spice week: how to stock a minimalist spice collection [5 ingredients]

spice week brown lentils

It’s been 4 months since I wrote about stocking a minimalist pantry and I promised a separate post on minimalist spices. I hope no one has been holding their breath waiting for me to stop procrastinating and clean out my spice collection (pictured above).

But better late than never. And I thought that rather than a single post, I’d dedicate the whole week to the wonderful world of spices. Today I’ll cover how to stock a minimalist spice collection and share my recipe for minimalist dahl. And later in the week I have a real treat for you – an interview with Australia’s premier spice expert – Ian ‘Herbie’ Hemphill.

As with my minimalist pantry list, I’m not saying that this is for everyone, of course your spice requirements will vary from mine. Just putting it out there.

my minimalist spice collection – the essentials

black pepper
I can’t imagine life without black pepper. Even back in my backpacker days, I managed to find space to carry a little disposable pepper grinder so I would have fresh pepper for my very budget picnics and hostel cooked meals.

ground cumin
A wonderfully versatile spice that is used in pretty much most cuisines including Indian, Asian, North African and Mexican. It would be my number 3 essential after chilli and black pepper.

dried chilli flakes
There are so many options when it comes to chilli, but my favourite it easily dried chilli flakes made from the super-hot Thai bird’s eye chillis. I prefer these flakes because they pack a flavour punch and can also be called upon for a bit of visual interest.

ground coriander
Ground coriander is made from the seeds of the coriander (or cilantro) plant. Its flavour is sweet and fragrant and it compliments the majority of other spices. It’s commonly used in Moroccan food and in curry blends. It’s also used in sweet spice blends and Ian Hemphill recommends using it to make apple crumble.

garam marsala
My go-to spice when I feel like a bit of Indian flavour. I did court many an exotic ingredient during this time, as you’ll read when you get to the list of spices I’m throwing out. But garam marsala was the one for me.

smoked sweet paprika
There’s nothing like this Spanish staple to add a smoky touch of something special to your cooking. It’s often used in chorizo. I like to think it adds a kind of ‘ghost of chorizo’ flavour without the pork. Wonderful anywhere you’re using tomato or red peppers.

Tossing up here whether to go with ground cinnamon or the cute cigar-shaped cinnamon quills. Given that I don’t have a spice grinder, will probably have to stick with the ground offering. But will miss the visual appeal of a cinnamon stick simmering in a stew or tajine.

fennel seeds
While I have been known to enjoy tea made from infusing fennel seeds in hot water, I’m including them in my essentials because they bring a wonderful anise-like flavour to food. Great with fish, lamb or anywhere you would use fresh fennel.

vanilla beans
One of my all-time favourite flavours, it’s hard to beat the heady fragrance of real vanilla in icecream, custards or panna cotta. Love that if you store your beans in a jar of sugar, you get the bonus of vanilla flavoured sugar.

my minimalist spice collection – the nice-to-haves

A middle eastern blend of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac, my first encounter with this fragrant, fresh yet nutty spice blend was atop some flat bread fresh from the baker in Amman in Jourdan. Wonderful with chicken and fish, it’s great to use with bread and olive oil, a bit like dukkah.

Also known as Lebanese 7 spice blend, baharat is used in Middle Eastern cooking similar to the way garam marsala is used in Indian food. It’s usually a blend of paprika, pepper, cumin, cassia, cloves, coriander, cardamom and nutmeg. I love it with lamb but it’s also a great way to spice up some simple couscous or rice. If I don’t have any baharat on hand, I’d usually replace it with an equal blend of ground cumin, ground coriander and paprika.

caraway seeds
If I had written this last week, I probably would have ditched my caraway seeds. But then I made some harissa, the intense Moroccan chilli paste and was reminded that a) harissa is addictive and b) caraway seeds are critical for good harissa. And so they stay.

If I didn’t use them to spike my Christmas ham, I’d be tempted to push my cloves into the ditching pile. Herbie recommends adding a few cloves to coffee for an interesting twist.

