Off Campus Living

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Essential Spices

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Japanese Top Spices

#1 Furikake

A variable mixture of ingredients from seaweed and shrimp to egg and sesame seed, this ever-present condiment could fairly be called “rice seasoning” and certainly gets many college students though school without knowing how to cook anything but rice!

#2 Matcha

Recently a very trendy flavor in ice creams, candies, coffees, or whatever else they can jam this into, Matcha was traditionally developed for the Japanese tea Ceremony and is nothing more than finely ground green tea leaves. The exciting color, rich, but lively flavor, and minor kick of caffeine make it a no brainer for many sweets.

#3 Sansho Pepper

Related to more well-known Sichuan peppercorn (Zanthoxylum piperitum), Sansho Pepper has a much sharper or stinging flavor in comparison to our common black pepper (piper nigrum) which is unrelated botanically.

#4 Sesame

Sesame is ubiquitous in Japanese cooking in the form of sesame oil or one of these seed preparations. The striking color of white or black sesame seeds makes them and excellent garnish, but the toasted seeds will definitely give you the best flavor!

  • White
  • Toasted
  • Black
  • Gomashio – Essentially a mix of toasted sesame seeds and salt used as a condiment.

#5 Shichimi Togarashi

Literally “Seven Flavor Chili Pepper,” this mixed condiment can have as few as 5 or as many as 10 ingredients, but these are the usual suspects:

  1. Red chili pepper
  2. Sansho Pepper
  3. Orange peel, Tangerine/yuzu
  4. Sesame Seed (Black and White)
  5. Hemp seeds
  6. Ground ginger
  7. Nori


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What Spices Are Used in Mexico?


The orange-red seeds of the annatto tree, native to the tropical areas of the Americas. The seeds are dried and ground to a powder, or made into a paste. Its flavor is sweet and earthy, and it pairs well with citrus. It is a primary spice in the cuisine of Yucatan, Mexico, used in savory dishes and stews.


The dried unripe fruit of the pimento dioica tree, native to Southern Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. It has the flavor of cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg combined, thus the name allspice, and it can be paired with those same spices. It is used mainly in central and Southern Mexico in adobos and pipianes (seed-based sauces). It is thought that the Mayans used it for embalming due to its fragrant aroma.


A mixture of dried ground chiles. In Mexico, chile powder is used as a condiment to flavor fruits and vegetables, or as an ingredient in candy. It is different than the chili powder commonly used to make chili in the US and Canada. To make savory dishes, whole dried chiles are used instead. You could use chile powder as a quick substitute for dry chiles, but make sure to buy the powders made from one variety of chile. For example, if the recipe calls for chipotle chiles, use chipotle chile powder.


While technically an herb, epazote in its dry form is used as a spice. The plant is native to Mexico and Central and South America. Its flavor is pungent with notes of anise, oregano, citrus, and mint. It is used primarily to flavor black beans in most of Mexico, but it can also be used in sauces. It is thought that cooking beans with epazote aids in their digestion (aka reducing the gas they often cause).


The pod of a flowering vine in the orchid family native to Mexico and South America. Its flavor is sweet, yet smoky. It is often paired with cinnamon and clove. In Mexico, it is used extensively in desserts like flan, ice cream, cake, and to make hot chocolate. You can also find it in savory dishes, especially in the Veracruz region. Legend has it that Totonac princess, Tzacopontziza, destined to live a consecrated life to the goddess Tonacayohua, fell in love with prince Zkatan-Oxga. The punishment of seducing a princess promised to the goddess was death. They fled to the mountains, but were later found and killed by the high priests. Where their blood had touched the ground, a large shrub began to grow. This was later intertwined with a mysterious vine, which flowered into a beautiful orchid plant. The Totonac people came to believe the orchid and the shrub were the two lovers. The flowers dried up into pods and began releasing their aroma, which led to the production of vanilla. The orchid was later named a sacred plant. That is why it is said that vanilla was born of the blood of a princess.


