Essential Middle Eastern Spice Guide

Middle Eastern spices, there are so many, and what is the difference? Read this guide to learn about the essential Middle East spices. From the deliciousness of Lebanese 7 spice to the popular Za’atar, knowing the spices will help you make the right choice to prepare the perfect Arabic spiced meal!

Different spices in small jars.

Traditional Middle Eastern food is made with some of the oldest known spices in the world. Over the years, the Arabic people have perfected mixing spices and foods to create distinctive flavors.

The Arabic region is large, comprising 22 countries across the Middle East and North Africa. This creates a long list to choose from! I will review the more unique spices not widely known outside the Middle East.

Why Will You Love Middle Eastern Spices

  • Add bouquets of aromas and flavors.
  • Lebanese seven-spice blend is highly versatile and commonly used.
  • Seasoning blends can liven up any dish with just a teaspoon or two.
Large quantities of spices in bags at a spice market.

Essential Spices

The best way to learn about and discover the taste of a new cuisine is through its seasonings. Exploring these ingredients will expand how you season ingredients worldwide to give them a Middle Eastern flair.

Some of the most common spices and blends in traditional Middle Eastern foods are:

Aleppo Pepper

A tablespoon filled with Aleppo peppers.

Otherwise known as Halaby pepper in Arab spice. Aleppo pepper originates from Syria and is also commonly available in Turkey. When ripe, this pepper turns into a dark red shade that is coarsely ground. It has a fruity, mild, raisin-like flavor and cumin-like undertones with a hint of saltiness.

Aleppo is easily found in dry pepper form at grocery stores. In contrast to crushed red pepper, the flakes of dry Aleppo pepper contain no seeds, which gives it a mild heat. This pepper is typically used in meat dishes. 

Harissa

Glass jar filled with homemade harissa paste substitute.

Harissa is a spicy dark red chili paste known for its dark color and unique flavor. Originating from the Maghreb region of North Africa, this paste is widely used in Lybia, Algeria, and Morocco. The word harissa means to crush or pound, which is how harissa paste is made.

Local chiles are pounded into a paste form with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, coriander, caraway, cumin, and salt to make harissa. Smoked paprika is sometimes added for additional color. In recent years harissa has become trendy in the United States, and you can now find harissa powder in the spice section of most grocery stores. While harissa is a spice blend, I have listed it here as an individual spice because it is often sold as a spice in the West.

Rose Water

While technically not a spice, rose water is prevalent as a seasoning in Arabic cooking. Made by simmering rose petals, rose water adds fresh floral flavor. Rose water is commonly used in the Lebanese version of baklava and other desserts. One of my favorite Middle Eastern treats is rose water lemonade.

When using rose water, less is more. This flavor can quickly overpower your dish and bring a fake perfume type to your dish. A substitute for rose water is orange blossom water. Orange blossom water is also commonly used in Lebanese baklava.

Saffron

Saffron threads up close in a white spoon.

The list of essential Middle Eastern spices is incomplete without mentioning saffron. Saffron comes from the saffron crocus plant. The center of the plant is known as the stigma. Each female plant produces three stigmas, which have to be hand-picked. This is why saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, costing upwards of $5,000 per pound.

Saffron looks like a tiny red thread and has a delicate flavor. Saffron is popular in rice dishes, giving it the trademark yellow color. But it can also be found in desserts, ice cream, and drinks.

Sumac

Sumac is common in Middle Eastern cooking. The brick-red finely ground sumac berries give a beautiful pink color when added to food. Sumac has a strong floral and fresh aroma.

The flavor of sumac is very tangy, with floral undertones. It is typically a souring agent for stews, meats, and dressings. Sumac plays a prominent role in za’atar, a popular Middle Eastern mixture known for its fresh and tangy taste. 

Urfa Biber

It is a dark Turkish chile flake with a smoky-sweet flavor and mild heat. This Arab spice is cultivated in the Urfa region of Turkey and has a smoky raisin-like taste. It is traditionally used for seasoning meats because Urfa Biber is less spicy and has a longer-lasting heat.

