Why Spices Are Some of the Most Important Ingredients in My Kitchen

published Jun 4, 2014
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(Image credit: Emily Han)

I taught a spice tasting and blending workshop this week and participants asked so many interesting questions that got me thinking about my love of spices. Here’s a glimpse inside one of the (three!) spice drawers in my kitchen, and some thoughts how and why I use spices.

Herbs and spices have captured my attention as long as I can remember — or at least as early as seven or eight when I would spend hours organizing and reorganizing my parents’ spice cupboard, tasting and sniffing as I went along. I’d study the little descriptions on the back of the McCormick or Spice Islands bottles (chervil: good with fish, cream of tartar: for meringue) and fill my lungs with the earthy aromas of Chinese roots, seeds, and berries that I didn’t know the names of. To experiment, I’d add a pinch of this or that to scrambled eggs and ask (read: coerce) my younger brother to join me in taste tests.

(Image credit: Emily Han)

As I grew older, it was my particular love of vegetarian Indian, Arabic, Persian, and Central Asian cooking that sparked a wider exploration of spices and spice mixes (as well as the fascinating history of spice routes). After I gave up gluten, dairy, and refined sugar a year and a half ago, I was surprised to discover that my interest and expertise in spices could grow even deeper. Dietary restrictions are more manageable, even exciting, when you can liven things up with ingredients that are colorful, tasty, and fragrant.

People often tell me that they are intimidated by spices, and I try to encourage a sense of exploration. I frequently experiment with a new spice or spice blend by adding it to eggs, just as I did in childhood. Roasted potatoes or a bowl of beans can be another good, neutral canvas.

Instead of getting caught up in “right” or “wrong” ways to use spices, let yourself be guided by your own sense of taste and smell. As I have learned, spices offer much more than what those little labels or even a website can tell you. They can be aromatic, bitter, hot, sour, sweet — full of tastes and fragrances that are so much fun to play with in the kitchen.