Hello again, Eric.
You've touched on one of my favourite subjects, as is only natural for
a cook. While I am not a universal authority on things food-related,
I am better-informed than most on this particular subject (a side
effect of a broad interest in international foods, and their history
I'm going to begin with a few brief comments, followed by a list of
seasonings and recommended pairings, in alphabetical order by their
most common name. That will be followed by a list of specific
"classic" spice mixtures found in various cuisines around the world;
and finally I will round off this answer with a list of resources you
may wish to consult for further information. I will include all of
the classic spice mixes I know or can find, though certainly it will
not total nearly a hundred. Still, by consulting the pairings I give
you, you should have little trouble arriving at scores of
I need to explain right off the bat that I seldom have occasion to
cook vegan, as my circle of acquaintance consists almost exclusively
of the cheerfully omnivorous. Many of the classic seasoning
combinations are utilized in meat/fish/poultry cooking, but I will
include them anyway. Where applicable I will suggest alternatives,
and I am sure that the literature of the worldwide vegan community
contains many more suggestions.
Secondly, please be aware that any treatment short of book length will
not do justice to the subject, and that this necessarily constitutes
the scratching of a very large surface. Treat it as a starting point,
and whenever you crank off a recipe you haven't tried before, make a
point of consciously evaluating how the seasonings played off one
another. In time, you will be able to compose a list of "classics"
that please your own palate.
Third, let me say that 120 seasonings (while a laudable goal) is a
WHOLE LOT to have in your cupboard at once. My personal arsenal, as a
professional cook with a varied interest in international cuisine, is
about half of that. Rather than running out to your nearest store (or
logging onto a reputable website) to fill up your cupboard, I would
suggest building your palette of herbs and spices slowly and
naturally. In other words, gather related flavours a few at a time,
as you cook with them. This way, you'll have the opportunity to use
them and learn about them as you go, rather than having a large number
of unfamiliar names glaring at you accusingly from the cupboard.
This leads me to another key subject, that of freshness. There is a
reason why most spice jars are so small; if you're buying more than
you will use in a six-month period your spices and herbs will begin to
stale on you and lose their savour. If, for example, you crave
Italian food during winter weather, fall would be the time to
replenish your stock of dried basil and oregano. Always buy your
seasonings in the most intact form that is suitable; chopped leaves
rather than ground, whole seeds rather than ground, etc. Only a few
spices (turmeric springs to mind) are best purchased ground, most will
last longer and taste better if purchased whole. A small mortar and
pestle is a useful tool for grinding spices and making your own mixes,
and inexpensive coffee grinders are excellent for those spices which
are difficult or inconvenient to grind in the mortar. TIP: When I am
grinding spices for immediate use, rather than for a spice mix I'll be
storing, I generally add a pinch of coarse salt to my mortar. It
makes the spices grind more evenly.
Ajwain seeds (AKA ajowan, omum, bishop's weed): strong thyme-like
flavour, widely used in Indian cooking. Used often as a digestive
ingredient in deep-fried foods such as vegetable fritters; paired with
cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, fennel seeds, or black pepper.
Annatto seeds (AKA achiote, bijol): Seldom used directly in food,
typically infused into sauces or cooking oil then strained out,
sometimes ground into spice mixes. Gives a strong red-orange colour
and musky flavour, widely used in caribbean cooking with hot peppers,
allspice, ginger, and similar spices.
Allspice (AKA Jamaican Pepper): Tastes like (but isn't) a combination
of other warm spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, pepper). Can
be combined with any of those for baking purposes, but is also used
for savoury cooking throughout the Caribbean in particular. Used in
"jerk spice" mixes.
Amchoor (AKA Amchur): Unripe mangoes, dried and ground to powder.
Used in Indian cooking as a souring agent, primarily in vegetable
dishes (stir fries) and chutneys. Frequently paired with cinnamon,
cardamom, cumin, fennel or anise seed.
Amradeen: Thin sheets of "apricot leather," used in the Middle East to
make sweet/sour sauces. Often combined with nuts or pomegranate, used
in many dishes with vegetables such as eggplant and zucchini.
Anise: Seeds have a distinctly licorice flavour and are often used in
both sweet and savoury cooking. Pair with cumin, coriander, and most
other Indian/MidEast spices. Leaves of the anise plant are difficult
to find fresh (unless you grow it in your garden) but have a milder
licorice flavour and are wonderful in salads.
Asafoetida (AKA hing, "devil's dung): This spice is widely used in
Indian cooking, and is thought to be a close approximation of the
now-extinct "silphium" so prized by the Romans. Be aware that it has
a VERY powerful aroma, distinctly unpleasant to most people. Keep it
in a bag, inside a sealed Mason Jar, inside another bag. When heated
in oil (usually ghee, in India) the smell subsides and it gives a very
mild, pleasant, onion/garlic flavour. Used widely in legume dishes,
paired with ginger and turmeric or saffron.
Basil: There are many kinds of basil grown around the world, but
sweet basil is the one most commonly found in North American
supermarkets. Pair it with garlic, nuts, oregano, thyme, tarragon, or
(in general) any other member of the mint family. Excellent as a
single flavouring with almost any mild dish.
Bay: A variety of laurel commonly grown as a hedge in moderate
climates. Excellent in soups, broths, and stews; a natural complement
to garlic and onions.
Beebalm (AKA bergamot): Generally grown for decorative or medicinal
purposes, but may be used fresh as a culinary herb. Gives a
distinctive citrusy flavour to salads, and is especially suited for
use with fruit and fruit salads. Also good in tisanes. Sometimes
called "bergamot" because of its resemblance to the flavour of
bergamot oranges (the flavouring of Earl Grey tea).
