A simple guide to the spice blends and seasonings of the Middle East. Explore the flavours of Arab world and beyond.
Spices of the Middle East
The spice markets of the Middle East have always held a romantic appeal for the imaginations of outsiders. Walk through the markets of Marrakesh, Jerusalem or Dubai and you will see fabulous pyramids of coloured powders that fill the air with scent.
But what exactly are those colourful powders and blends of seeds and herbs that give Middle Eastern food its distinctive flavours?
Most of the spices are widely known outside the region, though there are some exceptions. You may not have come across Aleppo pepper, the dried, crushed chilli that makes the Turkish condiment pul biber or mahleb, a bittersweet almond like powder extracted from the seeds of the St Lucie cherry.
Sweet spices like cassia, cinnamon and caraway flavour stews and rice with earthy sweet undertones. Cardamom gives the thick dark coffee of the region its distinctive fragrance.
Turmeric and saffron colour and scent rice and tagines, with health benefits in mind. Rose petals and flower waters flavour pastries or rice and scent chilli marinades.
In North Africa and Yemen, chilli heat mixes with earthy coriander seed, while fragrant herbs and sesame seeds give distinctive flavours to the cooking of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Read on for my quick guide to the spice blends and pastes that define these wonderful cuisines.
Spices of the Gulf
With a name that simply means spices, this dry spice blend is associated with the Gulf but is widespread across the entire region. Baharat is the flavour of Arabia and the wider Middle East. But what is baharat spice blend?
There are endless variations but black pepper, cassia or cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are key, along with paprika, cumin and nutmeg or mace. Earthy and slightly sweet, it is used to season Middle Eastern meat and rice dishes of all kinds.
Zhoug or sahawiq
A fierce green spice paste made from crushed green chillies and coriander leaf with black pepper and nigella seed. This fiery condiment and marinade has a pesto-like consistency.
Zhoug originated in Yemen but variations on the theme are popular in Israel too, where you can find red tomato zhoug.
A dry spice blend used in mandi chicken and other recipes. The name means mixture, and it varies from city to city and family to family. Black pepper, cumin and cardamom dominate.
There is also sweet hawaij, which flavours cakes, coffee and qishr (a coffee husk brew) with cardamom, ginger and fennel.
This Persian seasoning is sweeter and more floral than the other spice blends listed here, with rose petals, cinnamon, angelica.
Iranian food fragrant rather than fiery, spices combining with dried fruit such as barberries and mulberries, and fresh green herbs in abundance.
Berbere is not strictly a Middle Eastern or North African spice blend, but rather belongs to sub Saharan East Africa, in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Divided from Yemen by a strait just 16 miles across, the area around the Horn of Africa has a longstanding culinary and cultural exchange with the Arab world, so that it seems worth including this distinctive spice mix here.
Berbere is a hot chilli spice blend that also contains coriander, garlic, ginger, fenugreek and other fragrant seeds that may include aijwan (similar to caraway) and nigella.
Spices of North Africa
This spice paste makes a delicious dip or a marinade for fish and meat. It is popular across North Africa, especially Tunisia, though some stories suggest it originally came from Turkey.
Chermoula consists of cumin, garlic, coriander, lemon juice and oil made into a thick dark paste, often with raisins, preserved lemons and chilli.
A hot chilli spice paste with deep earthy undertones, and sometimes made with rose petals too, harissa is officially part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Tunisia. This vibrant red paste is an essential part of the food of Morocco and Algeria too.
Ras el Hanout
This favourite Moroccan dry spice mix translates as ‘top of the shop’, a blend of all the fanciest spices available.
More complex than the more everyday baharat, it may contain dozens of spices. These may include orris root, fennel, bay, saffron and galangal along with the more obvious cardamom, cumin, and cinnamon.
Dukkah is an Egyptian condiment, a mix of pungent seeds such as coriander and cumin, nuts and toasted cracked chickpeas. It is used for dipping bread with olive oil, but you can also scatter it over a dish or use it in coatings for frying.
Spices of the Levant
Lebanese 7 spice
Lebanese baharat or 7 spice usually contains allspice, cloves, coriander, cumin, cinnamon and nutmeg, though some versions use ground white pepper, paprika or ginger instead of the sweeter spices.
In Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and beyond, this delicious herbal mix is used as a condiment with olive oil for dipping bread or baked onto flat breads as manakish or ‘Lebanese pizza’.
The dried leaves are thyme and za’atar, the fuzzy-leaved origanum Syriacum that is usually replaced with oregano and marjoram in cooler climates. Add sesame, salt and perhaps citric acid along with sumac, (the dried, powdered, lemony berries of the shrub rhus aromatica) for a fresh, citrus scented, herbal mix.
Wait, what about garam masala?
What about it? It’s amazing how many people seem to think that garam masala is a Middle Eastern blend. Garam masala is a spice mixture that belongs to the Indian subcontinent and features strongly in the food of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
That said, there is a lot of overlap in the ingredients for this powerfully fragrant curry spice blend and those for baharat, Lebanese 7 spice or ras el hanout, with plenty of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, clove and fennel. It’s the blending and balance that makes it all the difference.
If you love it and want to use it as a substitute for a blend that you don’t have, tweaking it a little to get the effect you want … well, I won’t tell if you don’t.
Fried Halloumi is delicious with a dressing of grapes and pomegranate molasses.
Labneh, a strained yogurt cheese is a Middle Eastern favourite and easy to make at home.
Lahmacun or mince pizza makes a great addition to mezzes.
Tahini dressing is a classic with grilled meat, salads and more.