Spice up your life

As I typed that headline it dawned on me that, actually, only one of the Spice Girls was named after a spice.

As a wanna-be chef and successful chilli sauce maker, I’m always playing with the myriad of flavours that mother Earth provides. The range of herbs and spices available to us now is immense, there is little discovered that we cannot readily find at our supermarkets, street markets, cultural stores or – dare I say it – online.

By far the best way to shop for your spices though, if you can, is to visit a really good spice market. There’s absolutely no substitute for exploring the bustling corridors of market stalls, inhaling those smells, tasting the flavours, and adoring the vibrant colours that illuminate elaborate displays. Soak in the cacophony and energy, and salivate at the prospect that these amazing spices will soon be in your kitchen and in your cooking. Oh the possibilities!

So let’s take a look at some of those flavours. Here’s a few tips and some blurb about the spices that I like to use.

Tip 1. Dry is good. (There was no place in the girl-band for ‘Wet Spice’). Always keep your spices stored somewhere away from direct heat, preferably out of the sun, and certainly avoid contact with moisture. I always use my dry palm as the conduit from spice-jar to pan, the theory being that I don’t want to hold my spice-jar over a hot pan simply because the steam may clump up the remaining contents of the jar. Common sense stuff, really.

Tip 2. Keep it fresh. ‘Old Spice’ never made it in back then either (however nowadays there may be just-cause to rename Geri). Your average life span of a ground spice is a couple of years. But again, mitigating factors such as sun, heat and moisture will shorten that. Spices don’t really go ‘off’ but they will lose their potency over time. It’s time to regenerate your product if it clumps (naughty – you didn’t follow Tip 1), dulls in colour, or you’re just not getting the hit from it that you’d usually expect. If you’ve bought raw spice (ie, not pre-bottled from a supermarket) then it’s a good idea to date-stamp the jar you use.

Tip 3. Use clean, dry instruments. Don’t go dipping a spoon lined with mustard powder into your cinnamon jar, for example, and never use a wet spoon. Cross contamination is bad.

Exit supporting-act, Tips, and bring on the headliners – the spices.

Allspice.

Not a blend of ‘all spices’ as the name would suggest, but instead Allspice (all one word) is a dried premature berry of the Pimenta tree. Its taste does indeed remind you of a collective blend of maybe clove, pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon – which does kind of work as a make-shift substitute if combined correctly (and you don’t need a lot of it so you’ll more-than-likely get away with the substitution anyway). Used commonly in Jamaican cooking it’s a warm seasonal flavour, and can be found in jerk dishes, mince pies, mulled wines, and Swedish meatballs.

Cardamom.

A peanut-sized pod enclosing tiny black seeds, Cardamom is used most commonly to flavour many Indian dishes. It is wonderfully aromatic, sweet and fragrant, but the flavour is really hard to pigeon-hole. Liquorice? Aniseedy? Mild clove? A Cinnamon/Nutmeg combo? The Arabs use it to infuse hot beverages, impressing their guests, and the Scandinavians use it in their pastries – like others would use cinnamon. It is said that Cardamom is also helpful to the digestive and respiratory system. It’s great to use for flavouring bland foods, such as rice.

Chilli.

A church so broad it’s an article in itself. Suffice to say the word ‘spicy’ is the simple generic definition of chilli in all its forms. Chilli can be ground, flaked or dried whole, it can be smoked (chipotle), and it can be mild, hot or explosive – to the point it can be weaponised.

Chilli adds flavour, heat and depth to any dish. A little goes a long way, chilli is widely used in all forms of cooking – you name it, curries, sauces & jams, oils, with meat and vegetables, stocks, marinades and even in chocolates and desserts. Among the most popular dried/powdered chillis are cayenne and birds-eyes, and the Jalapeno is used to produce the smokey chipotle flavour.

Ginger. (As the only band member present, it had to be included in this shortlist).

One of the best smells in the market, in my opinion. Very commonly available as both a powder and a root, ginger provides a beautifully warming tingle to the tastebuds. Its versatility lends itself to sweet and savoury foods as well as beverages, hot or cold. Ginger is spicy yet sweet, peppery and citrusy at the same time. The Chinese (in particular) use it extensively in cooking, and medically it is accepted as a remedy for nausea and as an aid to combat the common cold (usually accompanied by lemon). Furthermore, your playground chums would have used “ginger” to tease copper-headed rivals, and your mama would almost certainly have baked armies of little sweet 2D gingerbread men…  run, run as fast as you can… Geri’s coming.

Mustard.

Visually, the brilliant yellow mustard powder is the eye-catcher on any spice stall. Typically, a mustard powder will be hotter (more potent) than it’s jarred, fluid brother. Made from the seeds of the mustard plant, the flavour is somewhat benign until liquid is added. Historically, French monks used rudimentary wine (‘must’) to mix with the crushed plant seeds, making a primitive yet recognisable version of what we know today – though the Egyptians and Romans harvested mustard way before les Francais, using it for spiritual and medicinal purposes, primarily.

Today we put mustard in everything from stock and sausages, casseroles and condiments, mayonnaise, pickles and salad dressings.   

Cumin.

A curry staple, cumin is a very popular spice worldwide. Grown extensively around the Egyptian side of the Mediterranean, and more recently the middle east, Cumin is the dried seed of the Cumin plant, and is a powerful, sweet peppery flavour which warrants small doses. Toasting or gently warming in a pan before using enhances the flavour further. It is a prime component of the common curry spice blend ‘garam masala’ and also combines superbly with chilli for con carnés and spicy stews.

Pepper.

The last spice of this little dance troupe is Pepper. The most, and arguably best, pepper comes from India, though Brazil and Indonesia produce decent stuff too. Peppercorns can be black, green, white, Szechuan (sichaun) and pink. Let’s focus on black. Native to India, Piper Nigrum is a viney shrub which winds itself around other trees, wildly. These plants produce flowers and berries which when harvested are dried, turning from plump little fruits to hard, angry, bumpy shells that we know as peppercorns. Pepper is best known in its ground form but more frequently we’re buying the small solid orbs which we grind ourselves. Due to its intensity it is often best-applied towards the end of cooking. And pepper can be added to practically anything savoury; We chuck it in soups, gravy, stews. We rub it into meat, grind it over fish and vegetables. While salt has its own miracle properties, pepper is definitely the King to salts’ Queen. But don’t fall into the habit of over using salt with pepper, those two become one way too much in my opinion, yet they are very different spices with equally powerful properties and purposes.

Before I say goodbye, here’s the encore. The beauty of cooking with spices is that there are no rules. The combinations are boundless and anybody who stands pondering in front of their selection of spices – from Baby to Posh – is capable of producing amazing flavours just by taking a risk with their rack. Too many of us have spices in our cupboards which remain unopened due to our lack of imagination. I say enjoy the opportunities, the variety, get experimental and be bold enough sample the infinite permutations that Spiceworld has afforded us.

(there’s the title of 6 Spice Girls hits in this article. Can you find them)?

Answers: spice up your life, wannabe, mama, two become one, too much, goodbye.