Black Pepper: The most widely-used spice of all, it requires little
introduction. Buy whole peppercorns and grind them as needed; a
good-quality pepper mill is a lifetime investment (and even cheap ones
will give good service for several years). Crack coarsely in a mortar
and pestle for use in sauces or spice mixtures. May be combined with
essentially any other spice, and can be used in small quantities in
sweet baking to "perk up" tired cinnamon, ginger, allspice, etc.
Tellicherry peppercorns, from India, are considered to be the best and
are increasingly available in North America.
Borage: Little-grown in America, but a herb worth knowing. Has a mild
cucumber-y flavour. Use the fresh leaves in salads or to flavour
vegetables, the flowers fresh in salads or dried in herb teas.
Burnet (AKA salad burnet): Another little-cultivated salad herb.
Cucumber flavour, but sharper and stronger than borage. Combine with
other salad herbs and lettuces, or use with raw vegetables and yogurt.
Caraway: Seeds resemble cumin, but have a warm licorice flavour.
Widely used in baking, either in cookies or as a flavouring in rye
breads. Used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking in conjunction with
cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger, and similar spices. Leaves are
hard to find, unless you grow it yourself, but make a fine salad herb.
Cardamom: Buy whole pods, if at all possible. Green cardamoms are
typically used in sweets, black cardamoms for savoury dishes. Sharp,
pine-y flavour complements pistachios well. Arabs use it to flavour
their coffee. Commonly paired with caraway or anise, but also used in
many savoury dishes with cumin, mustard seeds, and curry leaves.
Cayenne: A dried hot Caribbean pepper. Used in many spice mixtures
for its red colour and sharp heat.
Chervil: A member of the parsley family with a very mild anise
flavour. One of the French "fines herbes." Combine with any other
mild herbs such as chives or parsley.
Chiles (AKA hot peppers, red peppers, capsicums, and many other
names): Chiles are a whole subject unto themselves, and there are
literally hundreds of varieties. They range from very mild to
intensely - almost painfully - hot, but have finely-differentiated
flavours to the initiate. Even the strongest, Scotch Bonnet/habanero,
have a distinctly fruity "apricot-ish" aftertaste. It is hard to
believe, now, that these only spread throughout the world in the last
few centuries. Use with cumin, lime, onions, garlic, ginger, and many
many more. More than almost any other ingredient, chiles will repay
extended experimentation. Try several kinds and pick your own
Chives: Mild oniony flavour. Use in salads or soups as a garnish.
Cilantro (AKA "fresh coriander," "chinese parsley"): The leaves of the
plant which produces coriander seed. Called cilantro in the Americas,
"fresh coriander" or coriander leaves elsewhere. Fresh, citrusy
flavour; commonly paired with hot peppers, cumin, and limes. Used
widely in the cuisine of almost all hotter climates.
Citrus peel/zest: Often candied for baking purposes, but
underutilized in Western cooking. Use freshly-blanched zest of
oranges, lemons, or limes in sweet or savoury rice dishes; or blanch
and dry the zest, powder it in a spice grinder/food processor, and use
it in dry rubs. Excellent with cumin, coriander, cilantro, onions,
and many other spices.
Cloves: Sharp, penetrating flavour; primarily used in North America
for baking. Combine with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, or allspice.
Often used in savoury dishes in the Middle East and India.
Coriander: Seeds are best ground fresh, and have a pleasant earthy
flavour with citrusy overtones. Used extensively in Scandinavian
countries (primarily for baking) and in India and the Middle East.
Frequently used with cumin, caraway or anise, and cardamoms.
Cubebs: Berries similar to black peppercorns, and used in much the
same way. Often found in West African cookery, and occasionally in
Culantro: A herb unrelated to cilantro, with larger leaves but a very
similar flavour. Used primarily in Latin American cooking.
Interchangeable with cilantro for practical purposes.
Cumin: One of the world's most widely used spices; fundamental to
Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American cooking. Provides an
earthy, slightly nutty flavour, especially when dry-toasted before
grinding. Complements most foods, and is often paired with
coriander/cilantro, anise/fennel/caraway seeds, hot peppers, and
Curry leaf: Not to be confused with curry pastes or powders. Curry
leaf is a herb with a pleasantly tart, citrusy flavour, most often
used in Indian cuisine for stewed dishes and sauces. Frequently
paired with ginger, mustard seeds, hot peppers, tomatoes, cumin, and
turmeric. Best when purchased fresh, though dried leaves are more
Dandelion: Yes, that dandelion. Widely used as a salad herb in
Europe. Available commercially, or harvest young plants from
locations known to be chemical-free. Combine with lettuces and other
Dende Oil: A form of palm oil common to West African and Brazilian
(especially Bahian) cuisine. Lends a red-orange colour and spicy
accent to foods when used as the cooking medium.
Dill: Used both as a feathery herb and a disc-shaped seed. The herb
has a delicate flavour and enhances salads and milder-flavoured
vegetables; the seed has a more pronounced anise-like flavour and is
commonly used in combinations of pickling spices with peppercorns,
allspice, mustard seeds, coriander, and many others.
Elephant Garlic: Technically not a garlic, it is larger and sweeter.
For practical purposes, though, use it like garlic.
Elder flower/Elderberry: The blossoms are commonly used as a garnish
or candied, may also be used in tisanes. The berries contain a
poisonous alkaloid and MUST be cooked, they are sometimes used in
savoury dishes as a souring agent but are more commonly used to make
cordials and preserves.
