the spice who loved me
November 29, 2011 3:38 PM   Subscribe

What are the essential spices to have around for cooking modern, eclectic/internationalized vegetarian food?

Looking to stock my spice cabinet; I moved into an apartment a few months ago, and I've been buying spices only as needed, but it's making my dishes boring and unimaginative! I'd like to pre-stock a bit.

I am a vegetarian, and cook mostly East/Southeast Asian, Italian, Indian, and Mexican foods (loosely defined as my sad take on their flavor profiles) with very few "American" standards.

I guess what I meant by "modern" above the fold is that there are certain spices I consider to be kind of jello mold-era throwbacks and would never use-- dried basil (as opposed to fresh), celery salt, garlic powder (to some extent), commercial spice blends like Spike, etc.

I have access to a great bulk spice section of a natural foods grocery store.

Don't feel like you have to only suggest spices I've never heard of; I'm just having trouble narrowing down the most delicious and versatile ones to prioritize their purchase, as I'm on a limited income. All I have in the house right now in terms of spices is cinnamon, cumin, cayenne powder, salt, and pepper (!), which makes me sad.

posted by threeants to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Garlic powder, chili powder, a good thing of curry powder, garam masala, rosemary, thyme, onion powder, oregano, chipotle powder, chinese five spice....always buy small, freshest is best. Make sure your salt is decent, and you should have a peppermill, not that crap in a can.

Right off the top of my head and in a rush....
posted by nevercalm at 3:44 PM on November 29, 2011

Most North Indian dishes (curries) can be cooked with a sub-set of spices from the following basic spices and salt:
  • Cumin seeds

  • Coriander

  • Turmeric

  • Red Chili

  • Ginger

  • Garlic

  • posted by vidur at 3:47 PM on November 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

    ... cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, cumin (seeds and powder), basil (should be fresh, as with all other herbs, but use what you can get), cumin, red chile flakes, cumin, marjoram, sage, and ... did I say cumin?
    posted by zomg at 3:48 PM on November 29, 2011

    smoked paprika is vegan bacon flavoring. Garam Masala- but buy the ingredients for it - cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper cloves.

    A litany of chiles, tumeric.
    posted by JPD at 3:48 PM on November 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

    Response by poster: Thanks guys, great answers so far. I feel like I should point out, as I feel a little ashamed, that I'm not as sad as my current spice cabinet looks...this is an unusually spice-bare time. :) Also, I'm looking specifically for spice cabinet standbys-- not things like garlic which have to be bought somewhat recurrently (garlic and onions were the only thing saving my palate these past few months...).
    posted by threeants at 3:49 PM on November 29, 2011

    My food tastes mirror yours, and some of my go to spices are the ones I get from a local Indian food store. Among the basics are coriander, garam masala, mustard seeds, fennel, whole cardamon, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, turmeric, and fenugreek. And hot thai peppers, which I keep well sealed in the freezer and use as needed.

    Because it is so important to have fresh spices, I'd suggest you zero in on some recipes you want to make first, and pick up the appropriate spices when you shop for the recipes. I accumulated my spice collection, along with a lot of delicious beans and lentils, by cooking my way through this excellent and almost entirely vegetarian book. Of course buy small quantities and take care to put the spices in well sealed containers with labels.
    posted by bearwife at 3:50 PM on November 29, 2011

    Not a spice recommendation per se. But if you don't already have one you really should get a large stone mortar and pestle to go with your spices. It will become an essential tool in getting the best flavours out of both dried and fresh spices and herbs. I promise, you'll love it!
    posted by michswiss at 4:08 PM on November 29, 2011

    White and black pepper. Table grinders don't suffice for cooking, not enough, and often too cracked and chunky. Hand-grind coffee mills that can be set to fine, one for each of black and white pepper, are kitchen essentials. Grind a teaspoon of black or white pepper, then smell it, and then again after 30 minutes. If you're not convinced, get your nose checked.

    Salt grinders don't have the same urgency, but cracked salt crystals dusted on top before serving can give a saltier flavor without so much sodium.

    Salt and pepper have always come first.
    posted by StickyCarpet at 4:30 PM on November 29, 2011

    I think Indian has been brilliantly covered, more eastern Asian is not so spice dependent, but I recommend the following that can store almost indefinitely:

    Star Anise
    Schezuan Peppers
    Dried whole skinny chillies
    Cinnamon quills (also good for indian) or cassia bark (the difference is subtle but there)
    "black" or "brown" asian cardamom (big cardamom as opposed to green)
    fried onion flakes like so.
    Asafoetida is another great indian one.