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What Are Dry Chinese Spices?


White pepper or bái hú jiāo (白胡椒) is used in Chinese cooking like black pepper is used, well… for all other cooking! We use fresh ground white and black whole peppercorns for all of our cooking unless we are making larger amounts of dry rub and marinades. The white peppercorn has a distinctly different taste than the black peppercorn and is always the preferred choice for Chinese cooking unless otherwise specified. We’re actually not sure why this is the case, but some things just are the way they are; this is one of those things.


Known for the slight numbing sensation it leaves on the tongue, the Red Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorn or hóng huā jiāo (花椒 ) gives Sichuan cuisine its distinctive flavor. Funnily enough, it’s actually not a peppercorn at all, but a berry from the prickly ash tree. It’s used both in whole and ground form and is one of the ingredients in 5 spice powder.


Known for the slight numbing sensation it leaves on the tongue, the Green Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorn or qīng huā jiāo (花椒 ) seem to be even more numbing than the red ones! Green Sichuan Peppercorns have a stronger aroma and retain their green color after they are ready to harvest and dried.


Sichuan huā jiāo fěn (花椒粉) or also called huā jiāo miàn (花椒面) as you see on the label below, is great to have in your pantry if you like spicy Sichuan food. Also, for those of you who don’t like biting into whole Sichuan peppercorns (I know some of you do!) or if you need a dash of ground Sichuan peppercorns, buying Sichuan peppercorn powder is a great solution. In fact, the more I use this brand of ground Sichuan peppercorn, the more I like it. It’s super convenient and you never have to worry about that biting into that numbing peppercorn.


Galangal or Gāoliáng jiāng (高良姜) is used mostly for Southeast Asian cooking and sometimes referred to as Thai ginger. It is also known in Chinese cooking as sand ginger or shā jiāng 沙薑. Our experience is a bit limited, but we hope to introduce more recipes using this very fragrant spice like our Easy Asian Dry Rub Chicken. It’s also sold fresh–you can see the picture on our Chinese Aromatics and Peppers Ingredients page.


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Common Korean Ingredients


The paste tastes salty and earthy. When you have doenjang on hand you can make a lot of dishes: soybean paste stew, soup, ssamjang (dipping sauce) for Korean BBQ lettuce wraps, and many many others.

Good quality doenjang should smell earthy, not stinky, and the color shouldn’t be too dark. After you open the package, be sure to store it in the fridge. I don’t have any particular brand that I prefer: I love Sunchang, Sempio, Haechandeul, and Wong.

HOT PEPPER PASTE (gochujang)

This paste is spicy, sweet, salty, and earthy. These days it seems to be getting more and more popular, and not just for Korean food. Some people tell me: “I use gochujang everywhere! It’s my magic paste!”

Even though the main ingredient in gochujang is hot pepper powder, the taste is actually not that spicy. It’s used to make a variety of sauces and is often added to spicy rice cake, fish, meat, vegetables, and many other side dishes. It also enhances the taste of bibimbap.


These flakes are spicy and a little sweet. You can find 2 types of gochugaru at Korean grocery stores: spicy and mild. I prefer the milder version these days: I used to like the spicy hot pepper flakes but my tastes have changed over time. The great thing about using mild flakes is that I can use a lot of them in my dishes, which makes them look beautifully bright red and appetizing, without making them too spicy.


This oil has a strong, nutty flavor. Some people don’t like it because of this, but sesame oil is very important in Korean cuisine. We use it to flavor many side dishes, soups, porridges, and even some desserts.

When I grew up in Korea, sesame oil was a precious thing. I remember what I said to my late grandmother: “Grandma, I think chamkireum must be following you around, because all the food you make is so delicious!”

Dip some grilled beef, pork, mushrooms, or vegetables in sesame oil mixed with salt, and they’ll be even more delicious.


These seeds are unique and nutty, and they make your vegetable side dishes (namul) so tasty. When you eat a side dish sprinkled with crispy sesame seeds, the more you chew, the more seeds you crush and the more flavor you release as you eat.