Epazote (AKA stinkweed, wormweed): A strongly-flavoured herb (as its
slang names would indicate) essential in Mexican cookery. Use with
cumin, peppers, onions, garlic, and oregano.
Fennel (AKA sweet anise): A vegetable, a herb, and a spice. The leafy
fronds have a mild licorice flavour and may be added to any salad or
used to garnish mild-flavoured vegetables like baby potatoes or
artichokes. The seeds are larger than true anise, but may be used
like anise or caraway seeds for their stronger licorice flavour.
Combine with cumin, coriander, ginger, turmeric, and similar spices.
Fenugreek (AKA methi, kasoori methi): Both the leaves (kasoori methi)
and the seeds (methi) are widely used in Indian and Mid-East cooking.
The leaves have a fresh, herbal character with a pleasantly earthy,
bitter note. Use fresh or dried. Fenugreek has a special affinity
with potatoes and mushrooms, in western cooking, and is used heavily
in legume dishes elsewhere. The seeds are actually a legume and are
sometimes cooked as a vegetable, but more usually they are ground and
used in various masalas. The seeds have a curious bitter flavour with
a hint of butterscotch. (NB: While there is no tradition in India of
using fenugreek seed in sweets, I have been baking with it for the
last year or so and find that it lends an intriguing note to
shortbread cookies and piecrust, among other things.)
File Powder: Ground sassafrass leaves. Used as a flavouring and
thickening agent in the Southern US, most notably in gumbo. Has a
nice affinity with vegetables.
Galangal (AKA galanga, galingale): Similar to ginger in flavour and
appearance, but with a more floral, peppery character. Used widely in
SE Asian cooking, also in India. May be used in conjunction with
garlic, onions, cumin, citrus, hot peppers, coriander, cilantro, and
many other herbs and spices. Ginger is a reasonable substitute.
Garlic: What to say about garlic? Used widely in most of the world's
cuisines, it combines well with onions, most herbs, tomatoes, and any
number of spices. For most purposes, it is best used fresh. Garlic
flakes, granules (ground) and salt tend to have a harsher flavour and
are (in general) less desirable, especially the salt, but tend to be
useful as a convenience. Garlic paste is available in squeeze tubes,
and while not as flavourful as fresh it is superior to dried.
Garlic Chives: A flatter-bladed chive with a mild garlic flavour. Use
with any combination of other salad herbs.
Ginger: Available fresh or dried, this is one of the most versatile
spices in existence. Use fresh in Indian and Asian cooking, or in
Caribbean spice mixtures. Fresh ginger may be sliced, chopped,
minced, or grated depending on the preparation. Dried ginger is best
used for baking only, as it will not give the desired result in
savoury preparations. For cooking, combine fresh ginger with onions,
garlic, cumin, coriander, hot peppers, black pepper, citrus, and many
more. For baking, combine with cinnamon, nutmeg/mace, allspice,
cloves, or any other "warm" spices. An important note for vegetarians
is that ginger and turmeric are consdered to counter the
flatulence-inducing characteristics of legumes.
Grains of Paradise (AKA Melegueta pepper): Hugely popular in the
Middle Ages and Renaissance, and currently undergoing a revival.
Flavour is pungent and peppery, and it may be used like black pepper.
Common in West African dishes.
Green Peppercorns (AKA Madagascar peppercorns): The same berry as
regular black peppercorns, but harvested unripe and generally pickled.
They have a soft texture and a distinctively mild pepper flavour.
Widely used in sauces and spice rubs.
Hoja Santo: Herb indigenous to Mexico and the American southwest.
Has a distinctive sassafrass/root beer flavour, used in many Mexican
dishes and also as a leaf wrapper for steaming.
Hyssop: Leaves have a strong mint/licorice flavour. Hard to find, but
good with other salad herbs.
Jasmine: Flowers give a delicate flavor to tea and tisanes, may also
be used in fruit salads or sorbets.
Juniper berry: Gives a penetrating, "woodsy" character to marinades
and braised dishes. For a vegan game dishes are out of the question,
but juniper berries are excellent in a slow-cooked sauerkraut with
lots of apples, onions, and caraway seeds.
Kaffir Lime: Zest and leaves are widely used in Thai and Indonesian
cooking. Combine with ginger or galangal, garlic, chiles, cumin,
coriander, cilantro, etc.
Lemon Balm: A small-leafed herb with a gentle lemony flavour, widely
used in baking and savoury dishes.
Lemongrass: Long, woody herb with a strong lemony flavour. Widely
used in SE Asian cooking. Combine with ginger, cilantro, cumin,
coriander, hot peppers, onions, garlic, etc.
Lemon Verbena: Larger leaves than lemon balm and a stronger flavour,
widely used in desserts.
Licorice: Available in "stick" form, or ground. Very sweet, useful
in some baked goods, sauces, etc. Note that licorice contains a
steroid-like compound which can have serious health repercussions for
some people, which is why anise and its cognates are more-widely used
for culinary purposes.
Limu Omani/aswad/basra (AKA Leimoon, Loomi): Dried limes, used whole
or ground to powder in Middle-Eastern cookery.
Lovage: Another long-overlooked calad herb. Leaves and seeds have a
strong celery-like flavour and may be used in soups, salads, dry rubs,
marinades etc. The seeds are often misidentified as ajwain.
Mace: The papery husk surrounding the "nut" of the nutmeg. Flavour
is like nutmeg, but milder and slightly floral. Used in many masalas
and other spice mixes, and a common baking ingredient (standard in
pumpkin pies, for example).
