All The Spices You Should Have In Your Cupboard
A question we’re often asked at MOB Kitchen is: “how do I make my food taste better?” The answer to that question isn’t always that easy. You might be cooking your food at the wrong temperature for the wrong amount of time, for instance. Hence why your chicken tastes more like rubber than anything else.
One of the failsafe pieces of advice we can, however, offer to help you make your food taste better is this: “use more seasoning”. Flavouring your food with herbs and spices isn’t just a quick and easy way to add more flavour to your cooking but it’s also something you can do relatively cheaply. But what are the essential spices you need to have on hand to help you make your lasagne sing and your hummus? I’ve made this guide of the spices you should have in your cupboard to try and answer that question.
No, this list is not exhaustive (and I’ve missed your favourite spice off, please get in touch) but it’s got a good number of the essential spices you should have in your cupboard. Buy most of these and you’ll never be far from a shortcut to flavour.
This roster encompasses most of the readily available big hitters in the herbs and spice aisle. Aside from salt and pepper, obvs. I’m just going to assume you’ve got both of those and that you’re using your salt as liberally as possible. Unless your doctor says otherwise. In which case you should listen to your doctor and not a stranger on the internet. I digress.
From urfa chilli flakes to chaat masala, these are the spices you should have in your cupboard.
Sweet Smoked Paprika
Paprika is a spice made from ground smoked peppers. You’ve probably heard of it and you’ve probably had it, too. If you’ve never had La Chinata smoked paprika, though, I’d reconsider your “paprika is boring” hot take. This bittersweet spice has a mild and pleasant flavour and it’s a step above most musty-tasting paprika on the market.
Goes great with: fried eggs.
Black Urfa Chilli
These obsidian Turkish chilli flakes have been gaining popularity over the last few years thanks to their championing by chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi. If you’ve yet to sprinkle their hot smokiness over a plate of food then you’re really missing out. The touch of fruity sweetness you get from black urfa chilli (also known as ‘isot pul biber’ and ‘urfa biber’) is also a real boon.
Goes great with: lamb kebabs.
Methi (aka dried fenugreek leaves) is one of the most popular herbs in Indian cooking. Used in everything from dal to paratha, its main role is as a flavour and aroma enhancer. Methi’s earthy note brings out the best of an array of spices and it’s often the absent ingredient in a curry when you can tell that there’s “something missing”.
Goes great with: chicken tikka masala.
I find that it’s difficult to describe Tajín without getting overexcited. A tasty blend of mild chilli peppers, lime and sea salt, Tajín is a spice mix that’s designed to add some much-needed excitement to fish and meat as well as fruits and vegetables. Sprinkle this liberally over a few juicy chunks of pineapple for one of the best fruit eating experiences of your whole damn life. I’m not joking. Buy it, do that, and email me with a message of thanks telling me how delicious that was.
Goes great with: fresh fruit.
I love sumac for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that it’s made from dried berries. How cool is that?! This spice has got a citric tartness that can add a much-needed lift to a huge range of dishes. Sprinkle some of this on your fish and chips for a Middle East-meets-Mile End gamechanger.
Goes great with: salads.
This Indian spice mix is like the Swiss army knife of spices. Although chaat masala is most often used as a seasoning on top of chaat like bhel puri and sev puri (hence where it gets its name from) it’s also a welcome addition to any sort of salad you’re cobbling together. It’s sweet, sour, and delectably moreish.
Goes great with: salads and snacks.
Aleppo pepper (or pul biber as it's sometimes called) is a handy spice that hails from the Syrian city of Aleppo. Used all over the Middle East, this coarsely ground pepper is fruity and earthy and really brings out the best of fatty cuts of meat. It’s also an essential ingredient in muhammara and helps add some kick to your morning shakshuka.
Goes great with: a copy of Simple by Ottolenghi.
This bright red pepper powder is a wonderful Korean spice that has a range of different uses. Most of which are only limited by your imagination. As an integral part of kimchi, gochugaru isn't completely dissimilar from aleppo pepper but has a sweeter overall flavour. Even if you’re not big on spicy food you can use this stuff fairly liberally in your cooking without worrying too much about blowing your head off.
Goes great with: cabbage and salads.
Shichi-mi tōgarashi is a Japanese spice composed of seven different ingredients, including sanshō pepper, coarsely ground red chilli pepper, and sesame seeds. The end result is a spicy, nutty spice mix that you can use to liven up just about anything. Throwing some of this in your panko breadcrumb mixture, for instance, will take your katsu to the next level.
Goes great with: soups and noodles.
I’ve already raved about za’atar as something that will change you way you cook but I’m not going to stop beating its drum anytime soon. Why? Because I love the stuff. This spice mixture is made up of a salpicón of different ingredients (we’re talking marjoram, sesame, and sumac) and its zesty flavour never fails to remind me of growing up in the Emirates.
Goes great with: hummus and pitta.
Whether you know it as asafoetida or hing, this spice is pretty hard to forget. Yes, it’s got a smell that some might find off-putting but this punchy powder can make everything that surrounds it taste better. This isn’t a spice you’ll want to try raw but adding it to a mixture of other spices in a muttar paneer comes highly recommended. Use asafoetida wisely, showing it the love it deserves, and it’ll love you right back.
Goes great with: just about every curry imaginable.
I might receive a bit of flak for this from the people who bemoan anyone using an ingredient that isn’t but I actually really rate garlic powder. It doesn’t give the exact same flavour as garlic but it's great at adding a real umami moreish-ness to a bolognese sauce or bringing life to an overly salty stock. It basically tastes like something you’d coat crisps in and I’m all about that.
Goes great with: sauces and marinades.
Back when I was a uni student my concept of “cooking” involved adding dried oregano to a frozen Dr Oetker pizza. Thankfully, my cooking skills have improved somewhat since then but I’m still a big oregano fan boy. If you want a pro tip, try crushing it a little in your hand before chucking it into your pasta sauce, that’ll help release the flavours and make it taste more oregano-y. If you have any shakers of dried oregano in your cupboard that are over a year old, I’d chuck them out; that oregano will have lost most of its flavour by now and you’re better off buying some more.
Goes great with: Italian food, especially pizza and pasta.
Dukkah is made from a mix of herbs, nuts, and spices. Dukkah is toasty and savoury and is typically eaten alongside bread. It’s sort of like a less acidic version of za’atar and can add a textural crunch to a plate as well as flavour.
Goes great with: bread.
Anyone that’s a fan of hot and spicy food should be fairly familiar by now with cayenne pepper. This spice is capable of adding a kick to everything from Beef Shin Chilli to Romesco Mac N Cheese and it’s an essential spice to have in the cupboard if you like it hot.
Goes great with: anything you want to make spicier.