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Even your favorite dishes can feel tired when you’ve hit repeat on them a few too many times. But the solution when caught in a bland culinary rut can be simple: Shake things up with spices from around the world.
In medieval times, well before refrigeration was a thing, spices helped preserve meat and mask the taste of foods if they had surpassed their best before date. And of course, they were as treasured then as they are now for the gutsy flavors and rich aromas they bring to mealtime. Spices have even been used in the distant past as a form of currency, and wars have been fought in an effort to dominate the spice trade.
All this to say that without question, spices are transformative. The same dish prepared with different spices will result in completely different food experiences. Even better, they’re loaded with compounds that can help keep you healthy and promote longevity.
This study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which assigned 71 adults to follow one of three 2,100 calorie diets with varying amounts of spices (low-, medium-, and high-dose) for 4 weeks with a 2-week washout period between diet trials discovered that medium-dose (3.3 grams daily) and high-dose (6.6 grams) diets resulted in lower markers of inflammation and improved immune system functioning than did the low-spice (0.5 grams) diet. For some perspective, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon is roughly 2 grams.
Here’s more proof spice that is nice: This investigation by researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that going big on spices and herbs can improve blood pressure numbers, especially when added to the less-than-optimal standard American diet. Using spices may also make lower sugar versions of food more enjoyable, allowing you to cut back on the sweet stuff when making things like desserts.
So why aren’t you using more of them from morning to night? One easy way to sneak more spices into your diet is to seek out time-honored spice blends from different cultures.
If there’s one commonality among international cuisines, it’s the heavy reliance on spices to infuse dishes with signature flavors. And, no, we aren’t talking about pumpkin pie spice. Several cultures have spent centuries experimenting with mixtures of spices and herbs to help their cuisines stand out. And now that most of the hard work is done, we can use these spice blends to instantly add excitement and mystery to everyday cooking.
Here are some health-giving, palate-awakening spice blends to enhance the flavor of your dishes.
5 Spice Blends to Kick Up Your Cooking
Note: Some spice blends can be tricky to find outside of ethnic markets. If you can’t find any of the ones outlined here, head online to trusted spice traders including Penzeys and Curio Spice Co., the latter of which is a women-owned B-corp company that sources from small, sustainable farms around the world and pays growers above market prices.
If you’ve ever eaten at a restaurant featuring cuisine from the eastern Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia – chances are your palate has encountered berbere, a heady combination of spicy, bitter and sweet. Formulations vary from cook to cook, but the blend usually contains chili peppers, black pepper, fenugreek, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves. Other ingredients may include ajwain, cumin, allspice, nutmeg, paprika, onion or garlic.
Nutrition stand-out: Research suggests that people who eat more chili peppers may less likely to die of heart disease and cancer than others. These benefits are linked to the chemical capsaicin, naturally found in hot peppers and responsible for the fiery sensation associated with chilis.
Spice it up: Use it to add depth of flavor to slow cooking meat and legume stews, replace chili powder with berbere when making a pot of chili, toss with chickpeas and bake until crispy, incorporate into burgers and meatballs or add it as a seasoning for roasted potatoes. Mix it with oil to form a paste that you can slather on meats or even seared tofu.
Berbere-Spiced Turkey Chili
- 1 tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 pound ground turkey
- 2 medium carrots, chopped
- 1 large red bell pepper, chopped
- 1 medium zucchini, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
- 1 cup low sodium chicken or turkey broth
- 1 cup pure pumpkin puree
- 1 tablespoon berbere spice
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 (15 oz) can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 (15 oz) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels
- Juice of 1 lime
- Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and salt to pan; sauté until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Add turkey to pan and heat until browned, about 4 minutes. Stir in carrots, bell pepper, zucchini and garlic; heat 5 minutes.
- Place 1/2 can of the tomatoes, broth, pumpkin, berbere, cumin and oregano in a blender container and blend until smooth. Add pumpkin mixture to pan along with remaining 1/2 can of tomatoes, black beans and kidney beans; bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in corn and lime juice and heat 1 minute.
Translating to “spices” in Arabic, this Middle Eastern blend is certainly loaded with them. Inclusions vary by region but it typically contains a solid amount of black pepper along with paprika, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom. So it brings both spicy and sweet seasoning.