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Taste Southern States


As Gardner puts it, “It’s hard to do much Cajun cooking without” this spice. Cayenne is the base of most Cajun spice blends and can be found in dishes like jambalaya, gumbo, and red beans and rice. Two other classic Southern dishes, deviled eggs and ham, wouldn’t be “deviled” without cayenne. “The term ‘deviled’ refers to spice, so you can’t make those two classics without a little cayenne,” Gardner said.


Coriander seeds (a.k.a. cilantro seeds) have a slight, almost lemony quality to them. This flavor profile pairs well with fish and chicken dishes, and can add amazing depth to braised meats. Whole coriander seeds are also an important part of pickling spices giving pickles a bright flavor. Gardner recommends incorporating coriander into any dish where leaf cilantro is present.


Celery seed doesn’t have a spicy flavor profile like cayenne, but it does have a recognizable flavor when it’s added to a dish. Serious Eats explained: “Many spices taste like complex blends of flavors, especially when used in combination. Celery seed, on the other hand, tastes exactly like celery…. Grassy, a little sweet and slightly bitter.” Celery seed “adds bitterness and can really poke its head through in rich foods,” Gardner said. The Southern Kitchen team recently did a taste test of fast food fried chicken and celery seed was a dominant flavor in Publix’s fried chicken. Gardner also notes celery seed is one of the key flavors in Mississippi comeback sauce.


This is also great used as a part of a signature spice blend, but can be used to make homemade mustard. “I love using it alongside cheese, especially cheddar, so there is always a pinch of dry mustard inside the sauce of my mac and cheese,” Gardner said.


Nutmeg is the nutty warming flavor that you’ll find in spice cake, candied pecans and apple pie. While its primary use is as a baking spice, it can have a wonderful impact on savory dishes. “Many dishes that call for a heavy cream sauce will use a pinch of nutmeg to help cut through some of the richness — think a pinch of nutmeg inside fettuccine Alfredo,” Gardner said. “I feel like it’s a bit more pungent than cinnamon, but the two are often used together.”


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Say Hello To Vietnam


Fish sauce is made by pressing, salting, and fermenting anchovies, a process that results in a dark, amber-hued liquid. Like olive oil to Italian cooking, fish sauce is the cardinal ingredient in the cuisines of Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. An extremely versatile condiment, it can be diluted with water and sugar for dipping sauces, splashed into broth, or mixed with palm sugar to glaze and caramelize meaty clay-pot "casserole" dishes. When choosing a fish sauce, consider the nitrogen grading—20°N is the average; 40 is optimal.


This viscous sauce is made from essence or reduction of boiled oysters that's mixed with sugar and water and thickened with cornstarch. The result is a savory but also sweet and caramel sauce that works best in sautées as it's able to spread evenly through foods. A staple of Cantonese and Southeast Asian cooking, it's used mostly commonly in the Vietnamese culinary world to tone down the bitterness of leafy greens and add a sweetness to a beef cubes dish called bo luc lac, or "shaking beef."


Rarely used in large amounts, this sauce is still “necessary to have in the house,” according to Ly. Pungent in smell and rich with bold, umami flavor, the gray-ish colored paste is made simply with fermented silver shrimps and salt. Though it’s often used for marinating or sautéeing, it’s most famous in bun rieu, a beloved Southern noodle soup made with tomato broth, freshwater crab, and sometimes escargot.


“Every Vietnamese household that I've gone to has either stalks of lemongrass or lemongrass in a jar,” says Ly. “There's always a form of lemongrass.” The grassy herb is used most commonly for braising meats, often alongside fish sauce, sugar, and chilies. It adds lemony, bright, and citrusy notes that “get people salivating.”


