We often hear the term “herbs and spices”. As any worthy chef or cook knows, herbs and spices are essential ingredients in many dishes. They add flavour, aroma, colour, texture nutrients and bring life to any meal. With a bit of experimentation, you can reach a bliss point of taste and aroma that will take ordinary dishes to a whole new level.
I have compiled a top 10 must have list, with some helpful advice for each herb or spice.
But, Have you ever taken a moment to think what the difference is between the two are?
Both spices and herbs are parts of plants (fresh or dried) that are used to improve the flavour of foods. The variance amongst the two is the location where they are obtained from a plant.
Herbs are obtained from the leafy and green part of the plant. Examples of herbs include basil, Tarragon, Thyme, Rosemary, Coriander and Mint.
Whereas Spices are parts of the plant other than the leafy bit such as the root, stem, bulb, bark or seeds. Spices are usually dried before being used to season foods. Some examples are cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and pepper.
Here’s a rundown on my top 10 favourite herbs and spices in no order what’s so ever:
Garlic: There’s no mistaking garlic when added to a dish. While I prefer freshly peeled cloves or paste, you can buy pre-packed frozen minced garlic, or even garlic powder. I must confess, garlic is delicious and infuses everything it touches with a flavour so divine. Just don’t overindulge on that special date night, especially if you don’t have mints handy!
Black Pepper: This is salt’s twin brother and always adds a kick to any dish. It is probably the most popular spice in the world and my absolute favourite and must have. Best to buy the whole peppercorns and a grinder, but buying ground is fine too. For a sharper bite, try white pepper. I love the bursts of whole peppercorns in Pilau or ground chunks on my pepper steak!
Fennel: Native to the Mediterranean, fennel was first cultivated by the Greeks and Romans. Its use as an herb and spice eventually spread to many other regions of the world. Like coriander, fennel is something that you either love or hate – its strong flavour leaves no room for the middle ground. It’s also known as Florence fennel, finocchio, or sweet fennel, and is very popular in Italian cookery. When raw, the texture of fennel is cold and crisp. Take advantage of the refreshing crispness by thinly slicing the bulb into salads or slaws. Or alternatively caramelize fennel for a tastes similar to liquorice candy, and it acts as a wonderful flavour base. Fennel is also very tasty on its own, sautéed or even grilled. When I use it, my friends always say “I can’t quite figure out what that flavour is, but it’s so good!”
Thyme: Thyme comes in dozens of varieties; however, the most common is Garden thyme. This pleasant herb pairs well with many other herbs—especially rosemary, parsley, sage, savoury, and oregano. . Because the leaves are so small, they often don’t require chopping and add a pungent, woodsy flavour. Great as an all-purpose seasoning. This herb is great when used fresh, and goes well with many vegetables, including tomatoes, roasted potatoes and roasted and grilled meats. I use it as a marinate for meat for a few hours before along with good quality Italian olive oil and pepper. It is an essential herb and also used in aromatic oils as well.
Chives: Chives, are a hardy, perennial plant that belongs to the same family as onions, leeks and garlic. This herb may be used as a healthy garnish, and I love the mild, onion taste it adds to salads, soup, vegetables, eggs and meat dishes.
Basil: The most widely used spices in the world. When cooking, it is used both fresh and dried. This seasoning is impeccable as all meat and fish dishes, as well as almost all vegetables go well with it. It is one of the handiest herbs. It can be used both separately and in conjunction with other herbs and spices, a number of the sauces or simply to decorate dishes. Add it to pasta, pizza or even salad and voila you have little Italy right in your kitchen. It is recommended to add it into finished or cold dishes for a few minutes until cooked.
Mint: Mint, one of the most widely consumed single-ingredient in teas, cocktails and sauces. It is one of the easiest herbs to grow and I’ve even got one on my window. My favourite thing about it is its fresh, clean tasting, fragrant and familiar. Spearmint lends itself to desserts, whether garnishing berries or paired with chocolate, as well as savoury fare like grain salads, fish and lamb. I use fresh mint leaves to make revitalising tea with nothing more than hot water or refreshing cocktails for those hot summer days. Now it’s got me thinking about that perfectly chilled lemonade or that tantalizing Piña Colada Mojito concoction!
Dill: This leafy, light and fernlike in appearance with a sharp flavour that pairs well with sour cream, cucumber and smoked fish. Use it in homemade dips, fresh salad and that kuku kienyeji. It’s aromatic and slightly citrusy, and common in Mediterranean cuisine. Greek and Italian fare, from salad dressings and marinades to kebabs and roast lamb, benefit from the herb.
Ginger: One of my must have ingredients for any meal! I love ginger because it’s flexible and can be added to all meat and vegetable dishes, rice, and even desserts. It can also be added to beer, soft drinks and cocktails to bring in that extra kick! Fresh ginger works like magic when marinating meat or used in Thai, Indian, and Chinese dishes. In recent years, ginger has become one of the most popular spices, since it is proved that it speeds up the body’s metabolism, and it is used worldwide as a component of many diets for weight loss. You can keep a fresh ginger root in the fridge for several weeks, or in the freezer.
Rosemary: Rosemary, the plant my grandmother is named after is woody with a very strong and distinctive aroma. Whether stripped fresh from its woody stems or dried, to prevent unpleasantly strong bites, go easy with rosemary. Rosemary is great with roasted meats and vegetables, and my favourite it oven roast Nyama Choma brushed with rosemary, garlic, salt and lemon!
There were many runners-up to the 10 herbs I’ve named and I’ll get to them in due time. I did notice, that perhaps subconsciously, sage and is not on the list. I feel a bit sad about leaving some out, but rest assured that sage, along with Coriander, Garam Masala, and several others, have a firm hold on my heart and a place in my pantry/garden.
Which herbs do you like best and how do you use them?