The Secret’s in the Spice Mix

In many regional cuisines, the all-important “secret ingredient” is often a blend of spices. Here are ten versatile and interesting ones from around the world that you can buy or make yourself.

1. The name ras el hanout translates from Arabic as “head of the market,” meaning that only the owner of the spice market would know its ingredients. This North African blend usually includes ginger, cardamom, and turmeric, along with sometimes dozens of other, less common ingredients, including cumin, coriander, mace, cubeb pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, and dried rose petals. It can be added to the cooking liquid in rice or couscous, rubbed on grilled lamb or pork, or used in pastilla, a traditional Moroccan chicken pie.

2. Chinese five-spice powder is a mixture of Szechuan peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon or cassia, fennel seed, and anise. It’s strong stuff—add just a little bit to stir-fried meat or vegetables, our Five-Spice Glazed Nuts, or just about any Chinese food. Part of its secret is the Szechuan peppercorns, which numb the mouth slightly.

3. An all-American creation, chili powder was invented in the late 19th century in Texas. It consists of ground chile peppers mixed with cumin, garlic, and oregano, with salt and other ingredients added depending on the recipe. It is, of course, used in its namesake dish, but it also adds a punch to stews, barbecue sauces, or our Fresh Herb-Baked French Fries with Creole Mustard. Just don’t confuse it with chile powder, a much hotter spice made from ground chiles.

4. Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not the U.S. state) boasts a wide range of distinct national dishes, such as satsivi, a chicken dish with a garlic-and-walnut sauce, and kharcho, a meaty soup. The cuisine’s distinction is due in part to a spice mix called khmeli-suneli. It often includes marjoram, dill, savory, fenugreek, coriander, and basil.

5. Masala comes from an Arabic word for “seasonings.” Of all the masalas used in India, garam masala, meaning “hot masala,” is probably the best known. An important part of northern Indian cuisine, it consists of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, coriander, and ground black pepper, and can also include other spices, such as cumin, mace, or bay leaves. It is often added to dishes at the very end of cooking so that it doesn’t lose its potency. Used most often in meat, chicken, or onion dishes, or to flavor rice-based biryanis, it also works nicely in our Indian Quinoa Salad.

6. German immigrant Gustav Brunn created Old Bay Seasoning in Baltimore in 1939. It consists of secret proportions of celery salt, mustard, red pepper flakes, black pepper, bay leaves, cloves, allspice, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika. (Our recipe is an adaptation.) Traditionally used for steamed crabs or shrimp, it is also tasty on baked chicken, french fries, popcorn, or our Hot Crab Dip. It’s so popular on the East Coast that you can even buy Old Bay–flavored Herr’s potato chips.

7. Za’atar, the Arabic term for a species of wild thyme, is also the name of a Middle Eastern mixture of that herb (or thyme, summer savory, oregano, or marjoram), sesame seeds, and sumac. It is popular in Lebanon baked into bread and is used as a dip for pita. It also can be mixed with yogurt or used to season eggs.

8. Sometimes found on the table at American sushi restaurants, shichimi togarashi is a Japanese spice blend. Ingredients can vary, but common are red pepper, citrus peel, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, rapeseeds, Szechuan pepper, and nori (seaweed) flakes. It is used more as a table seasoning than in cooking, sprinkled over soups, noodles, or grilled meats. We also use it to flavor our Pickled Ramps in the spring.

9. An Egyptian mixture often mixed with olive oil and spread on bread, dukkah contains coriander, cumin, sesame seeds, salt, black pepper, and sometimes thyme, along with ground roasted almonds, pistachios, or hazelnuts. Use it to coat grilled meats or sprinkle over salads, or try it in our Chicken Skewers with Dukkah Crust and Balsamic Reduction.

10. Invented by the British to re-create the flavors of India, curry powder almost always contains coriander, cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek, while different recipes add varying amounts of ginger, garlic, red pepper, mustard seeds, cloves, black pepper, and other spices. Notably absent are curry leaves, which are used to make the real stuff in India. It’s tasty added to all kinds of dishes, from chicken salad to meat loaf or burgers. We use it in this Dungeness Crab and Fuji Apple Salad with Curry Mayonnaise.