An extensive chart of Middle Eastern spices, their origin, description, and typical uses is here.

Essential Spice Blends

Using a mixture of spices, the Middle East is known for its unique blends. Below are three of the more popular blends found across the region. I recommend using high-quality ingredients to get the best possible flavor if making your blend.

Essential guide to Middle Eastern spices and spice blends including harissa paste, Lebanese 7 spice (baharat), ras el hanout, za'atar, saffron and so much more to make your next Middle Eastern meal perfect!

Za’atar

Za’atar is the Arabic word for thyme, the base of this blend of combined salt, sumac, oregano, sesame, and coriander seeds. It is a highly versatile herbal spice mix that has a nutty flavor.

Za’atar mix can be prepared at home and stored in your spice rack for easy access. Za’atar is popular with fish, poultry, and vegetables. Moreover, it is sometimes added to salad dressings, dips, and marinades. It is fair to say that Za’atar goes with just about everything!

Contingent upon the region, the za’atar mix takes on somewhat different forms. In Palestine, Za’atar includes caraway seeds and dried thyme leaves, giving the mixture a brighter green color. The Lebanese mix includes sumac, giving it a red hue. 

Za’atar is made from a blend of nutmeg, cumin, coriander, anise seed, caraway seed, cinnamon, and turmeric.

Za'atar in a bowl with a spoon.

Lebanese 7 Spice Blend

Baharat is another name for the Lebanese 7 spice mix. The spices needed to make this blend are native to the historical Ottoman Empire region.

This popular mix is added to season stews, soups, rice, or meat dishes. Each family or spice company has a recipe for this. The difference comes from using different ingredients or altering ratios. 

Ingredients used in baharat, commonly referred to as Baharat, include:

  • Allspice: Even though the name suggests a mix of different spices, allspice combines dried berry ground powder that looks like peppercorn. 
  • Cinnamon: It is an all-time favorite Lebanese seasoning.
  • Cumin: A common ingredient in this cuisine. Cumin is the seed of a plant in the parsley family.
  • Black peppercorns: Keep a pepper grinder on hand because this one is spectacular when freshly ground.
  • Ground cloves: They are popular for their fragrance.
  • Nutmeg: Nutmeg has an intense earthy flavor and warming flavor. It gives barahat an intense earthy spiciness that can border on sweet.
  • Coriander: You can use leaves or seeds. The fresh leaves have a fragrant citrus flavor. However, the seeds have a warm, nutty, and spicy flavor.

Ras El Hanout

Ras el hanout is a unique Moroccan spice blend. Made with up to a dozen spices, it translates into “top of the shop.” When translated into English, top of the shop means the top quality or your best spices.

The flavor of this North African spice mix is warm, combining earthy, woody, and sweet. They are traditionally added in tajines and stews. If you have had Moroccan cuisine in the West, chances are it was flavored with ras el hanout.

The ingredients can vary depending on who is making the blend. However, ras el hanout is generally made of cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek, and turmeric.

Three spoons filled with spices.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I make Baharat with six spices?

Yes, you can! The best thing about this mix is that it can be tailored to your taste and preference. You can add a little more of one ingredient, a little less of another, and skip a spice if you do not fancy the flavor. 

What is considered essential to make baharat?

Every person has a different taste, meaning they can have their flavor profiles. I consider allspice, cinnamon, and black pepper as non-negotiable ingredients.

What are some other ways you use baharat?

Baharat is excellent for marinades or in couscous and rice pilaf dishes.

What is the suggested use for the za’atar blend?

Za’atar can be used to season a broad range of meals. This blend gives a tangy flavor to pulses and chickpeas. It is sprinkled over flatbread before baking and served with rich meat dishes. Stir into tahini and add to soups, stews, and tagines. The aromatic blend can also be used as a wet marinade when mixed with oil for a delicious fragrance. In addition, you can also use it as a salad dressing or to prepare dips and toppings for grilled fish, roasts, and baked potatoes. 

Spices in a market.

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