Middle Eastern cuisine is famous for its use of spices. Because of its geographical location, the Middle East is in a prime position to enjoy many of the finest spices the world has to offer. As a result, Middle Eastern cuisine has developed throughout history into a cuisine that is not afraid to use generous amounts of spices to flavor it’s dishes. Many Middle Eastern dishes feature complex blends of herbs and spices that result in unique flavor profiles.

Here’s 8 essential spices that are frequently used in Middle Eastern cooking:

1. Cumin

Cumin enjoys widespread use throughout Middle Eastern cuisine. Cumin has a very strong fragrance and flavor. The taste of cumin can be described as a mix of herbal and earthy notes with a slightly bitter flavor. Cumin is often used in more savory dishes and spice blends. Usually, cumin is used in its ground-up form. Middle Eastern dishes like falafel would not be possible without the liberal use of cumin.

2. Cardamom

Cardamom is a highly essential spice in Middle Eastern cooking. Cardamom comes in the form of green or black pods that hold small seeds. The whole pods or seeds can be used, depending on the application.

The flavor of cardamom is very herbal, with a slightly sweet aroma. Green cardamom has a slightly citrusy and light flavor. Black cardamom pods are often more intense and taste of warming spices. In Middle Eastern cooking, cardamom is used in both savory and sweet dishes, including teas, coffees, and rice or meat dishes.

3. Nutmeg

Nutmeg is a spice that has intense earthy and warming qualities to it. The flavor of nutmeg is a very intense earthy spiciness that can border on sweet. Nutmeg takes on the form of large seeds, which are often ground down into a powder before use. In Middle Eastern cooking, nutmeg is often paired with other spices like cinnamon and cloves to create complex spice blends like baharat or shawarma.

While Western cuisines usually only use nutmeg in sweet preparations, Middle Eastern cuisine isn’t afraid to pair nutmeg with more savory dishes. Nutmeg can often be found in meat dishes like kofta and kibbeh.

4. Sumac

Sumac is one of the quintessential spices used in Middle Eastern cooking. Sumac is a beautiful pink color and comes from a flowering plant. The red berries are ground down into a powder before being used. Sumac is characterized by an intensely floral and zesty aroma. The flavor of sumac is very tangy, with slightly floral undertones.

In Middle Eastern cooking, sumac is often used with meat. The tangy flavor of sumac pairs perfectly when added as a condiment on top of kebabs or other meat dishes. In addition, sumac plays a prominent role in za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend known for its tanginess and freshness.

5. Anise seed

Anise seed, not to be confused with star anise, is a spice that resembles fennel in its flavor and composition. Anise seeds are small and green and usually ground up before use. The flavor of anise is best described as similar to licorice.

In Middle Eastern cooking, anise seed is usually combined with other spices to make complex and earthy spice blends. Anise seed is found in dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend that combines anise seed with ground nuts and other spices to make an earthy and crunchy spice blend that is perfect for adding to meat and fish.

6. Dried Lime

Dried lime is a Persian spice that remains popular in many Middle Eastern dishes. Dried limes are certain species of limes that have been left out in the sun to dry until they have lost all moisture content. The flavor of dried limes is slightly bitter and earthy, with distinctly sour undertones. The flavor of dried lime is concentrated in its seeds and skin, which are all that remain after the drying process.

In Middle Eastern cooking, dried limes are usually used to give a sour flavor to rice dishes and soups. Dried lime can either be added in whole and discarded before eating or ground up and consumed as part of a dish.

7. Turmeric

Turmeric is a bright yellow powdered spice that is often featured in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. Turmeric is lauded for its many health benefits and properties. Turmeric’s flavor is very earthy and slightly bitter. Some forms of turmeric also have a slightly peppery note to them.

Turmeric is generally used equally for its flavor and color. Certain rice dishes like polo ba morgh use turmeric in conjunction with saffron to give the rice a yellow color and earthy flavor.

8. Saffron

No list of Middle Eastern spices would be complete without saffron. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and one of the most expensive items per weight in existence. Saffron looks like tiny red threads. It can only be harvested from special yellow crocus flowers. Each flower only contains a few threads of saffron. Saffron has a delicate flavor that alternates from slightly floral to slightly earthy, with a distinct floral scent.

Even though the threads are red, saffron has a unique quality of imparting a yellow color to food. As such, saffron is most commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking to turn rice dishes yellow and give them a distinct floral flavor. Saffron is also found in many desserts and drinks.

There are so many spices that add taste and beauty to a dish.

In addition to these 8 dishes, there are so many more spices that are being used. However, these 8 spices are common and can be found in almost all middle eatern dishes. Do you know any spice that is frequently used in middle eastern food? Do let us know in the comments below.

And if you are looking for more middle eastern recipes, don’t forget to check out Ranas recipes.


Hi, I’m Rana and I blog at ranasrecipe.com. My passion for food began very early in my life. And after managing a cafe, a granola business and helping other food businesses scale up, I found my true calling in creating wonderful recipes so that everyone can enjoy cooking as much as I do! Don’t forget to follow me on my social channels- instagram and pinterest.

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