Mahleb: The ground pits of a cherry found in the Levant; widely used
as a spice in Middle Eastern cooking. Very fragrant, used in both
sweet and savoury dishes; combines well with almonds and pistachios
for sweets, cumin, coriander, and hot peppers in savoury dishes.
Marjoram: A popular Mediterranean herb similar to oregano, but with
thyme-y overtones. May be used interchangeably with oregano in most
recipes and spice mixtures.
Mastic: The gum of a small acacia native to one Greek island. Widely
used throughout Greece and the Mid-East as a seasoning, it has a mild
licorice flavour with slightly "woodsy" overtones. Used in sweet and
Mint: A HUGE family of herbs. Mint is widely used in the Americas
for candymaking, tisanes, and as a dessert garnish. Elsewhere,
however, it is more commonly found in salads (either green or
yogurt-based), soups, and seasoning pastes. You will see mint used
prominently in Arab, Persian, Turkish, and Indian cuisines.
Mustard Seed: Available in white and yellow (milder), brown
(middlin'), and black (hottest); all are used widely throughout the
Middle East, India, and around the world. Used in many masalas, and
(of course) in prepared condiments. A very versatile spice.
Mustard Oil: Frequently used in Indian cuisine, especially in the
South. Imparts a distinctly spicy flavour to foods cooked in it.
Unlike any other cooking oil, mustard oil MUST be heated to the "smoke
point" before foods are added.
Myrtle: The berries have a mild flavour reminiscent of juniper and
rosemary, and are used in many Mediterranean cuisines.
Nigella (AKA onion seed, black cumin, kalonji): Small black seeds with
an oniony character and a faint hint of boiled egg to the aroma.
Widely used in Indian cooking, and one of the five ingredients in
phanch phoron (Bengali five-spice power). Often added to bread doughs
as an ingredient or a topping, both in India and the Mid-East. Used
in many masalas.
Nutmeg: Best purchased as whole "nuts" and grated as needed. Used
the world over for sweet and savoury dishes. Combine with cinnamon,
cloves, cardamoms, ginger, and other spices for baking. Combine with
onions, peppers, cumin, coriander, ginger, for savoury dishes.
Onion: As with black pepper and garlic, I will say little about
onions. Compatible with almost all herbs and spices, grown and used
Onion skins: Generally discarded here, but they are commonly used as a
flavouring in stocks (a welcome depth of flavour and colour in
meatless broths, especially) and are often used in Egyptian dishes.
Orange flower water/syrup: Used throughout the Mid-East and India to
add a floral, citrusy note to savoury and especially sweet dishes.
Oregano: Used fresh and dried throughout the Mediterranean, Europe,
and Latin America. Has a natural affinity for beans, tomatoes, lemon,
and other herbs such as basil. Use sparingly, as it can be
Paprika: Powdered dried red peppers. Ranges from very mild and sweet
to quite hot, some varieties have a distinctively smokey flavour.
Used throughout Europe, the Mid-East, and into India. Supermarket
paprika is relatively flavourless, but gourmet suppliers carry
numerous more-rewarding varieties. Combines well with onions, garlic,
cumin, turmeric, tomatoes, and many other spices and herbs.
Parsley: One of the most widely used culinary herbs, though
chronically underutilized in America. Either the curly or flat
variety may be used whole or chopped in soups, salads, or any number
of sauces. The flat "Italian" variety has a better flavour. The
stems are more strongly flavoured and are traditionally used in
stockmaking as part of a bouquet garni. Combine with other herbs such
as chervil, cilantro, basil, or tarragon.
Pepitas: The seeds of squash and pumpkins, toasted and ground. Used
widely in Latin American cooking as a flavouring and thickener.
Pink peppercorns: Not really a peppercorn, but it has a peppery
flavour. Typically used as a colouring accent, more than for the
Poppy Seed: Adds a sweet nutty flavour to savoury or baked dishes.
Western baking typically uses whole blue-black poppy seeds, Indian
cooking uses the white poppy seeds (generally ground as a thickener).
Purslane: A herb with a red, woody stem and small paddle-shaped
leaves. Has a tangy flavour, and may be cooked or eaten raw in
salads. Seldom grown commercially, but it grows wild everywhere
(there may be some in your back yard). Adds a flavour note to
Ramps (AKA wild onion, wild leek): An indigenous potherb across much
of North America, sometimes now cultivated as a niche crop. Very mild
in flavour, use like any other onion. Expect to pay a premium price,
unless you learn to spot them for yourself in fields.
Rosehips: Dried, ground rosehips are sometimes used as a souring
ingredient in Mid-Eastern cooking. More usually, they are used in
tisanes and preserves. I'm partial to rosehip and crabapple jelly,
Rosemary: One of the most versatile herbs, indispensible in the
kitchen. Buy the stems fresh and freeze them, rather than drying, for
best flavour and versatility. Widely used throughout the
Mediterranean and southern France in particular, but welcome anywhere.
Combine with lemon, oregano, basil, thyme, tarragon, and many others.
Rosemary is winter-hardy in moderate climates, and makes a great
indoor "bonsai" plant...neatly solving the freshness issue.
Rose Petals: Used as an ingredient (primarily in sweets) from the
Middle East to India.
Rosewater: Used as an aromatic and flavouring ingredient in sweets and
pastries throughout the Middle East.
