While no Indian kitchen would be complete without the quintessential masala dabba — brimming with a bevy of staple spices from cumin to turmeric — over the years, I’ve also assembled a complementary arsenal of condiments, herbs and seasonings. Zealously sourced from travels afar and local gourmet stores alike, these pantry essentials work wonders in elevating the colours, flavours and textures of a versatile range of dishes. If you’re looking to up the ante in the kitchen, here’s spilling the beans on the spices you need to stock up on.
Arguably the most essential ingredient in all cooking, salt is responsible for eliciting an inviting aroma in our food whilst traditionally contributing one of five basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami). Of course, salts can pack a more potent punch with “posher” varieties lending complex textures to ordinary flavours.
I’m partial to sprinkling unrefined sea salt (harvested from evaporated seawater) liberally over just about everything, with the coarsely grained crystals emboldening the mouthfeel. Hand-harvested off the coast of Brittany, fleur de del (translating to, “flower of salt”) is the holy grail of sea salts, imbued with colours running the spectrum from an off-white silvery hue to grey-tinted crystals. Retaining a high moisture content, these delicate crystals are a coveted finishing salt for adding a final flourish to meat, seafood and vegetables; and can also be used to curb the sweetness of caramel and chocolate in home-baking.
Loaded with 84 minerals and elements found in the human body, pure Himalayan salt commands pride of place in my kitchen as well, where I can often be found cooking my veggies on a Himalayan salt block! Once heated, Himalayan salt slabs can retain its temperature for hours, rendering a subtle touch of mineral-rich saltiness to the cooking.
Stemming from the Arabic word for “to crush” or “to pound” – dukkah is a customary Egyptian spice blend combining a medley of herbs, roasted nuts, seeds and spices. While the composition can vary depending on personal preferences, the standard recipe calls for toasted sesame seeds, roasted nuts (usually almonds, macadamia, or hazelnuts), cumin seeds or ground cumin, toasted coriander seeds, salt, and black pepper – mixed and crushed with a mortar and pestle.
Dukkah makes a revelatory dip at dinner parties when served with crusty bread and olive oil, or you could also mix it with fresh yoghurt for a more tart and tangy dip. From salads to stews, roasted vegetables to meat or fish – dishes luxuriating in dukkah are instantly emboldened by the bold and beautiful flavours of the Middle East. What’s more, the condiment has a host of health benefits, as it’s packed with calcium, fibre and magnesium (courtesy the sesame seeds) along with essential fats, protein and antioxidants (derived from the nuts used).
A herb with European provenance, oregano is cultivated wildly across the mountains of Italy and Greece. It’s best used in its freshest form, evoking bold and woody notes peppered with a pungent profile.
I love the versatility with which oregano can be deployed. From adding it to marinades and salad dressings, to strewing over pizzas, pastas and seafood dishes – oregano can always be relied on to transform a simple dish with authentic Italian or Greek flair.
Typically made by grinding bell peppers and chillis, paprika is a charismatic addition to any spice cabinet, calibrating a pop of crimson colour dishes along with a subtle hint of smokiness.
Do look out for the nuanced differences between Hungarian and Spanish paprika. Paprika imported from Hungary tends to be mild and sweet, while Spanish paprika delivers a stronger whack of heat. Use paprika as a garnish to enhance the aesthetic appeal and flavour profile of savoury dishes from Devilled Eggs to creamy sauces, including Mac n Cheese.
And the best part? Paprika is an antibacterial agent and can also help regularise blood pressure, improve circulation and facilitate digestion!
As is the case for all truffle enthusiasts, truffle oil is my constant companion – magicking a bland dish into an invitingly rich proposition, fortified by earthy notes. I should caution here that the quality of your truffle oil makes all the difference, with most store-bought oils synthetically replicating the taste without actually making use of any truffles. As such, it’s worth checking the ingredients and process listed on the label, to identify truffle oils made by generously infusing truffles in high-quality olive oil, to render the heady scent and deep flavour profile of these prized ingredients.
My second piece of advice would be to use truffle oil sparingly – you only need a teaspoon (or two) to lift a vinaigrette or drizzle on overcooked vegetables, pastas and risotto. Quite recently, I’ve also discovered the joys of using truffle oil to elevate party snacks from popcorn to French fries and flat breads.
Set apart by their distinctive colour, pink peppercorns are derived from the Peruvian peppertree and Brazilian peppertree in South America. Keep these beautiful berries close by to lighten dishes with a delicately sweet touch, balanced by a mild dash of pepperiness.
Pink peppercorns are also a star ingredient for giving a nuanced dimension to sweet desserts, especially a warming glow to cookies.
Last but not least in my list of pantry essentials is harissa. Also known as the sriracha of the Middle East, this complex North African paste is made with a heady mix of spices from caraway and cumin to roasted chile peppers, mint and coriander. While you can make your own, store-bought jars of harissa are just as handy in delivering fiery shades of heat to diverse recipes from rubs and dips (especially when blended with hummus or yoghurt), to burgers and breakfast sandwiches. Truth be told, once you get started, the creative possibilities opened up by harissa are endless!