Lauren Wambach

Asafoetida provokes strong reactions.
Asafoetida provokes strong reactions. Photo: Eddie Jim


Not so long ago, the Moroccan spice mix ras el hanout may have included hashish, aphrodisiac Spanish fly and narcotic (and potentially poisonous) belladonna berries. Thankfully, modern blends are tamer. Translating to ''top of the shop'', this heady mix of up to 100 different spices represents the best a spice merchant has to offer. Herbie's Super Ras El Hanout includes exotica like orris root, Sichuan pepper and rose petals. A sprinkle over cous cous produces particularly good results.


Juniper berries' most common use is as an essential ingredient in gin.
Juniper berries' most common use is as an essential ingredient in gin. Photo: Bloomberg


If an Indian recipe calls for bay leaves, it's not the leaves of the laurel tree you're after, but rather Indian bay leaves. These large, dried specimens resemble eucalyptus leaves but have three vertical seams. They are from the cassia tree and have a gentle cinnamon flavour. Pick them up in Indian grocers, although beware - many simply stock European bay leaves. For a rich curry, toss a couple of bay leaves, a cinnamon stick and a few cardamom pods and cloves in hot oil before adding the onions.



With nicknames as incongruent as ''food of the gods'' and ''devil's dung'', it's clear asafoetida (pictured below) provokes strong reactions. This is the dried resin of the root of a fennel-like plant that, when uncooked, has a powerful pong not unlike body odour. When used in small quantities, however, it imparts an onion and garlic flavour and is useful for those on low-fructose diets who must avoid onion. Add to vegetables or meats while sauteing, or sprinkle into homemade dips and dressings. Look for it in Indian grocers.



Perhaps the most iconic Ethiopian seasoning is berbere, a rich combination of sun-dried chillies, ginger, fenugreek and many more spices. Another Ethiopian spice mix is mitmita, which may be less well known but is perhaps more versatile. Mitmita is a brick-red blend of chillies, salt and other spices including cardamom and cloves. While berbere is traditionally used only in cooked dishes, mitmita is often used as a table spice. Ask for it at Ethiopian bakeries or grocers, pop in a shaker, and sprinkle on avocado on toast.



Juniper berries' most common use is not as a culinary spice but as an essential ingredient in gin. These small dried berries (pictured below) are the fruit of the juniper tree and are used in northern European cookery, particularly in Scandinavia. Their sweet, woodsy flavour partners perfectly with braised red cabbage, sauteed mushrooms and venison. Crush the dried berries lightly before adding to a sizzling pan or braising liquid. Find them in good supermarkets and spice stores.