Saffron: The king of spices, and a personal favourite of mine. Lends
a vivid yellow colour and distinctively pungent, penetrating flavour
and aroma. Has a natural affinity for citrus, tomatoes, olive oil,
almonds and pistachios, rice dishes, and seafood (as a vegan, I'm
thinking you could create seaweed-based dishes for a similar flavour
profile). Widely used in "having guests" dishes such as paella,
risotto Milanese, and the Persian wedding dish "Jewelled Rice." Also
makes an interesting hot beverage, though few people are willing to
splurge on saffron "tea." There is no substitute for saffron, though
safflower, marigolds, turmeric and "American Saffron" (the product of
a different crocus, without the authentic flavour) are often used to
give a similar colour or to "stretch" a modest quantity of genuine
saffron. Always buy threads, rather than powder, as powder is
Sage: One of the most widely-grown herbs, though chronically
underutilized in North America (generally confined to stuffing for the
turkey). Italians rub their teeth with sage after a meal; the oils
have antibacterial properties which help prevent plaque and
gingivitis. Matches well with most other herbs (basil, tarragon,
thyme, rosemary) depending on the dish. Makes a soothing tea for sore
throats and sores in the mouth. If you've only ever had this herb
dried and ground, the fresh leaves are a revalation. Try some in
sandwiches, or deep fried (seriously) as a crisp garnish. Has an
affinity for beans, artichokes, tomatoes, onions/leeks, and most
squashes and root vegetables.
Salt: I recommend to all my friends to have at least one variety of
non-iodized salt on hand for cooking with; be it coarse "pickling"
salt, sea salt, kosher salt, Indian "Black" salt, or insanely
expensive "fleur de sel" for special occasions. Non-iodized salt has
a cleaner flavour; many of the imported gourmet salts have distinctive
"notes" to them which add an indefinable something to a dish. I once
attended a salt tasting, and sampled twenty different kinds of salt in
under an hour. After that, I was highly motivated to visit the wine
tasting across the room!
Savoury: Summer and winter savoury are underrated herbs. Both have an
aromatic, peppery character with hints of thyme, rosemary, and sage
about them; winter savoury is stronger, summer savoury has a milder
and more delicate flavour. Excellent in soups and stews, and
especially good in hearty winter stews and casseroles.
Seaweed: As with chiles, there are far too many to enumerate. Also,
since I am neither a vegetarian nor an afficionado of Japanese
cuisine, I am ill-qualified to comment on anything other than dulse or
Irish Moss, both of which are native to my part of the world. Dulse
may be eaten out of hand as a salty snack or used as a cooked
vegetable; Irish Moss is a source of carageenan and may be used to
thicken puddings and custards without the use of eggs. Either would
likely be hard to find inland. As for the various seaweeds other
seaweeds used culinarily, any good book on Japanese cooking should
give you a grounding.
Sesame Oil: Available in a light (untoasted) and dark (toasted)
version. The light is just a cooking oil, but the dark imparts a
nicely nutty flavour to marinades and vinaigrettes.
Sesame Seed: Used worldwide to add a nutty flavour and crunch to
savoury and baked dishes. Ground to make tahini paste, in
indispensible ingredient in Middle-Eastern cooking. Black (unhulled)
sesame is often used in Indian cooking, but may be hard to find in
Star Anise: Widely used in Indian, Chinese, and other Asian cuisines.
Flavour is similar to true anise but much stronger and perhaps a
little harsher. I prefer this to other licorice-flavoured spices for
soups, but use it with caution as a little goes a long way. Buy this
in Asian stores, as it is hugely overpriced in supermarkets. Has an
affinity with winter vegetables (squashes, roots) in particular.
Sumac: Dried and powdered berries of a shrub native to the Middle
East. Lends a red colour and sour, peppery flavour to Middle-Eastern
cooking. Generally sprinkled onto a finished dish, rather than cooked
in and combined with other flavours.
Sweet Cicely: Yet another anise-flavoured herb, little seen outside of
historic gardens. Has a very sweet aroma and fine, feathery leaves.
Szechuan Peppercorns: The berry and husk of a particular ash tree.
Has a hot, peppery, slightly floral character. Grind and add to spice
mixtures like five-spice powder, or simmer gently in a neutral oil and
then strain the flavoured oil to cook with. Well worth experimenting
Tamarind: Sticky pods of a tropical fruit; sold either as compressed
blocks or as pre-made paste in tubes or jars. Lends a tart flavour to
dishes throughout the Middle-East, Asia, and parts of Latin America.
Many recipes which now contain tomatoes originally used tamarind as
their sour ingredient. The compressed blocks keep for a long, long
Tarragon: The "little dragon" is one of the best-loved herbs of French
and Mediterranean cooking. The flavour is licorice-y and penetrating.
Used in most French herb mixtures; excellent in vinaigrettes and
sauces especially. Pairs well with basil, mint, parsley, chervil, and
most other herbs. Use sparingly.
Thyme: Again, an indispensible herb for most French and Mediterranean
cooking, though sadly underutilized in North America. Buy fresh if
you can, whole dried leaves otherwise. Thyme will thrive in a pot
year-round, if you wish to grow your own. Use in soups, stocks,
sauces, stews, and vinaigrettes. Complements, lemon, garlic, and
basil; has an affinity for sweet peppers, potatoes, rice, tomatoes,
cucumbers, eggplant, mushrooms, most of the cabbage family, and most
Turmeric: Widely used in Indian cooking especially. Gives a strong
yellow colour and a spicy character to foods; turmeric and cumin are
the fundamental ingredients of most curry powders. Be aware that it
stains dreadfully, you may want to wear yellow when cooking with it.
Turmeric, like ginger, is widely used in legume dishes because it
ameliorates the flatulence-inducing aftereffects. Combine with
ginger, cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, fenugreek, chiles, and
White Pepper: The same berries as black pepper, but with the husks
removed. Milder in flavour, and often used in pale foods where the
flecks of black pepper would be undesirable.
