A guide to spices – part 1

Spices are the key to any great meal but which ones should you pick? This easy-to-follow guide will take you through the basics.


If there is one spice on this list which we would recommended having in the store cupboard above all the others it would be cumin! Cumin has a warm, full, spicy taste, but isn’t quite hot on the tongue in the way that chilli is. With this warming quality, cumin works as the perfect background flavour and as such, has become a staple in cuisines across the world. It is also an essential ingredient in most Indian curries. Cumin usually comes in two forms, either ground or whole seeds. Whole seeds will often be used at the start of curries either dry fried, to be ground with other spices, or cooked whole in oil. 

Use in: curries, stews, soups and dhals.

Coriander seeds

Partnering cumin in most Indian and South East Asian dishes will be coriander seeds. Coriander provides a more zesty, sour flavour which complements the deeper taste of cumin. It also comes both in whole seeds and ground form, and can be used in much the same way.

Use in: curries and dhals.


Used in European, Middle Eastern, South East Asian and Far Eastern cooking, fennel has distinctive flavour which can be described as aniseed or menthol-like. Fennel can be used to give a dish a real sense of identity.


Cardamom comes in two forms: black and green, the later being far more common in UK shops. Cardamom is used in Indian, African and South East Asian food due to its aromatic, floral flavour. This floral quality can be used to bring  plain rice dishes to life, and even desserts. Green cardamon comes as small green pods; inside are the seeds which provide the flavour.

Use in: curries, Asian desserts and rice dishes.


Paprika comes as red powder which can either be smoked or slightly sweetened. Despite its bright red appearance, paprika is not hot and instead has a barbecue-like flavour, because of this it makes a perfect marriage with meats, tomatoes and garlic.

Use in: Mexican and South American food, red meat dishes and tomato sauces.


When people think of spices they often think of one thing in particular – chilli! Chillies are of course spicy, and over-doing it even by a little can send even the brave running for a glass of milk or water! However, with a little care this can be avoided. Some dishes are meant to make you sweat, but if that’s not for you, it doesn’t mean you have to avoid chilli altogether, often it’s our choice of chilli, what we do with it and what we partner it with which is key. For instance chipotle chillies, despite their black dried exterior actually have a mild smoky flavour which makes them good for Mexican food. Kashmiri chillies are a little hotter and have a fruity quality. Scotch bonnets are extremely hot on their own, but when surrounded by all the other ingredients in a marinade they became less prominent. Often the best dishes, even ones with plenty of chilli, are the ones which you don’t even realise it was spicy until you finish eating, this is because instead of simply loading the dish exclusively with chilli, the dish will have been made with a whole range of spices each of which adds a little to the heat and flavour. Use chilli to bring the overall flavours of a dish to life and remember that the seeds are the hottest part!

Use in: South American and Mexican food, African, Caribbean, Chinese, South East Asian and Indian.


Most commonly associated with Caribbean cooking, allspice is made from the grinding of dried pimento berries into a powder. The central ingredient of a jerk marinate, allspice provides a unique flavour both deep and warm but also aromatic and slightly floral. It partners beautifully with thyme, chicken, red meat, chilli.

Use in: jerk chicken, stews and broths.

Mustard seeds

Mustard seeds are often used at the start of a curry, left to fry until they pop!

Use in: North Indian and Pakistani curries.


Nutmeg has a sweet aromatic flavour and can be used in both savoury dishes and sweets. It is a useful spice to use if a spicy dish lacks any particular identity or flavour. Nutmeg usually comes in the form of a large seed which can be grated or as a powder – note that nutmeg is technically a seed, not a nut.

Use in: curries, breads, desserts and soups.


Popular in the West, as well as the East, cinnamon provides a delicious sweet aroma which parters equally as well with sugar as it does spice. Made from the shaved bark of the cinnamon tree, it comes as either tubes of dried bark or as a powder ground from these rolls. The tubes work well when added to a stock or stew whilst cooking away for a background flavour, while the powder gives a more intense flavour. Try it in everything from pastries to stir fries!

Use in: pastries, stir-frys, curries and desserts.

Star anise

Star anise usually comes in the form of a star shaped dried fruit more similar to a pod of seeds. It has an aromatic, sweet, smell which has made it a popular ingredient in both Chinese and South East Asian cuisine. You can either put a few stars into a sauce or the ground form to mix with other spices.

Use in: Chinese and South East Asian cooking.


Noted for its medicinal qualities, turmeric is good for coughs, colds, and joints, but also adds colour and flavour to dishes. Often used to add a yellow hue to rice dishes, turmeric is not only a spice but also a natural die – so be careful not to stain your clothes when using it!

Use in: Indian cooking, rice dishes, teas and herbal remedies.

Black pepper

Black pepper is a spice native to South India and South East Asia. Freshly cracked, it provides a lively heat which can cut through a plain dish whilst when cooked whole in a stew or stock in gives a softer, rounder flavour.

Use in: just about any savoury dish! 


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