Flavor Your Cooking with Middle Eastern Spices


photo: Thomas Schauer

photo: Thomas Schauer

Katy Morris

With just a simple dash or a generous sprinkle, you can bring authentic Middle Eastern flavors to your cooking.

Inspired by lots of requests from our readers following our Balaboosta cookbook give-away, we decided to consult the experts on the most oft used Middle Eastern spices.

Here’s how some of our favorite Middle Eastern cooks and chefs recommend you use these spices to elicit authentic flavors in great tasting, Middle Eastern dishes.


photo: Thomas Schauer

photo: Thomas Schauer

Renowned Kosher Chef, Author of The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure & Simple, and Kosher Food Blogger, Levana Kirschenbaum says that there is no spice that she wouldn’t consider, but that “for Moroccan Cooking, which is my first culinary love, turmeric and saffron are the most indispensable in cooked dishes. As important in our cooking as curry is to Indian cooking, we use Ras El Hanout (literally, head, or top, of the shop), a wonderful blend of spices that varies from cook to cook and from shop to shop, but always includes cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers, and turmeric.”

“The ideal way [to incorporate spices in dishes], since spices and herbs are so packed with flavor at no caloric costs, is to make them an integral part of the dish: in a rub, in a marinade, in the cooking liquids of dishes cooking on a stovetop (soups, stews, side dishes).”

For an example of how to do this, check out her tantalizing Chicken Tajine with Prunes and Almonds recipe, where she incorporates saffron, cinnamon, turmeric, and pepper into the base liquid.

 Favorite Spices: Turmeric and Saffron.

Favorite Uses: Rubs, Marinades, Base Cooking Liquids.



photo: Thomas Schauer

photo: Thomas Schauer

Reyna Simnegar, Persian food Chef, Author of Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride, and Kosher Food Blogger, is crazy about spices, but she was able to narrow down her top three to turmeric, saffron, and cardamom as the most popular and widely used in the Persian cuisine. “Turmeric is dubbed ‘poor man’s saffron’ since it is much less expensive than saffron. It’s often used with anything that is fried and although it is relatively bland, provides the bright goldeny color of saffron that makes Persian dishes attractive.”


Saffron, which is mainly used in rice dishes, is the most expensive spice in the world since it is handpicked and takes about 40 hours of labor in an orchard about the size of a football field to get about a pound. Luckily, just a little bit goes a long way in a dish. She uses saffron often for savory sauces accompanying poultry dishes, as well as in sweet desserts.

Reyna also emphasized the importance of buying the stems versus ground. “To ensure the quality of the saffron, you should buy the stems so you can grind them yourself [KLM: check out resources below of where to buy from specialty shops]. Check the back of the package for something called the ‘ISO’ which indicates the quality of the saffron – you should not buy one with a lower grade than 190.

Use a simple mortar and pestle to grind the stems, and be sure to have a specific one dedicated to only saffron, as the mortar will absorb the delicate flavor of the saffron.” Check out some of her sample recipes or buy her book for more ideas!

 Favorite Spices: Turmeric, Saffron, Cardamom.

Favorite Uses: Everything – Meats, Sauces, Sweets, Rice.



Photo: Thomas Schauer

Photo: Thomas Schauer

In the Syrian kitchen, Chef and Author of Fistful Of Lentils, Jennifer Abadi relies on the warm, earthy taste of cumin, intricate flavor of allspice, and spicy yet sweet cinnamon in a lot of her recipes to showcase the region’s flavors. “[The Syrian cuisine] is not a spicy ‘hot’ cuisine, but it is a spicy ‘flavorful’ one.

Unlike in Indian cooking (where you might find a long list of spices used in one dish), in Syrian cooking there is usually only one or two main spices used that are meant to stand out in the overall flavor. And there should always be a balance in color, texture, and flavor.” Jennifer was kind enough to share her savory and slightly sweet Roasted Red Pepper Dip recipe with us, which incorporates cumin (essential in Syrian cuisine), fenugreek, and pomegranate syrup (used often in Persian cooking).

Favorite Spices: Cumin, Allspice, Cinnamon.

Favorite Uses: Various – but focus on 1-2 key ones in a given dish.


Ready to spice up your dishes?

Here are some great sources:

 Online: Zamouri Spices; World Spice; Sadaf; Golchin’s

NYC: La Boite ; Spices and Tease ; Kalustyans

CT: Penzeys Spices 

Quick Tips: Keep in mind that spices do not actually go bad, but they do tend to lose their potency over time. They should be kept away from any light, air, dampness, and heat, so storing them in tightly sealed opaque containers in your cupboard is ideal.