Vanilla: One of the most complex flavours occurring in nature, real
vanilla is mind-bogglingly more flavourful than the cheapie
supermarket extracts. I highly recommend having a couple of fresh
beans in the house for special desserts, and a good-quality natural
extract for baking with. Simmer whole beans in your liquid ingredient
(soy milk? coconut milk?) for at least twenty-thirty minutes to get
the best flavour.
Classic Spice Blends/Rubs/Marinades
Adobo (Phillipine): Marinade of vinegar and soy sauce with garlic and
black pepper. Typically used for pork or chicken, but can be used
with vegetables. Cook down the marinade and serve as a sauce with the
dish, usually over rice.
Adobo (Mexican): Paste or sauce made from ground chiles, herbs, and
vinegar. Recipes abound on the internet.
Alino Criollo: Venezuelan "Creole Spice Blend" consisting of garlic
salt, cumin, ground annato seeds, black pepper, oregano, and sweet
Ata: Nigerian chile sauce made of onions, garlic, tomatoes, chiles,
thyme, and Madras-style curry powder.
Baharat: An Arabic spice mixture, usually containing (but not limited
to) peppercorns, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg,
Berbere: Ethiopian spice mix, generally containing garlic, red pepper,
cardamom, coriander, and fenugreek. Used in soups and stews.
Bharaat: Spice mix containing allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
Used in rice dishes (usually sweet) in the Middle East.
Bisbas: Yemenite spice mixture consisting of tomatoes, salt, olive
oil, and a variety of hot chiles. Similar to harissa, shatta, zhug.
Bouquet Garni: A bundle of aromatics tied up in a cheesecloth bag,
used in soups/stocks/sauces. A general-purpose bouquet garni will
consist of black peppercorns, parsley stems, thyme, and a bay leaf or
two. Various other spices and herbs may be added as directed in a
Bzaar: North African spice mixture of cinnamon, red pepper, cloves,
turmeric, ginger, black pepper, and cumin.
Chaat Masala: Spice mix used primarily in salads and snack foods;
frequently containing asafoetida, mint, ginger, ajwain, cayenne,
"black salt," amchoor, cumin, and dried pomegranate seeds.
Chai (tea) Masala: There is no one standard mixture for this, and its
roots do not go deep even in India (spiced tea really only caught on
there in the 1950s). Various combinations of ginger, cinnamon,
cloves, cardamoms, and peppercorns will generally give a pleasant
result. I find a small amount of star anise has a pleasantly
mellowing effect on the overall mixture. If you can, get some
jaggery/gur (Indian palm sugar) to sweeten with, as it has a unique
flavour of its own.
Chili Powder: There are many different preparations, and recipes
abound on the internet. A standard mixture would include oregano
(preferably the Mexican variety), cumin, garlic, and at least two or
three kinds of dried chile peppers.
Curry Powder/Paste: There are many curry powders on the market, most
of them unfortunately reflecting American/European tastes rather than
Indian. Typical ingredients would include black pepper, cinnamon,
cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, mace, turmeric, cardamom, tamarind,
fennel seed, fenugreek, chile peppers, etc. Pastes are made by adding
vegetable oil to curry powders; the oil maintains fresher flavour.
There are many recipes on the internet. See also Garam Masala.
Epices Fines: A blend of spices and herbs, typically containing some
combination of white peper, allspice, mace, nutmeg, rosemary, sage,
bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon, and/or marjoram.
Fines Herbes: A standard combination in French cookery. Mince
chervil, parsley, thyme, and tarragon finely and add to dishes at the
Five Spice Powder: A standard flavour in regional Chinese cooking.
Lots of variations; but cloves, fennel seeds, star anise, cinnamon,
and Szechuan peppercorns are a common combination.
Garam Masala: The original of the various "curry powders." There are
an infinite number of variations to be found in each of India's
regions. Some regional variations:
Punjabi versions might include cumin, coriander, cinnamon,
cloves, nutmeg or mace, peppercorns, star anise, and bay leaves.
A simpler Rajasthani masala might only include chiles, cumin,
coriander,cardamoms, and ajwain seeds.
Southern (Tamil Nadu, Kerala) versions might include mustard
seeds, chiles, coriander, tamarind, asafoetida, and cardamoms; these
are frequently simmered in oil, water, or coconut milk before use.
Gremolada: Chopped parsley, finely-minced garlic, and lemon zest.
Traditionally used as a topping for osso buco, but suitable for any
similarly rich braised meal.
Harissa: Fiery-hot North African condiment/spice paste. Usually
contains (but is not limited to) oil, garlic, chiles, cumin,
coriander, and caraway seeds.
Herbes de Provence: Any combination of basil, thyme, sage, rosemary,
summer savoury, marjoram, fennel seeds, and/or lavendar.
Jerk spices: There are many variations on the theme, but the three
essential ingredients are allspice, Scotch Bonnet (habenero) peppers,
and thyme. Other ingredients may include cinnamon, cloves, black
pepper, ginger, garlic, green onions, and even liquid ingredients like
soy sauce, rum, and citrus juices. Dry rubs are more authentic than
Kashmiri Masala: Typically includes cardamom, cumin, peppercorns,
cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace; used in savoury dishes, although
to Western tastes these spices are more usually associated with baked
Kebsa: A spice mixture of North Africa and the Mid-East. Generally
contains cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, black peppercorns, and dried chile
Kochujang: A Korean condiment and rub. Process glutinous rice to a
paste with soy paste and ground chile peppers, use *cautiously* in
stews, with vegetables, and as a component in dipping sauces.
