Middle Eastern spices, there are so many and what is the difference? Read this guide to 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!
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, consisting of 22 countries across the Middle East and North Africa. This creates a long list to choose from! I will go over the more unique spices that are not widely known outside of the Middle East.
Why Will you Love Middle Eastern Seasonings
- 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.
About Arabic Spices
Arabic spices are typically rich in flavor. Even while preparing a simple dish, you will find a long list of Arabic spices needed. Arab spice blends are fresh, resulting in Middle Eastern dishes that turn out perfectly aromatic and delectable. Dried versions outside the Middle East are commonly found in grocery and specialty stores.
Let’s dig into the details.
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 from around the world to give them a Middle Eastern flair.
Some of the most common spices and blends in traditional Middle Eastern foods are:
Otherwise known as Halaby pepper in Arab spice, this is a burgundy chile and a type of capsicum annuum. 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. Contrasting with 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 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.
To make harissa, local chiles are pounded into a paste form along with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, coriander, caraway, cumin, and salt. 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 technically not a spice, rose water is prevalent in Arabic cooking as a seasoning. 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 sent to your dish. A substitute for rose water is orange blossom water. Orange blossom water is also commonly used in Lebanese baklava.
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 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.
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.
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. If making your own blend, I recommend using high-quality ingredients to get the best possible flavor.
Za’atar is the Arabic word for thyme, which is the base of this blend of combined salt, sumac, oregano, sesame seeds, 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.
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 manufacturer in the Lebanese community has its own recipe when making this recipe. 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 is a combination of dried berry ground powder that looks like peppercorn.
- Cinnamon: It is an all-time favorite Lebanese seasoning.
- Cumin: 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: Cloves are typically used in Middle Eastern cuisine because it is highly fragrant.
- 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 blend from Morocco. Made with up to a dozen spices and 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 food 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.
How to Use Blends
Blends are versatile and can be used to make various dishes. Whether you plan to cook a plant-based or a meat-based dish, the seven-spice combination can be used in different ways to deliver a completely different flavor.
For example, you can lightly fry Baharat in olive oil, and mix it with ginger, onions, and garlic to flavor your lentil soup. Moreover, you can use the same blend for meat kebabs and even pour this oil over salads.
Blends can also be used to season a marinade.
- The spices mentioned above might be expensive if you live outside of the Middle Eastern region. It is best to search for them in particular specialty markets or look them up online. I have included several links to amazon throughout this blog post.
- For homemade blends, try using whole spices in the majority of cases. Finely grind them yourself with a mill or with a mortar and pestle.
- When using nuts and seeds, roast them before putting them in a dry frying pan. It will help develop a smoky flavor when grinding it.
- Lebanese 7 spice can be stored in an airtight container for about six months. Make sure you place the container in a calm and dark place to avoid sunlight, moisture, and heat.
- Spices can lose their flavor over time. Try to avoid purchasing bulk quantities. I recommend placing a sticker with a date on each bottle.
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 own flavor profiles. I consider allspice, cinnamon, and black pepper as non-negotiable ingredients.
What are some other ways you use baharat?
Baharat is a versatile blend that makes an excellent base for a dry marinade or rubs for grilled chicken. Moreover, it can be used to enliven couscous and rice pilaf dishes.
Can any other seasonings be added to baharat?
Yes! Some people add paprika, turmeric, or allspice are great substitutes.
What is the suggested use for 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 also 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.
Are seven spices and allspice the same thing?
No, they are not! Allspice is a lot like peppercorn and is also known as pimento or myrtle pepper. Allspice is a single berry with a combination of flavors akin to cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.