Cooking With Middle Eastern Spices

Amanda Fiegl

A local friend of mine recently received a bounty of fresh Middle Eastern spices, courtesy of a friend visiting from Qatar.

"I asked her to bring me a few spices, and she went to the market and asked for a half a kilo of everything!" my friend explained. "Want some?"

What a happy coincidence—we had just been given a new spice rack, and the jars were empty! Now they hold a mix of the mysterious and the familiar: turmeric, cardamom pods, dried hibiscus, cumin, cinnamon, dried whole ginger, zatar, and something called simply "mixed spices," which looks and smells like what the supermarket sells as "curry powder." I added in some garam masala I bought in Kenya (2 years ago, but it's still remarkably potent), and a few store-bought spices like nutmeg and cloves, creating an aromatic dust storm in the kitchen as I funneled everything into jars.

I've already made a great tofu-vegetable curry flavored with the mixed spices, crushed cardamom, turmeric, cumin, and zested ginger. I've sprinkled the cinnamon on waffles, and tried a touch of cardamom in my coffee, but I know I could be more adventurous.

I'm a bit stumped by the dried hibiscus (not technically a spice, I know), also called Jamaica flowers. I haven't found any food recipes that use this, but a quick search turned up some appealing drink recipes, such as a hibiscus margarita, or hibiscus-lime iced tea.

The new ingredient I'm most excited about is zatar (or za'atar, or zaatar, however you want to spell it), which is apparently both the name of a wild herb and the name of an herb/spice blend. The blend varies by region and household, but often includes sumac, sesame seeds, and salt, along with green herbs like oregano, thyme and marjoram.

I'm not not sure exactly what I received; it looks a bit like dried lawn clippings, to be honest, but tastes quite good! I've only tried zatar once before, on a trip to Israel, where a street food vendor served it atop warm pita bread brushed with olive oil. I plan to try re-creating that tasty treat at home, and I bet zatar could also add a lively touch to comfort foods like pizza, pasta or even mac and cheese. (Of course, it would be nice baked into homemade bread, too, if we had an oven...) Any other ideas?

What's your favorite spice?

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