Muliga Puri: Ground fenugreek seed and toasted dried red peppers.
Used dry as a dip for breads.
Onion brulee: An onion cut in half and then charred on a hot cooking
surface (ie, a dry skillet). Used to give flavour and colour to
stocks and sauces, very useful in vegetarian cooking.
Onion pique: Make a slit in an onion half. Place a bay leaf in the
slit. Stud the onion with one or more cloves, to taste. Use in
soups, stews, and sauces.
Persillade: A paste of bread crumbs, salt, garlic, and parsley.
Normally used as a crust on meat (especially lamb), but I include it
since could readily be used to coat vegetables.
Pastrami spices: Generally include salt, garlic, peppercorns, hot
peppers, cinnamon, loves, and coriander. Again, typically used with
meat, but I expect that it would prove a pleasant seasoning for (to
pick an easy example) smoked tofu, and similar preparations.
Pebre: Chilean hot sauce made from olive oil, vinegar, aji chiles,
garlic, onion, cilantro, and oregano.
Phanch Phoron: The Bengali "five spice powder." Contains equal
amounts of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, nigella, and black mustard seeds;
all ground together.
Picada: A paste of garlic, parsley, and saffron with ground pine nuts
or almonds. Used in Spanish cuisine.
Pizza seasoning: Basil, oregano, garlic, salt, pepper.
Pumpkin Pie spices: Ginger, mace (or nutmeg), cinnamon, allspice, cloves.
Quatre epice: Literally "four spices," a French spice mix used in much
the same way as Chinese Five Spice powder. Grind together any
combination of cloves, mace, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper,
or white pepper (most cooks have their own version).
Ras al-Hanout: Literally, "the grocer's head," metaphorically "the
best in the shop." Individual mixtures are reputed to contain up to a
hundred aromatics, but generally a dozen or so is more common. Will
generally contain cinnamon, nuteg, dried rosebuds, binger, cloves,
cubebs, and various peppers. Used in North African, especially
Sabzi: Okay, I'm kind of making this one up. Sort of. In Persian
cuisine, large quantities of herbs (sabzi) are used, more so than
spices. Bundles or bouquets of fresh herbs are placed on the
tablecloth to be nibbled throughout the meal, or used to garnish
individual dishes. Some of the best-known dishes in the Persian
repertoire (Sabzi Kuku, Sabzi Polou) use large bundles of mixed herbs
(those two are, respectively, a baked omelet and a rice dish).
Typically these would include parsley, cilantro, chives, mint,
spinach, and/or whatever else happens to be fresh and available.
Sambhar Masala: Sambhar is a classic South Indian dish, typical
Sambhar masala might include cumin, coriander, curry leaves,
asafoetida, fenugreek, turmeric, mustard seeds, chiles, and
peppercorns. This masala, like many others, may also contain a small
quantity of toasted and ground lentils or split peas.
Seven Spice Powder: Blend including anise, black pepper, sesame
seeds, flax seeds, rapeseeds (canola), poppy seeds, nori, and dried
orange or tangerine peel; used in Japanese cooking.
Shatta: A Mid-Eastern spice mix, similar to bisbas and harissa.
Generally contains hot chiles, cumin, coriander, olive oil, and
Tandoori Masala: As the name suggests, a rub for foods which will be
roasted in the tandoor oven. Might contain garlic, ginger, cloves,
nutmeg, mace, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamom,
peppercorns, and...usually...a little bit of red food colouring.
Personally, I'd leave that out.
Tunisian Five-Spice Powder: A combination of cinnamon, cloves, grains
of paradise, nutmeg, and black pepper.
Turtle Herbs (AKA Herbes a tortue): Blend of basil, chervil, fennel,
marjoram, and savoury; individual blends will vary widely.
Zaatar: Middle Eastern seasoning mix consisting of dried thyme, dried
marjoram (or oregano), sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. Used dry or
mixed with oil, most frequently as a dip for bread.
Zhug: A fiery condiment popular in Yemen and Israel. Contains sweet
and hot peppers, lemon juice, garlic, cardamoms, coriander, and
=To begin with, a few pertinent books. There are many more, of
course, which you may find useful. Several recent celebrity-chef
cookbooks include excellent vegetable dishes (Thomas Keller, Charlie
Trotter et al) for days when you feel like trying something a little
finer and/or more ambitious.
Ethnic Cuisine by Elisabeth Rozin
Analyses thirty international cuisines by the combinations of herbs,
spices, and savoury ingredients they use; reducing each to specific,
easily-replicated "flavour profiles." The closest thing I know of to
a cookbook geared around specific mixtures of seasonings.
Lord Krishna's Cuisine by Yamuna Devi
Indian cuisine undoubtedly offers the greatest range of vegetarian
cooking in the world. Yamuna Devi was a first-generation convert to
Hare Krishna back in the day, and spent years travelling with the
sect's founder as his personal chef. It is as good a single-volume
compendium of Indian vegetable cookery as I know.
A New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden
Middle-Eastern cooking also has a great tradition of vegetable
cookery, and this book is the gold standard for that cuisine. I own a
copy, and highly recommend it.
Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs ed. Claire Kowalchik, William H Hylton
The Rodale family began publishing Organic Gardening magazine in the
1920's, and have been ahead of the curve ever since. This is as good
a general-purpose guide to herbs and their uses (culinary and
otherwise) as I have seen. I own an older edition, and plan to get
the newer one within the current year.
