It’s no secret that foods from the African continent are an absolute festival myriad of flavours – from the tagines of the Sahara to the fish stews of Mozambique and beyond, the secret ingredient is almost always spices. Not only do they add a kick to almost any dish, but being high in vitamins and nutrients is an added benefit, with many spices and herbs from the continent being used for varying health benefits as well. With many of these spices and herbs from Africa being readily available around the world, anyone almost anywhere can add a taste of Africa to their usual dishes. These will not just pump up the flavour but will give the dish an exotic flair as well. African spice varieties such as nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom, chillies, ginger, various peppers, cinnamon, and turmeric grow exceptionally well in Tanzania, especially on the island of Zanzibar. Farm tours are available to see how the spices are planted, grown, and harvested, with options to purchase your own exceptionally fresh herbs straight at the source. The scent of these herbs often fill the air throughout any Zanzibari markets, and many can be found for fair prices.
Spice blends are a big favourite, especially in Saharan Africa, from Morocco to Egypt and even further south in Sudan, Ethiopia, and other countries. African spice blends such as Ras el Hanout in Morocco, a blend of cloves, cinnamon, paprika, coriander, and cumin among others allows the flavouring of the dish expertly, more with fragrance than with heat, and is known to be used in things like couscous and lamb dishes. There is no exhaustive list of spices that go into Ras el Hanout, and in fact, many spice sellers will have their own unique blends of this very versatile spice mix. While similar to the “baharat” spice mix, the two are normally distinguished by the dishes in which they are used.
Berbere, an important ingredient in Ethiopia and Eritrea, is made usually from chillies, black pepper, cloves, coriander, ginger, garlic, and cardamom, but can also be used with more local herbs and spices which are found only in the area, such as long pepper and korarima. This African spice, while specifically Ethiopian, is a versatile spice blend which can be used in a variety of non-African dishes, but many mixes found internationally may not include the long pepper or korarima.
Tsire is a West-African spice mix that is usually comprised of ground peanuts, chilli powder, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon, a common marinade for grilled meats, added before cooking, and then a bit more, added prior to serving. Flavourful, but not overly spicy, this adds a very curry-like flavour to meats, reminiscent of mild curries of other Indian Ocean nations. This African spice is normally used in kebabs but can be added to almost any meat.
Cubeb, a pepper that is used as a spice for flavouring, but also for health benefits to help with throat pain, infertility and as a diuretic. It is normally found in North and West African cuisines but is originally found in Indonesia. This African spice, while not common in most western modern cooking, can be used as an allspice substitute or as a pepper substitute in not just general seasonings but for spice mixes to flavour things such as gingerbreads and meats. Cubeb is formerly known in many Arab dishes and is also used as an antiseptic to help with respiratory issues or urinary tract problems.
Harissa is another spice commonly found throughout Africa. More a paste than a dry spice, Harissa is commonly found in tagines and can be used as a marinade and rub for various meats or stir-fry style dishes. This African spice has a variety of ways in which it’s made, including the mixture of several hot chilli peppers alongside herbs and coriander seeds, with a bit of vegetable or olive oil. It can also be mixed into ground beef or lamb to make flavourful burger patties, sure to please any dinner guest!
Tabil is another spice of Tunisian origin, made of coriander seed, caraway seed, garlic, and chilli powder. It has a peppery flavour due to the prominent coriander flavour and is normally used in bland dishes to give it a bit of a taste injection.
Grains of Paradise is a relation to ginger and is also known as Guinea pepper or Alligator pepper. The taste of this African spice is that of pepper combined with lemon and works as a rub or marinade for steaks and fishes, or for pretty much anything that you can grill.
West African Pepper comes from dried fruit and has a less bitter taste to the cubeb pepper, and is used primarily in Nigerian cooking. This African spice makes a good substitute for western peppers, adding a bit of African flavour to your meats and fishes, pumping up the pizazz for something a little different from the everyday.
Tunisian five-spice is a delicious combination of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, peppercorns, and the aforementioned grains of paradise. The combination of these spices ends up tasting sweeter than each on their own and can be used for meats, vegetables, and even five-spice ice cream, made with coconut milk and cream cheese and strawberries, the spices bringing out individual flavours in interesting ways.
Peri-peri is perhaps the best known African spice, used across the globe in rubs for chicken, fishes, steaks and other various meats and even vegetables. This African spice is also used widely in some restaurant chains throughout the Americas and the UK and is widely available as sauces, rubs, and dry spice for cooking. Peri-peri is typically made from crushed chillis, citrus peel, tarragon, basil, pimento, bay leaves, paprika, salt, onion, garlic, pepper, and lemon juice. This African spice is rapidly becoming a global favourite and is famously used on chicken.
Zanzibar Curry Powder is a flavour favourite for all of Zanzibar’s delicious curries – a throwback to its rich history of being a stop off on the trade routes through the various spice islands. Zanzibar Curry Powder is, therefore, a commonly found spice with which to make curries or even just spice up bland foods. Made with chilli flavours mixed with some sweeter ones, it’s a great dry spice used in fish dishes, meats, or even just plain rice.
Finally, cloves are on our list. A global favourite as well, cloves have a rich, fragrant flavour and smell. Many various baked goods use cloves, including pumpkin pies and Christmas cakes due to the heavy, perfumed scent which works well in the autumn and winter as a warmer. Teas and other drinks such as hot toddys have cloves included, which are normally used for its antiseptic properties to help aid in the relief of cold. Native to Madagascar, Zanzibar, and Tanzania, cloves are used primarily in Africa for flavouring curries, meats and in good marinades and rubs for grilling.
Whatever your reason for delving into the wild world of African spices, you’re sure to be in for a real treat. Not only do they add an exotic flair to any dish, African or not, they are also high in vitamins A, C, and E as well as micro-elements, oils, and proteins. The use of African spice varieties in any of your cooking will, therefore, not just boost your flavour, but also your health. A true win-win situation. Bon appetit!