A World of Flavors: Cooking with International Spices

A World of Flavors: Cooking with International Spices


If you've ever scrolled through the comment section of a cooking video or recipe blog, you're familiar with people's passionate opinions about spices. Some minimalists argue that spices should be used sparingly to preserve the integrity of the natural flavors of a dish. 

On the flip side, spice enthusiasts insist that liberal use of spices only enhances a dish's overall taste profile. And remember the ongoing struggle between proponents of dried versus fresh spices. What's clear is that the world of spices is subjective tied closely to personal taste and culinary traditions.

The Rise of Spices

The use of spices in cooking has transcended beyond mere flavor. With globalization and increased access to international cuisines, spices also serve as the defining elements of cultural dishes—Indian curries, Mediterranean salads, Cajun stews, or Middle Eastern kebabs. 

Beyond imparting complex flavors, spices have numerous health benefits, ranging from anti-inflammatory properties to digestive aid. Moreover, the right spice can elevate the aesthetic appeal of a dish, making it Instagram-worthy.

The Starter Spice Kit

So, you're a beginner keen on delving into the flavorful world of spices. Beyond the ubiquitous salt and pepper, consider starting with these spices and herbs to elevate your culinary game:

Common Spices:

  • Cumin Seeds

  • Cinnamon

  • Green Cardamom Pods

  • Ground Cumin Powder

  • Ground Coriander Powder

  • Turmeric

  • Paprika

  • Garlic Flakes or Powder


Herbs to Keep in Mind:

  • Basil (fresh or dried)

  • Dried Oregano

  • Italian Seasoning

  • Parsley (fresh or dried)

  • Fresh Cilantro

  • Thyme (fresh or dried)


Popular Spice Blends:

  • Curry Powder

  • Taco Seasoning

  • Garam Masala

  • Cajun Spice

  • Mediterranean Spice Blend

  • Everything Bagel Spice Blend

  • Protein-specific Blends (like steak or chicken seasoning)


Keep these spices in your pantry to help elevate almost any dish in different doses. Of course, you should exercise caution in this regard.

The Art of Cooking with Spices: More Than Just A Pinch Here and There

Simply sprinkling spices without thought could lead to culinary disasters, discouraging you from future gastronomic adventures. There's a systematic approach to cooking with spices, making the whole process an enlightening journey rather than a chaotic mishmash.

Spices come in two basic forms: whole and ground. Whole spices, like seeds, buds, flowers, and bark, add aroma to dishes. On the other hand, ground spices—powdered forms of whole spices like cumin and cardamom—intensify the taste. Spices aren't static; they evolve through the cooking process. For example, cumin seeds offer a woody aroma in their whole form but develop a sharper, spicier profile when ground. Further, roasting the cumin before grinding can magnify its flavor and aroma, enriching the dish.


The Spice Balancing Act: Mixing and Matching for Culinary Success

The key to cooking with spices is balance and harmony. Beyond deciding on whole or ground spices, consider their specific taste profile—be it sweet, sharp, or pungent. Sweet spices like nutmeg and cinnamon lend a dessert-like nuance, while spicy ones like chili powder bring the heat. Aromatic spices such as cumin or coriander are taste enhancers.

Pairing these flavors with other ingredients can make or break a dish. For instance, coriander powder might excel in a tomato-based curry, while cinnamon sticks could be the secret to a spectacular apple pie. However, remember that more spice doesn't necessarily mean more flavor. Start with minimal amounts and work your way up as you become more comfortable. You can do so at your own pace by checking out the recipes on the CHEF iQ app, which features hundreds of delicious guided cooking recipes and allows you to add missing ingredients to your Instacart.

The Big Leagues of International Spices

Once you become familiarized with how to work your way around the more common spices and are ready to give international spices a go—here's a list of exotic spices you would want to get a hold of.


Exploring Indian Spices: More than Just Curry Powder

You're likely familiar with staples like turmeric, cumin, and curry powder in Indian cooking. However, there are less-known spices worth knowing that really pack a punch.



