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Middle-eastern spices: a guide Featured

Arabic cooking is nothing without it's wide selection of spices, discover the flavours that give Middle Eastern cuisine its exotic flair

No trip to the UAE is complete without savouring some of the region’s most notable exports – its spices. But do you know what spices define Middle Eastern cooking and what to look for when faced with sacksful of vibrantly coloured spices at the souk?

Lebanese-baklava-by-Lisa-Murray-FLICKRLebanese baklaa, photo courtesy of Lisa Murray

To recreate a truly authentic Middle Eastern spice cupboard fit for culture-rich Arabian gastronomic delights, you will need from 10 to 15 key spices, including many household favourites – cumin, cardamom, nutmeg, turmeric, cloves and cinnamon – as well as more far-flung varieties such as ras el hanout, za’atar and sumac.

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Baked-mountain-bread-with-zaatar-and-falafel-with-olives-chilli-and-tomato-by-helen-genevere-FLICKRBaked mountain bread with za'atar and falafel with olives, chilli and tomato, photo courtesy of Helen Genevere

Cumin is very aromatic and bitter and best known as one of the main ingredients in curry powder, but here in the Middle East it is also used a great deal, predominantly to flavour hummus, couscous and meat dishes. Cardamom, while known for its strong and smoky taste used in meat and rice dishes, is also popular in the region, in its green powder form, to flavour teas, coffee and sweet dishes.

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Dubai-Spice-Souk-image-courtsey-of-Dubai-Tourism-Dubai Spice Souk, photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism

In the west, nutmeg is a trusted favourite for sweet dishes, but in this part of the world, it is also used to flavour meat dishes and stews, along with ground turmeric, cloves, coriander, cumin and cinnamon. Mint is another staple ingredient in Arabic cooking, adding zip to meat, salads, fruit and yoghurt, and likewise the age-old spice aniseed (the main ingredient in liquorice) which originated from the Middle East and is found in many regional desserts, drinks and sweets.

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If you fancy getting creative with the more exotic Arabian spices, make sure za’atar, sumac, rosewater, saffron, ras el hanout and baharat are all on your shopping list. Baharat, which is translated as ‘mixed spices’ in Arabic, is a blend of spices which usually includes allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg and dried chillies, and which varies from country to country. This is the ‘Italian mixed herbs’ or ‘Herbs de Provence’ of the Middle East – a cooking staple, ideal for adding to meat and poultry dishes to give a truly Arabic flair.

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Lamb-kofta-by-Zoryana-Ivchenko-FLICKRLamb kofta, photo courtesy of Zoryana

Another traditional blend of Arabian spices is ras-el-hanout (meaning ‘top shelf’ or ‘best of the shop’), which is most commonly used in Moroccan cuisine and a must for tagines with punch and a great pep-up for couscous. Depending on the depth of flavour you are after, opt for a blend of at least 20 spices, which usually includes cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, mace, dry ginger, allspice, dried peppers, paprika, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, rose buds and lavender. Top of the range versions can rack up a flavour bursting 100 spices.

You may have encountered the tangy, nutty taste of Za’atar if you have dined at Arabic restaurants or street food stalls, as it is a key ingredient used in many meat, vegetable and salad dishes, and in particular as a topping for bread when mixed with olive oil. It is a delicious blend of thyme, sesame seeds and sumac.

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Middle-East-spices-by-lam chihang-FLICKRMiddle Eastern spices

Sumac on its own is used a lot in Middle Eastern cooking, with its distinctly tart, tangy lemony flavour used as a substitute for lemons, as seasoning for meat and fish and also sprinkled over salads and rice.

There is no denying that the Arabs have a refined sweet tooth, and when it comes to sweet treats, rosewater and orange blossom water are two ‘flavours’ (not quite spices) that are abundant and definitely worth picking up while spice shopping. Turkish delights, rice pudding and baklava are just some of the desserts whose unique floral taste is created by these delicacies.

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If you only invest in one spice while in the UAE though, make it saffron. As the most expensive spice on the market, invest wisely... Choose strands not powder, look for a dark red colour with no yellow or white bits, check for a floral aroma and, for the best quality, go for Iranian saffron. When home, just a little saffron will go a long way in spicing up everyday chicken or rice dishes, with its distinct rich and bitter taste.

1 Dubai Spice Souk
2 Central Market Souk