Sriracha may be the condiment du jour, but when it comes to cooking, sambal oelek cannot be beat. Though less pronounced than sriracha in terms of sugar and vinegar, sambal oelek delivers a stronger, more balanced heat that pairs well with other key ingredients like fish sauce, rice, and pickled vegetables. Named after the Indonesian words for hot sauce (sambal) and mortar and pestle (oelek), the sauce is chunkier and less finely ground than its famous squirt-bottle cousin.


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Pillars of Moroccan Cuisine


Ginger makes an impression. It adds a great kick to any dish. In Morocco, people use ginger in tajines and chicken recipes. Ginger takes the spotlight in harira, a thick tomato-based soup eaten during Ramadan. Lubia, a white bean stew, also has a good amount of ground ginger. Easy to make and filled with healthy ingredients, this dish is popular for lunch. Feeling inspired? Try making it yourself!


The bright orange spice is crucial in many Moroccan dishes.

  • Chicken, preserved lemon and olive tajine
  • Lamb and prune tajine
  • Chicken and vegetable tajine
  • Maakouda—deep-fried potato beignet
  • Sfa—Moroccan chicken with vermicelli


Probably the most-used spice in a Moroccan kitchen, cumin is the base for almost all savory dishes. Cucumber and tomato salad, tajines, and meat recipes all require the spice.


Dried thyme is mixed with toasted sesame seeds, dried marjoram, and sumac. The result? A uniquely aromatic spice exclusive to the Middle East. Moroccans use it with chicken, meats, and breads. I like to take this blend and mix it with salt and olive oil. Then, I throw it on chicken thighs as a marinade. After a few hours, I pop it in the oven and let it roast. I use the leftover oil to grill peppers or eggplant.


The most notable use of cinnamon is in sfa. Sfa is a dish with vermicelli, chicken, powdered sugar, peanuts, raisins, and cinnamon. Chicken is placed in the middle of a platter and covered with buttered noodles. Roasted peanuts, confectioner sugar, raisins, and cinnamon are added as a garnish. This dish is eaten hot. Cinnamon is also a big player in pastilla, a flaky layered pastry with ground almonds, shredded chicken, and confectioner sugar.


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Ethiopia Is More Than Coffee!


Garlic, ginger, turmeric, fenugreek, black pepper corns, korerima, beso bela, nutmeg, cinnamon, ajwain (carom), cloves, dried chilli, paprika


literally meaning ‘hot’ in Amharic (the Ethiopian national language) this blend of spices is used in everything. It is made with variations of fenugreek, coriander, cardamom, cumin, chillies, allspice, cloves, pepper, paprika, ginger, garlic, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon, mustard seed, black cumin, carom, rue seeds, ethiopian basil (besobela), salt. Wine can be added to make it into a delicious marinade.


A spicier (hot!) spice mix commonly used particularly with beef dishes. It’s main ingredient (by far) is chilies, and then cardamom, cloves salt, all toasted and ground into a powder.


A blend of seven spices that is sprinkled on wots at the end of cooking, much like garam masala, to give a lovely aroma. The seven spices are: cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, nuteg, cumin, indian long pepper (called timin in Amharic), cloves.


Often referred to as cardamom in recipes but is actually different, it is much larger and should be used if possible.



Mysterious Persian Flavors


The red stigmas of this costly Persian spice have been used for seasoning and colouring foods for ages. This exotic spice gives a strong golden hue and appetizing aroma to so many dishes. Saffron is mainly the colouring agent used to garnish and give an élite look to the Persian rice, sweets, and drinks.


It is a special type of wild berry that grows in the Middle East and Mediterranean region. The dried coarse powder of this spice gives a pleasant lemony taste and vivid pop of red colour to meaty and poultry dishes, salads, or sauces. Sumac is commonly dusted over Lebanese salads like Fattoush but Iranians usually add a pinch of sumac on their kabab to give it a fascinating twist.


Tarragon has a thyme-like taste and pinery smell. It is a characteristic seasoning ingredient for dressings, soups, chicken and seafood. Tarragon particularly added in Persian style pickles and khiar shoor (pickled cucumbers). It is a perfect substitution for salt, for its light salty taste.