Nutrition standout: Piperine, the bioactive compound that gives peppercorns their tempered burn, may help lower the risk for certain types of cancer, including breast, prostate and lung. It may do this by triggering apoptosis, a process where cells self-destruct before growing into tumors.
Spice it up: Baharat is wonderful on grilled meats (use it like you would a spice rub) and roasted root vegetables. Use it to spruce up stews and try blending into dips like hummus. Stir some into thick yogurt and dollop over fish or lentils. Or mix into tuna or egg salad to perk up lunch sandwiches.
3. Five Spice Powder
This is one of the essential seasonings in traditional Chinese cooking and lends dishes a balanced flavor of sweet, sour, savory and bitter. The spices that go into this fragrant blend are star anise, fiery Szechuan peppercorns, fennel, clove and cinnamon, or a relative of cinnamon called cassia. It is the star anise that gives the blend its signature licorice flavor undertones, so don’t go overboard using the powder in recipes.
Nutrition standout: There are a handful of studies demonstrating cinnamon’s blood glucose lowering effects, including this recent investigation that showed a mere 500 milligrams of cinnamon (about ¼ teaspoon) three times per day can improve blood glucose levels in people with prediabetes.
Spice it up: Use in marinades for meats including steak and chicken, sprinkle into pancake batter for a surprising new flavor profile, toss with chunks of sweet potato before roasting, add to meatballs or mashed winter squash, use in broths for ramen and other noodle bowls, bake into carrot cake or molasses cookies, incorporate into a glaze for fish.
4. Garam Masala
Added for its deep, warming flavor, garam masala is a spice blend used widely throughout India. The exact make-up will vary from one part of the country to the next, though it often includes cayenne, bay leaf, peppercorns, coriander, cumin, mace, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. It’s a complex medley of tastes and fragrances, for sure.
Nutrition standout: Cloves have off-the-chart levels of antioxidants which can help fend off cell-damaging free radicals for healthier aging and maybe even improved recovery from training.
Spice it up: Add to pureed coconut-based soups and stewed lentils or chickpeas, sprinkle on roasted sweet potatoes or scrambled eggs, use to season sautéed greens, rub over roasted whole chicken or fillets of salmon. Try a bit in banana bread and say hello to your new favorite treat.
Masala Chickpea Stir-Fry
- 1 tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil
- 4 cups cooked or canned chickpeas (drained and rinsed)
- 3 garlic cloves, sliced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
- 6 cups chopped kale
- 1/4 cup sliced unsalted roasted almonds
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 2 scallions (green onion), chopped
- Heat oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add chickpeas, garlic and ginger; cook 4 minutes, stirring often. Stir in garam masala, turmeric, cayenne and salt; cook 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and heat for 2 minutes, stirring often. Add kale to pan and cook until tender and slightly wilted. Stir in almonds and lemon juice.
- In a small bowl, stir together yogurt, lemon zest and a pinch of salt. Serve chickpea mixture topped with dollops of yogurt and scallions.
Middle Eastern cuisine is trending, which has elevated the profile of za’atar. Consisting of thyme, sesame seeds and dried sumac (crushed fruits of the flowering sumac plant), it delivers an herby, nutty and tangy flavor profile. More herb-based than other spice blends, it can make anything it touches taste fresher.
Nutrition standout: Lemony sumac has a surfeit of body-benefiting antioxidants including flavonoids and polyphenols.
Spice it up: Add to water when cooking grains like quinoa or rice, blend into dips, toss with vegetables before roasting, sprinkle on pizza, use as a seasoning for popcorn, stir into mashed potatoes or whisk into salad dressings.
Roasted Carrot Tabbouleh
- 1 pounds carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 3 whole peeled shallots
- 3 whole peeled garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon za’atar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup parsley
- 1/3 cup mint
- 1 (14 oz) can chickpeas
- 1/4 cup sliced roasted almonds
- 2 sliced Medjool dates
- 1/2 cup crumbled feta
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- Preheat oven to 425°F. Toss carrots, shallots and garlic cloves with 2 tsp olive oil, za’atar and salt. Spread out on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until carrots are darkened and tender, about 30 minutes, stirring once halfway. Remove from oven and let cool.
- Place roasted vegetables, parsley, mint in a food processor container and pulse until coarsely chopped (or finely chop with a chef’s knife). Stir in chickpeas, almonds, dates and feta. In a small bowl, whisk together 2 Tbsp olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice and a couple of pinches salt. Toss dressing with salad.