between spice and condiment, but because I use it as a substitute to fresh chilies in many dishes, it qualifies as a spice for me.
Thyme – Keeps fairly well, but dries out over time.