Tips & tools
From Indian and North African to Cape Malay, so many cuisines are made distinct with the spices used. Spices are the dried seeds, roots, stems, buds and berries of certain plants. Whether used whole or ground, when cooked the flavours of spices are enhanced and if used carefully can bring out the best in any ingredient. Although spices may seem daunting, start slowly and soon you will get to know what works and will discover a whole new world of flavours. The Afrikaans spice names are given in brackets.
Allspice berries are the dried, small, round fruit from the clove family. It is a versatile spice with hints of clove, cinnamon and nutmeg flavours. This spice is available as whole dried berries or in ground form. Allspice can be used in both savoury and sweet dishes. It is commonly used in bakes and biscuits and is popular in Christmas pudding recipes, as it gives a warm, subtle spiciness. Allspice is delicious as a pickling spice and do add it to meat dishes, marinades and stews.
These small dried, slightly green pods contain 3-6 small black seeds. These pods are usually crushed to release the seeds’ strong aromatic flavour. Cardamom is used in North African, Malay and Indian cooking. It is delicious in curries, rice dishes and other spicy foods and combines surprisingly well with chocolate and coffee as well as cakes and desserts. It is also delicious in pickles and preserves.
Cayenne pepper (rooipeper)
This is a very hot variety of the red chilli. It is ground and used in small quantities as it packs quite a punch. This spicy flavour combines well with eggs dishes and veggies or with rice and seafood.
Actually vegetables and range in colour from green to red and sometimes even purple. They can be used fresh or dried (chilli flakes) or as a paste. Different chillies have different strengths and in general the smaller the chilli the stronger the burn. The seeds and white pith contains most of the strength and can be removed if preferred. Chillies are used in sauces and salsas, sambals and curries. You will find them most often in strongly flavoured Eastern cuisine as well as Mexican food.
One of the most well-loved spices, we can all relate to cinnamon. Most commonly used to flavour desserts such as Melktert and to sprinkle over pancakes, cinnamon can be used for much more. It comes from the bark of a cinnamon tree and has a sweet, nutty flavour. It can be used very successfully in savoury dishes, especially meat dishes and veggies. In South Africa we love cinnamon with pumpkin and butternut, but it is also delicious in curries. It is used to flavour sweet syrups and sauces. Try it over your oats in the morning with fruit and honey or add a stick to the pot when cooking your favourite veggies. Cassia is often mistaken for cinnamon, but is a harder, flatter bark with a stronger flavour.
The dried, unopened buds of a flower. Whole cloves are used to stud meat eg. gammon and its distinct flavour can enhance any stock, sauce, casserole or curry. These can be removed before serving. Ground cloves can also be used in curries or casseroles, but are more commonly used in desserts and baking and pair very well with apples.
These are the dried seeds from the coriander plant. It can be used whole and is the common ingredient boerewors. Ground, it can be used in combination with many other spices. Coriander is delicious in curries, sauces and meat dishes. It is delicious when used in combination with cumin. Try roating and grinding your own seeds for a fresher, more fragant flavour.
Also known as jeera can be used whole (seeds) or ground. Cumin seeds are long and thin and are strong, so use sparingly. Cumin flavours many curries and spicy foods from Indian to North African cuisine. It combines very well with couscous or rice and is delicious with veggies, poultry, eggs or meat dishes. Try cumin sprinkled over roasted butternut or stirred into your favourite meatball mixture.
Curry powder (kerriepoeier)
This is probably the most widely used of spice mixtures. It can consist of up to 20 different ground spices and can be mild to hot. Commonly used spices are chillies, fenugreek, turmeric, cumin and coriander. Curry powder is obviously used in curries, but can also be used in smaller amounts in chicken or potato dishes to add some extra flavour or bite.
A root with a slightly sweet taste. It can be used fresh or ground. When used fresh, it can be grated or chopped and added to chutneys, sauces, soups, stews or curries. It is also very common in Thai or Oriental cooking. It combines well with poultry, seafood and vegetable dishes. Ground ginger can also be used in savoury dishes, but it delicious in baking and desserts.
Made from dried, ground peppers and can vary in strength depending on what peppers are used. It is however, far milder than cayenne pepper and often has a slightly sweet taste. Paprika is commonly used in Hungarian and Spanish cuisine, being an important flavour in Goulash. It is delicious with soups, stews, eggs, cheese, rice and vegetable dishes. Paprika can be sprinkled over dishes to add colour. Smoked paprika is delicious with a mild to strong smoky flavour. Use as a substitute to normal paprika, but use sparingly as it is stronger.
These berries from the pepper vine are available in black, white, green and red. Pepper can be used whole or freshly ground to enhance the flavour of other ingredients. A pepper grinder is a common item on the dinner table. Black peppercorns are more common and are the unripe, dried berries. For dishes where black pepper may look unappealing, e.g. a white sauce, white pepper can be used. These are the stronger, but less fragrant ripe berries. The green peppercorns are the softer, more delicately flavoured green berries. These are preserved in brine and the main ingredient in a peppercorn sauce. Pink peppercorns are from a different kind of berry.
These strands are the stigmata of small, handpicked, dried flowers. It has a rich, yellow colour and a very unique and delicate flavour. This highly prized spice is used in small quantities as it can be bitter. It is the key ingredient in paella and risotto Milanese, but also delicious with seafood and other delicately flavoured dishes. The strands are soaked in a little water before adding to the dish, this releases that beautiful yellow colour. It combines well with other spices and can also be used in desserts.
Star anise (ster anys)
Each reddish-brown star-shaped fruit is dried and contains 8 small brown seeds. The aroma is aniseed-like, with deeper spicy undertones. The stars can be kept in an airtight container for a long time. Star anise is one of the spices in the traditional Chinese Five Spice mix, and is typically used in Chinese and Malay dishes. It combines well with pork, poultry and fish, and forms part of many
biryani/breyani recipes. Don’t use too many in one dish, as it can be quite overpowering.
This is a cheaper alternative to saffron, although its only similarity is its bright yellow colour. Turmeric is a boiled, dried and ground root. It is a popular ingredient in curry powder and gives curries that distinctive yellow colour. It used in other Indian dishes as well as sauces, egg dishes, pickles and yellow rice. Use sparingly as it has quite a bitter flavour. It has also recently become more popular due to its health benefits.
One of my favourite flavours. Vanilla pods are indeed the seed cases of a climbing orchid, which are dried and used as a wonderful seasoning. To use, split open the pod with a sharp knife and scrape out the seeds. Both the pod and seeds can be used and will be specified according to the specific recipe. Vanilla is most often used in sweet dishes, particularly in confectionery, baking and desserts, but is also delicious when used in small quantities with other ingredients like fish, chicken and tomato.
Vanilla is available in various forms. The dried pods should be kept in an airtight container for a few weeks and can even be frozen with success for a month or two. When only the seeds are needed, the pod can be left out to dry for a day or two and then added to a sugar container and kept in there for up to a year. The sugar will retain a subtle vanilla flavour and will be ideal to use for baking. Vanilla seeds or powder is available in supermarkets and vanilla extract is also made from the pods. Vanilla essence is a chemically produced product and doesn’t have nearly the same delicate flavour as the real pods.