This potent spice, from an herb in the celery family, acts as a flavor amplifier in Indian dishes, much like salt does in Western cooking. With an intense aroma and flavor that echoes garlic and onions, a tiny sprinkle goes a long way. Ensure you seal the jar immediately after use to contain its powerful scent.



Made from dried, unripe mangoes, Amchur delivers a citrus-like tartness to Indian recipes without adding liquid. It's also useful as a meat tenderizer due to its fruit enzymes and adds a tangy touch to chutneys and pickles.


Chaat Masala

This Indian seasoning mix is a complex blend of spices, including amchur, cumin, and asafetida. In India, chaat masala is used to spice up crunchy, savory snacks. The mixture varies from blend to blend but usually includes the flavor-rich elements of black salt and amchur.



Fenugreek seeds and leaves bring a dual sweet and bitter profile, helping to harmonize spicy and tart flavors in Indian dishes. Toasting the seeds can help mellow their bitterness.


Garam Masala

Meaning "hot spice mix," garam masala includes various spices like cumin, cardamom, and coriander. The blend can include up to 30 spices and varies from family to family.


Green Cardamom

Often called the "queen of spices," green cardamom adds a complex floral note to sweet and savory dishes. Whether you use the whole pod or grind the seeds, it's a versatile spice.


Kala Namak

This unique salt variety has a sulphury taste and scent, often in the chaat masala mix. It starts as Himalayan pink salt but undergoes a transformative process involving charcoal and herbs.


Nigella Seeds

These little black seeds offer a peppery, oregano-like flavor and are often sprinkled on flatbreads like naan for an added crunch.


Unlocking the Flavors of African and Middle Eastern Cuisine

The spices from these regions can bring authentic touches to dishes like couscous and tagine.


Aleppo Pepper

Sourced from Aleppo, Syria, and now mainly from Turkey, these chili flakes provide a mild heat and a unique fruity, salty flavor.



This Middle Eastern spice blend is a cocktail of several spices, including black pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon. Like India's garam masala, it's an essential seasoning in regional cooking.



This Ethiopian spice mix is sweet and smoky, with ingredients varying by region. Standard components include chili peppers, fenugreek, and ginger.



A nutty and seedy blend from the Middle East that's more of a condiment, it's often used as a crust for meat or a dip for bread.



This North African chili paste is a staple in several countries and can range in spiciness. Some versions even include rose petals for balance.


Ras el Hanout

This North African blend is a "best-of-the-shop" mix featuring spices like cardamom and cinnamon.


Urfa Biber

This chili pepper from Turkey has an earthy flavor profile with hints of chocolate.



This Middle Eastern blend includes herbs like oregano and sumac and is often enjoyed with bread and yogurt-based dishes like labneh.


Spices That Define Asian Cuisine

Get the authentic flavors of dishes from Vietnam to China with these essential spices.


Chinese 5 Spice

This blend incorporates all five primary flavor profiles and is fundamental to traditional Chinese cooking. It typically features star anise, cloves, and Sichuan peppercorns, among others.



This root spice is used in Thai dishes and provides a distinct, citrusy zing. It has a more rigid texture and lighter color compared to ginger.


Golden Needles

These dried flower buds are commonly found in dishes like moo shu pork, where they are often paired with mushrooms.


Makrut Lime Powder

This Southeast Asian lime is intensely flavored and used primarily for its leaves or rind.


Sichuan Pepper

Not really a pepper, but rather from a type of ash tree, these peppercorns bring a numbing sensation to the mouth and are a crucial ingredient in Chinese cooking.


Star Anise

This star-shaped pod is vital for infusing flavor into Vietnamese pho and is often used whole in soups and stews.


All these may seem like many spices/spice blends, but we barely even scratched the surface. Experts estimate that there are over 200 spices and spice blends worldwide. That said, most of us have quite a long way to go in experimenting with most of these spices, so don't be hard on yourself! After all, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step