I mean no disrespect with the title. It’s just a what we writers call a ‘hook.’
Can you believe that it’s March already? The winds are roaring outside but soon, we’ll be dusting off the grill. Oddly, I am not a big fan of summer because I prefer cold weather but I do love grilling, or let me rephrase that – I love it when my husband does the grilling. My mom made a killer pork barberque on a stick which I miss very much. I can almost recreate it but it lacks her special touch and probably some local Philippine ingredients like kalamansi (like a cross between a lime and clementine) and labuyo (bird’s eye pepper). She and I love grilled and roasted meat and we were eating buddies. Even our grocery trips were a treat because we would pass by the shawarma vendor. I love watching the super-sharp knife carve slices off the giant rolling skewer of beef! That was my introduction to Middle Eastern food. Years later, my daughter and I became eating buddies, too. And we were one of the first customers when a Persian fast-food opened near our house. I was sad when they closed because I think ethnic food is great and always adds a dimension to our gustatory choices. Luckily, there is one Middle Eastern fast food stall in the mall where I now live so I still get the yum!
Anyway, what makes Middle Eastern grilled dishes so fragrant and delicious? The spices, of course! I decided to do some investigating some spice blends unique to that part of the world. I’m going to give an overview of 5 spice blends and there’s probably more that I haven’t heard of, so I beg your pardon. What is common about these spice blends is that there is no precise recipe for them because it is almost proprietary to each family or shop. Western observers of Middle Eastern and North African cultures noted this secrecy makes it difficulty of pinning down the spices used to this practice. So let’s get down to business:
Advieh – Image courtesy of Blue Kale Road
Advieh – This blend is used in Iranian and Iraqi cuisine for rice dishes, chicken, and bean dishes. The common ingredients include turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, rose petals or buds, cumin and ginger. Some blends include golpar (hogweed seeds with slightly bitter taste), saffron, nutmeg, black pepper, mace, coriander or sesame.
Advieh comes in two varieties: advieh-e-polo which is used sprinkled over cooked rice and advie-e-khoresh which used as a rub for grilled or roasted meat or used for stews. The advieh used for stew often includes saffron, sesame, cinnamon, rose buds, coriander, cardamom and other spices.
Baharat – Image courtesy of Kevin’s Cooking
Baharat – baharat is the Arabic word for ‘spices.’ It’s made from ground spices including allspice, black peppercorns, cardamom seeds, cassia bark, cloves, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, nutmeg, dried red chili peppers or paprika. This mixture is used to season various meats, including fish. It is also used as a condiment and as a seasoning for soup.
Turkish baharat includes mint while in Tunisia, the mixture is composed of dried rose buds, ground cinnamon and black pepper. In the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, loomi (dried black lime) and saffron are also used for their kebsa (also called “Gulf baharat”).
Hawayej – Image courtesy of Food.com
Hawayej or Hawaij – is a variety of Yemeni ground spice mixtures used for soups and coffee. This spice blend is used extensively by Yemeni Jews in Israel. It is used for soups, stews, curries, rice and vegetable dishes, and as a barbeque rub. The ingredients include cumin, black pepper, turmeric, and cardamom. Fancier versions may include ground cloves, caraway, nutmeg, saffron, coriander, fenugreek and ground dried onions. In Aden, their mixture is made with cumin, black pepper, cardamom and coriander.
Hawayej made for coffee has the sweeter spices like aniseeds, fennel seeds, ginger and cardamom. The mixture is used in brewing coffee but it is also used in making desserts, cakes, and slow-cooked meat dishes. The Adeni version is made with ginger, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon when used for black coffee and minus the ginger if used for tea. Sounds delicious!
Ras el Hanout – Image courtesy of An Edible Mosaic
Ras el Hanout – The influence of Middle Eastern religion and cuisine reaches into the Northern Africa in places like Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. So it’s no surprise that the spices they use would be similar. In fact, ras el hanout is Arabic for “head of the shop” (like the English expression “top shelf”). It suggests that you are getting the best of the best. I think in their culture the head is the most honorable part of the body and the feet the least, hence the practice of shoe-slapping. Sorry, my brain tends to go off in many tangents.
Anyway, ras el hanout is one of those mixtures that has no precise recipe but it usually has a dozen spices like cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek and dry turmeric. It can also contain more local ingredients like ash berries, chufa, grains of paradise, orris root, monk’s pepper, cubebs, dried rose buds, fennel seeds or aniseed, galangal, and long pepper. Ras el hanout is used for savory dishes, as a meat or fish rub and it’s also mixed with rice and couscous.
Za’atar – Image courtesy of Girl Meets Cooking
Za’atar – This condiment is made with ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram or some combination of toasted sesame seeds and salt. It is a generic term for a mixture of Middle Eastern herbs. Some varieties are made by adding savory, cumin, coriander or fennel seed. This mixture is usually eaten with pita. Pita is dipped in olive oil, then in za’atar. Or the dried herbs are softened with oil and spread on dough before baking.
It is also used as a seasoning as seasoning for meat and vegetables. Or sprinkled on hummus and eaten with labneh (a tangy cheese made from yogurt). Shanklish, a Lebanese specialty, is made of dry-cured balls of labneh which are rolled in za’atar for the outer coating. The Palestine version adds caraway seeds, while the Lebanese variety adds sumac berries, giving it a dark red color. Za’atar is makes things taste good but it’s also good for your health because it’s high in anti-oxidants.
If all of these sounds too much, take heart. You can find these spice blends in Middle Eastern or Jewish food stores, already mixed and bagged. Of course, I can’t guarantee the purity of the ingredients. I’ve read that commercial blends sometimes contain roasted flour. That’s not too bad but a small investment in the actual herbs and spices plus a spice blender (aka coffee bean grinder) might produce a more superior blend. Personally, I would rather use a mortar and pestle. Grinding the ingredients bring out the essential oils, intensifying flavor. I’m old-school that way.
Okay, now I’m hungry. Too bad because it’s Ash Wednesday so no meat for me. Have to settle for a PB & J.
Do you know of any other exotic Middle Eastern spice blends? Let me know in the comments section. I’m especially interested in spice blends used for baking. Thanks!