To make even Monday night meals spectacular, I often reach for my favorite global spice mixes. The crunchy five-spice mix of India, the searing hot harissa from Tunisia, the aromatic herbes de Provence of southern France and the earthy berbere of Ethiopia are simple ways to bring global flavors into the kitchen with little effort. The mixes are so aromatic and so flavorful that just adding them to dishes can take a weekday meal from boring to brilliant.
I call these seasonings "character mixes." They are truly reflective of the cultures from which they originate, unlike the ubiquitous curry powder that has become synonymous with all Indian curries and actually is inauthentic.
Most of the mixes are available as prepared blends, and all are fairly simple to prepare at home. (Berbere does require several spices not all of which you may have handy unless your spice cabinet is a foot long.)
Indian Five-Spice Mix
Paanch phoron, or five-spice mix, is an aromatic mixture of spices that is used in eastern India, specifically in the state of Bengal. Five spices — nigella, cumin, fennel, mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds — are combined in a roughly 1-1 ratio and used to flavor vegetables, fish and meats. The power of this mix lies in the use of complementary spices. Fenugreek, with its maple syrup-like aroma, releases its sweetness when the spice is heated in hot oil. Fenugreek plays well with the toasty flavor of cumin and the inherent sweetness of fennel seeds. All the sweetness is balanced by the gentle bitterness of nigella and mustard seeds. It is a magical mix.
Courtesy of Sala Kannan
Berbere, a spice mix common in Ethiopian cuisine
Courtesy of Sala Kannan
The easiest way to use this mix is to first saute it in hot oil for just a few seconds. Then, add whatever you are cooking (vegetables or meats). The spice mix is generally used whole, but you can roast it (until aromatic) on a medium-hot griddle, grind it and then use it as a dry rub.
You can prepare your own by mixing equal quantities of the spices and storing it in an airtight jar, or you can purchase a premixed spice packet from an Indian market or online.
I discovered this mix a couple of years ago and find myself adding it to just about anything that needs a little oomph. It is a mix of garlic, chilies, fenugreek, black pepper, allspice, coriander, nutmeg and other spices and is used extensively in Ethiopian cuisine.
I have looked for a recipe, but, as with most spice mixes, everyone who uses it seems to have his or her own special way of doing it. Berbere is most commonly used in Ethiopia's national dish, the doro wat (a spicy chicken stew), and gives the dish its characteristic red color.
Like the Indian five-spice mix, this blend plays well with hot oil. To use the mix, heat the oil, add onions and then the mix, and then use that as a base for a chicken, vegetable or meat stew. You can use it as a rub for meats, in meatloaf or in meatballs and even in the marinade for chicken wings.
An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her website.
I have never made the mix at home. I buy it from an Ethiopian grocery store. It is also available online. Also, check Ethiopian restaurants; some restaurants sell the mix.
Herbes de Provence
Just as berbere doesn't seem to have one standardized recipe, neither does the mix that, to me, is the soul of the south of France: herbes de Provence. This mix, which typically consists of rosemary, lavender, savory, thyme, basil and more, never disappoints in taste or aroma. I sprinkle it on breads before baking, on vegetables before roasting. I mix it with olive oil and use it on steak, chicken breasts and fish as a marinade. You can then cook the meat as you like. It is such an aromatic mix, but it does lose its aroma fairly quickly, so it's better to buy a little at a time.
I have purchased mine from online spice stores and have never been disappointed.
If you like a spicy touch to your dishes, then you need to make friends with harissa. I use it in stews, soups and sandwiches, as a topping for pizzas or a flavor booster for pastas, in hummus and even as a dipping sauce for French fries. This lovely red condiment comes from North Africa and is prepared with chili peppers, ground coriander, cumin and olive oil. There are many variations. I have heard about one with rose petals in it. Fair warning — it is super hot and spicy. You can make it mild, of course, by using milder peppers. However, the heat is part of its charm.
You can make your own harissa or buy it in tubes and jars and in many different heat levels. The best way to store it is to refrigerate it, and it will keep for months.