Webster's New World Dictionary of the Culinary Arts by Steven
Labensky, Gaye Ingram, and Sarah Labensky
If you like to have hardcopy, this book is a good single-source quick
reference to all things cooking-related including herbs and
Foodlover's Atlas of the World by Martha Rose Shulman
A cursory but interesting review of the world's major cuisines by
region, with significant attention paid to ingredients and culture.
Personally, had this not been one of my cooking-school textbooks, I
would probably choose to get it from the library rather than owning
There are many other books related to spices, and their historic trade
routes, which I find fascinating reading. Since the history and
sociology of it all is outside the scope of this question, I have not
listed those that I've read and enjoyed. Some time in your local
library would undoubtedly lead you to the same titles I've read.
The best food-related forum I've found online is the grandly-named
"eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters", found at
There are forums (fora?) related to all the world's major cuisines and
regions, and almost all of them are lively and active. There is not,
as yet, a specifically vegetarian/vegan forum on this site, but I have
seen many threads on related topics during the year and a half that
I've been on the site. Basic membership is free, but paid memberships
offer additional perks.
The site primarily consists of "average foodies" from around the
world, though it is liberally provided with well-known names (Tony
Bourdain), leading chefs (Grant Achatz, Michael Laiskonis), food
journalists (David Leite, Russ Parsons), and cookbook authors (Paula
Wolfert, Suvir Saran). The attitude (barring the odd
quickly-moderated flame war when tempers run high) is uniformly
helpful, and newbies are welcomed. One of my first posts was a
question about an obscure Middle-Eastern ingredient, and I was
thrilled to receive a private message in response from
multi-award-winning author I admired.
Another site I recommend to all vegetarians (and especially vegans) of
my acquaintance is called "Beyond Vegetarianism." Don't jump to the
wrong conclusion, the site is founded and operated by a longtime
vegetarian/sometime vegan. His contention was that the various dogmas
and misinformation rife within the vegetarian community constituted a
disservice to the community, and to those who were or wished to become
Hence, his site is geared to providing accurate and
scientifically-valid information about vegetarianism, while debunking
the various forms of quackery which have sprung up around the
vegetarian community. There is excellent information here about
meeting one's nutritional needs (short- and long-term) on a vegan
In short, while some parts of the site may conflict with what you've
been told, it is well-researched and iconoclastic, and in general an
excellent resource. The URL is
There may be excellent vegetarian sites out there aside from this one,
but I do not have any personal knowledge of them and would be making a
blind recommendation (which I am reluctant to do). I would suggest
going the word-of-mouth route, asking longer-term vegans and
vegetarians for their recommendations.
For recipes and cooking ideas in general, I highly recommend the
"Cooking with Google" applet created by Tara Calishain, author of the
"Research Buzz" newsletter and various search-related publications.
It is self-explanatory to use, restricts its results to a handful of
good recipe sites, and is a great all-around timesaver. The link is
In compiling this answer I made limited use of Google, leaning heavily
on hardcopy resources. The two I used most were the Rodale herbal and
the Dictionary of Culinary Arts listed above. Personal experience,
and threads I'd read on eGullet, also were also factors.
I primarily went to Google for details on various spice mixes,
searching on them by name.
As regards your list of items you're thinking about adding to your
pantry...my list of spices and herbs, above, contains pretty much any
of those items that I would find culinarily useful. Obviously, things
like shiitake mushrooms are tasty, too, but I don't consider them in
the light of a spice or herb.
As for premade spice mixes, those are your call. I generally make my
own, especially for simple ones like pizza seasoning or pumpkin pie
Agar-agar and Irish Moss are both useful thickeners for vegans.
Agar-agar is a vegetable-based gelatin product, which does not melt as
easily as regular meat-based gelatin once it has set. Innovative
chefs such as Ferran Adria, in Spain, have taken advantage of that to
make hot gels. Irish Moss, as I'd said above, makes acceptable
custards and puddings without the use of eggs; and without the
stodginess of the various vegetable starches.
Flax seed is neither a flavouring nor a herb, and is not on your list.
It can replace eggs, though, for some vegan baking, and may therefore
be of use to you.
The other items on your list are primarily medicinal in nature and
purpose. Since many of them have known toxicities and/or are
contraindicated with various medications, I would strongly suggest you
resort to a reputable herbal (such as the Rodale) before
self-medicating with any of them, no matter how much your friends
swear by them. In fact, I strongly urge you to cross-check any herbal
medication with a reputable source before using it. A good choice
would be ToxNet or PubMed.
Having said that, I will personally vouch for echinacea, which has a
solid century of clinical trials to back its efficacy.
As for hard-to-find spices and mixtures, there are two online
suppliers recommended more often than the rest by my online
The Spice House has an outstanding selection, and their own "house
blends" are above-average. The proprietors are very hands-on and will
personally respond to email inquiries. The link is
Kalustyan's is a great source for Indian and Middle-Eastern
ingredients in particular. They offer a great selection of chutneys,
masalas, teas, medicinal herbs, and more. The link to their site is
There are many other single-product sites out there such as
www.saffron.com and www.vanilla.com, which range widely in quality
(those two are pretty good, and affordable). Ask around before you
order, some are reputable and some are not.
I trust that this will provide you with the information you need to
cook fearlessly. North Americans in general tend to stick with a
relatively small handful of favourite foods and flavour combinations,
which is a real shame given the wealth of interesting flavours out
In time, with diligent attention to the question of what you like and
why, you will undoubtedly be able to cut yourself free from the chains
of by-the-recipe cooking and fly on your own wings.
Thank you for an interesting weekend's work! Good luck, and happy cooking.
PS: feel free to ask for additional detail if I've left out anything
you REALLY wanted to know about.