In most cuisines around the world, the all-important “secret ingredient” is often a blend of spices. Just a small amount stirred into a dish can add a world of flavour or connect us to home! Somewhere in their culinary evolution, humans began using herbs and spices to flavour their food. And as cuisines and classic recipes evolved, so did the use of combinations of spices and spice blends that were used to cook and flavour foods with.
India being the home to spices is of course home to numerous spice blends. And the making of spice mixes is still an activity that is sacred and in many places secret. They can also be defining of a cuisine. To begin at the milder end of the spectrum, the USA is home to Cajun Blackening Spice, which is a combination of salt, garlic, onion powder, thyme, oregano, hot and sweet paprika, white and black pepper, used to season roasts, stews, grills Cajun-style pan blackened dishes. With the phrase “as American as apple pie’ so popular, it isn’t surprising that American spice blends also include a couple of charming blends on the sweeter end of the spectrum.
While the Apple Pie spice blend is a perfect flavouring combination made of cinnamon, Cardamom, nutmeg and clove, it is the Pumpkin pie spice blend of “warming” spices, that is the general purpose spice blend made of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, allspice and mace, that is used to uplift a bland pie to rich dessert standards; and is also stirred into sweet potato pies, cakes, cookies and custards.
Jamaica is home to the Jerk style of cooking in which meats (pork, chicken, fish, beef, sausage and now even tofu) are dry-rubbed with a fiery spice mixture called Jamaican jerk spice; made of allspice and fiery Scotch Bonnet chilies, combined with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme and garlic. The marinated meat is then barbecued over aromatic wood charcoal. In Europe and the Mediterranean, Quatre épices is a blend mainly used in France but also popular in the Middle Eastern kitchen. Literally meaning “four spices”, this blend combines pepper (white, black, or both), clove, nutmeg and ginger and is typically used in soups, stews, vegetable preparations and also in sausages and salamis.
Ironically Britain’s claim to Spice blend fame is Curry powder – a blend of spices created by any companies after the days of the Raj, to recreate the the flavors of India, for Englishmen homesick for India. Almost always made of coriander, cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek, recipes vary in their addition of ginger, garlic, red pepper, mustard seeds, cloves, black pepper, and other spices…but the most hilarious aspect of the Curry powder is the total absence of curry leaves!!
Options get more exciting as one comes to the Middle East, Iran, Lebanon and Eqypt; there are a variety of spice blends that aromatize the food. Literally meaning “top of the shop,” Ras el hanout is perhaps the most renowned Moroccan spice blend that can contain more than 30 ingredients. For Moroccan spice merchants it is a point of honour to have the most sought after version of this blend in the entire souk or market. Legendary spice blends that spice merchants have created for clientele might include ingredients as bizarre as hashish or even the notorious Spanish fly!