    Chinese black or malt vinegar
    Smoked salt is incredible
    Garlic/chilli oils are great two birds with one stone type stuff
    Sesame Oil.

    For more asian stuff, this is a good page to get you started. There's some fresh ingredients on that page, but lots that can be stored forever. I would personally add a few other things, but it's a great start.
    posted by smoke at 4:30 PM on November 29, 2011

    this isn't really a spice, but you might dig it because you're a vegetarian - nutritional yeast can add cheesy flavour and vitamins to your cooking.
    posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:52 PM on November 29, 2011

    oh boy, I've been in your shoes, it was such a bland time.

    - whole nutmeg, not powdered. I just use a knife to grind it.
    - all spice
    - cardamom pods, not powdered, a little goes a long way
    - turmeric
    - pepper corns, I like the different colored ones, but also not powdered, that you will need a grinder for.
    (I hadn't noticed the anti-powdered trend in my pantry until now!)
    - coriander
    - ginger (but I also keep some fresh ginger in my freezer. It messes up the texture, but the flavor is still good, slightly milder)
    - garam masala and curry (although technically both are mixes)
    - bay leaves
    - tandoori (also a mix)
    posted by Neekee at 6:13 PM on November 29, 2011

    2nding smoked paprika!

    Dill is frequently overlooked (sure fresh is better, but the dried stuff I get is not too bad.)
    posted by vespabelle at 7:33 PM on November 29, 2011

    Get yourself to the Dekalb Farmer's Market, its not a bad bike ride. You'll be able to find all the spices above, plus lots of good oils and vinegars from different regions of the country. They also have nutritional yeast and whole wheat couscous, all at prices that should make Publix roll over and die.
    posted by stormygrey at 5:52 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

    My most-used list, optimized for a combination of flavor and convenience includes:

    kosher salt
    flaky sea salt
    black peppercorns
    whole nutmeg
    ground cinnamon
    ground allspice
    ground cloves
    ground cumin
    ground coriander
    smoked paprika
    garam masala
    ras al hanout
    curry powder
    ground ginger
    cayenne pepper
    ground chipotle
    whole, dried chiles de arbol

    Herbs I generally always go with fresh; same goes for garlic and ginger.
    posted by booknerd at 7:39 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

    There are some basic, excellent spices that you should keep on hand at all times - they will help you flavour up just about anything. Since you do Indian cooking you'll be familiar with the usual stuff - turmeric, garam masala, cumin etc. Allow me to add "smoked paprika" to that. Ever since the first time I used it while making Gordon Ramsay's Chicken Stroganoff w/Spaetzle recipe it's become one of my favourite ingredients - it smells SENSATIONAL, smoky and bacony - and is awesome with chicken or to flavour fried rice/biryani. Cinnamon is another favourite - try frying onion in ghee then throw in just a pinch of cinnamon and smell what happens! I also have grinders for rock salt and mixed peppercorns, some habanero powder (use sparingly) and ground mustard. Those are my staples. Using them you should be able to jazz up just about any meat or vegetable dish.
    posted by tra at 12:42 PM on November 30, 2011

    Everything I would have said has been said, so I'll just emphasize the ones I find the most useful:
    -Cumin seeds (not powder)- if you toast these and powder them yourself, it's a world of
    difference. Mexican food and especially black beans are great with freshly toasted cumin.
    -Mustard seeds- I use both yellow and brown. They add great flavor to any soup or Indian dish and I love the way they pop in the pan and make home fries taste great.
    -Coriander- Indian food is just not the same without it
    -Bay leaves- really good in tomato sauce
    -Smoked paprika- people say I make things too spicy so I try to lay off the cayenne but put this in. It is good in soups, on potatoes, on hummus, on eggplant, etc. Good for dishes that don't call for it, too like on stuffed mushrooms. It's a multi-ethnic spice.
    -Chili powder
    -Tarragon- this one is in the outdated pantheon, but I use it all the time in soups (white bean, lentil) and tomato sauce and it adds something good.
    -Sesame seeds- good in Asian dishes and pasta salad and as a sprinkle on hummus.
    -Nutritional yeast- I put it in curries and soups and on roast broccoli to things more satisfying.

    Don't bother buying garam masala or prepackaged curry powder. As you probably already know, real Indian recipes don't use curry powder and only use garam masala as a garnish. You can make both yourself easily.
    posted by rmless at 4:33 PM on November 30, 2011

    Sumac is essential for many middle eastern dishes.
    posted by the duck by the oboe at 4:58 PM on November 30, 2011

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