Dried fenugreek’s leaves are good aromatic aids in cooking. Fenugreek has a slightly bitter taste that reminds of curry. These light green leaves will give a heavenly taste and fragrance to Ghormeh Sabzi when sautéed along with garlic and coriander.


Barberries or Zereshk are dried tiny fruits giving an exotic kick to various meals. In Europe, they are mainly used for making jam but the Iranian cooks used them to garnish or give a sharp tartness to foods. For instance, Kuku Sabzi will taste absolutely amazing with a few of these tiny red berries.

To cut its sourness and make it more delicious every Persian cookbook presents a method. Adding a pinch of sugar to sautéed zereshk gives it a pleasant sweet and sour taste.


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Discover Brazilian Soul


Made from the mesocarp of the fruit from oil palm trees, dende oil is the preferred cooking oil in Brazil when it comes to fried dishes. It has a reddish color and a thick consistency. Dende oil is technically not a spice but it does play the role of one because of its floral aroma and nutty flavor, which is similar to that of olive oil.


The bright red of many Brazilian dishes comes in part from the widespread use of dende oil but also from annatto. The red spice has historically been used as a dyeing agent for clothes and as food coloring both in Brazil and elsewhere in the world.

In Brazil, annatto is called urucum and it used to color dishes without affecting the flavor profile the way the liberal use of dende oil might. Annatto does have a flavor but it is an extremely subtle one. It is similar to nutmeg with a slight peppery heat.


Many Brazilians like their food spicy, with an emphasis on hot peppers being seen in dishes from the northern parts of the country. They are commonly added to food in the form of condiments like jams and sauces.


Garlic is the universal source of savory intensity and Brazilian cooks use it just as much as their peers elsewhere in the world. You will detect garlic’s umami and sulfur flavors in traditional Brazilian dishes like the bean dish feijoada and refogado, the Brazilian equivalent of sofrito.


As in other Latin American cuisines, cumin shows up in a range of Brazilian dishes. You will see it among the ingredients in recipes for cabrito ao molho, which is stewed goat kid and the beef stew called barreado. Cumin’s earthy flavors and mild bitterness are essential complements for savory dishes, especially those with lots of other strong flavors.



A Taste of Caribbean


Sofrito is a blend of various spices, including garlic, recao (culantro), sweet Aji peppers, and olive oil. It can be bought pre-made at the grocery store, in two versions: with and without tomato. But the secret to every excellent Puerto Rican meal is the use of a homemade Sofrito. For Mom’s highly regarded recipe, you can click here to get it and make your own.


Sazon is a type of seasoned salt blend found in Spanish and Mexican cuisine. These can be found in little packets in any grocery store and Goya makes one of the more well-known options. The ingredients vary, but typically include coriander (cilantro), annatto (achiote), garlic and salt. The seasoning is used to flavor meats, fish, poultry, soups, rice dishes and stews. The Annatto is what gives many dishes an orange color. It can be found with and without pepper, and a little bit will go a long way!


Adobo is a dry seasoning mix that is used in all Puerto Rican meals as a flavoring and marinade. The central ingredients of adobo are garlic, oregano, black pepper, and turmeric. This is a necessity for any Puerto Rican recipe – Goya produces several varieties of it, but many other brands are available, including Caribbean Trading Company’s Puerto Rican Adobo Seasoning.


These seeds are one of nature’s most vivid forms of food coloring and are commonly used to color cheddar cheeses, butters, and margarines in the US. It has a mild flavor, similar to a peppercorn but without the peppery-ness. It is important to all Puerto Rican dishes – you can use a Sazon that contains a lot of it as your base, or you can buy the seeds and make an infused oil, which works very well for cooking.


Also known as long coriander or sawtooth, it is sometimes used as a substitute for cilantro, but it has a much stronger taste. This is a main ingredient in Sofrito, but can be chopped up and used in any dish.