Thank you to Reyna Simnegar , Levana Kirschenbaum, and Jennifer Abadi for helping to spice up this post!

Thank you also, to Lior Sercarz, La Boite, NYC, for sharing the beautiful photos of Middle Eastern spices from photographer Thomas Schauer.


Are you in CT on March 6? Join us as we explore the flavors of Syrian Jewish cooking with Jennifer Abadi as she demonstrates and shares generous tastes.

Where: Chabad of Westport

When: March 6, 7:30 PM

Cost: $36

Click here for more info and to register for this event. This event is strictly kosher. All are welcome.

Muhammara (Syrian Roasted Red Pepper Dip with Toasted Walnuts, Garlic, and Pomegranate Syrup)

1 hour, 30 minutes

3 cups; 6-8 servings

Muhammara (Syrian Roasted Red Pepper Dip with Toasted Walnuts, Garlic, and Pomegranate Syrup)

Savory meets sweet in this beautiful and healthy dip.

vegan and pareve.


  • 1 ½ pounds fresh red bell peppers (about 3 medium size), OR
  • One 24-ounce jar roasted red bell peppers (you will need 1 1/2 cups, without the liquid)
  • 3 ¼ cups walnut halves
  • 6 medium cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon room temperature water
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon walnut oil
  • 1 tablespoon pomegranate syrup
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
  • 3/8 teaspoon ground fenugreek, optional
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt (if using fresh peppers), or to taste (if using roasted peppers from a jar)
  • Garnish
  • Extra virgin olive or walnut oil
  • Crushed, toasted walnuts
  • Peasant bread, sour dough bread, or other thick and crusty white bread


  1. If using peppers from the jar, skip down to step #2. If using fresh peppers, rinse thoroughly under cold water. Preheat the broiler (on “Hi” if using an electric oven). Rub olive oil and a little salt all around each pepper and place on a baking sheet or small baking pan. Set pan under the broiler for about 12 to 15 minutes (skins should start to blacken and wilt), then turn the peppers over and broil the other side an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Keep turning and rotating the peppers until all sides blister. (Note: It is good if they turn black as you will peel these thin skins off, and the char will give a smoky flavor). Remove from the broiler and let cool until lukewarm. Peel the thin skin from each pepper and discard.
  2. If using peppers from the jar, drain liquid and place into a small bowl. Cover with cold water and soak the peppers, 1 to 2 hours, changing the water frequently to flush out the excess salt and vinegar.
  3. Drain well.
  4. Place the walnuts into a large skillet and begin to brown them over a high heat for about 2 minutes.
  5. Lower to a medium heat and shaking the pan frequently to prevent burning, continue to dry-roast the walnuts until dark brown on all sides, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and pour onto a large plate or baking pan to cool completely to room temperature, setting aside ¼ cup for the garnish when serving.
  6. Pour roasted and peeled peppers, the 3 cups of toasted walnuts, garlic cloves, and water into a food processor and pulse to combine.
  7. Add the tomato paste, olive oil, pomegranate syrup, cumin, and fenugreek (if desired) and process until very smooth and creamy, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  8. Taste and add the ¾ teaspoon of salt (if using freshly roasted peppers) or to taste (if necessary when using the jarred peppers).
  9. Serve at room temperature drizzled with olive or walnut oil, pomegranate syrup, the extra ¼ toasted walnuts, and a thick, crusty white bread on the side.


Thank you, Jennifer Abadi, for sharing this recipe with Kosher Like Me. Find more of Abadi's Syrian recipes at FISTFUL OF LENTILS.






  1. Zatar (Zahtar). How could nobody select Zatar? Traditional, popular blend of the Middle East. Hand-mixed from: sumac, thyme leaves, white sesame seeds and salt. I think it is my favorite middle eastern spice. (and yes Liz, I know you do not care for Zatar). (smile)

    • It is most often used as a topping. See Orna’s comments. But I have seen it used to season chicken (and I would add fish, lamb, etc.) Maybe it’s the sumac that I don’t care for….

  2. Liz, thanks for the source list for all of these spices.
    And to Scotte, from my experience zaatar is used as added to hummus or to dip a fresh bagel bought at the Arab market.
    It can also be added to salads or roasted chicken for extra flavor.

  3. Pingback: Cooking Classes Celebrate Spring | Kosher Like Me

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