As the most expensive spice, saffron is unique with its intense yellow colour and flavour. Wonderful with seafood or real saffron rice, it’s also a key ingredient in the classic Spanish dish, paella. Given how infrequently I use it, I probably should relegate saffron to the ‘to ditch’ pile but can’t bring myself to do it.

cardamom pods
I just love the aroma of cardamom pods. So exotic and sweet. I haven’t used them in ages, but they’re scraping into the keep list… for now.

star anise
Wonderful in Chinese cooking, star anise brings out the savoury and meaty flavours in dishes. My Irishman uses them in his Heston Blumenthal-inspired and very unminimalistic meat ragu. Since it’s seriously the most delicious ragu, I need to keep these little stars in stock in the hope that he’ll make it for me again, soon.

curry powder
If you find a curry powder you like, I highly recommend sticking to it. I’ve got a can of Keen’s traditional curry powder because that’s what my mum used. But I would like to explore some more authentic options.

my unminimalist spices to ditch

32o spice mix
A special blend made by Herbie’s Spices. I have used this in soups and in a marinade for chicken with excellent results. But as a minimalist, could have easily replaced it with something from my essentials list.

allspice (ground pimento)
While the flavour of allspice is a mixture of cloves and cinnamon, it’s actually a spice in its own right. Given my packet is so old I can’t read the best before date, I’m ditching. In the future I’ll used a blend of cinnamon and cloves to replace it.

garlic steak seasoning
I must have picked this up in a moment of weakness. But given that it’s past the best before and the packet is still unopened, I’d say it’s not a critical ingredient for me.

The best before on my nutmeg packet is 2003. While I have used nutmeg in milk puddings and with spinach, I can’t remember the last time I grated nutmeg with my little nutmeg grater. So I’m ditching the out of date spice. If anyone would like to be a good home for my barely used nutmeg grater, please send me an email.

ground ginger
It pains me to get rid of my ground ginger because I’m a massive ginger fan. But I prefer the fresh stuff, so time to let go of the dried safety net.

With it’s crazy bright yellow colour, it’s hard to ignore turmeric. But given I can’t remember the last time I used it, it’s got to go.

juniper berries
I think I picked these up to add to a pate I was making in my pre-minimalist cooking days. Yes they smell pretty, and yes they are used to make gin but they don’t get used in my kitchen enough to justify keeping them.

mixed spice
Used mostly in sweet cooking for fruit cakes, mixed spice is a blend of coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice ginger and cloves. I’m happy to limit myself to a home made mix of coriander, cinnamon and cloves next time I feel the need for mixed spice.

black mustard seeds
A hangover of my Indian cooking period.

fenugreek leaves
Another Indian ingredient that expired in 2007.

fenugreek seeds

Only just past their expiration date, but purchased at the same time as the leaves (above). Who knows why I have two full packets. Apparently you can use them for making fenugreek tea.

szechuan pepper
I’m tempted to keep these for the wonderful tingling sensation they have on the tongue. But my packet is so old they no longer weave their magic. Will stick to getting my fix in Szechuan restaurants.

dried barberry
I just love the intense tang of these little berries that are used in Afghan and Moroccan cooking. Given that my unopened packet has expired, I can’t list them as nice-to-have but will make myself some barberry and dark chocolate cookies from the Bourke Street Bakery book to use them up.

onion salt
My mum used to use onion salt on her steaks. I picked this up when I was testing the recipes for ‘And the Love is Free’.

nigella seeds
Who knows why I have an unopened packet. But given that my name isn’t Nigella, I’m happy to ditch these little black seeds.

panch phora
Expired in early 2006. I remember picking these up when there was an article in Australian Gourmet Traveller on this Indian blend of whole spices.

yellow mustard seeds
Pretty sure these came from when I was living in the Barossa Valley and decided to make my own mustard using mustard seeds and Shiraz grapes. Needless to say it was a one-off experiment.

poppy seeds
I do love poppy seeds on baked goods. Just not enough to cook with them I guess.

brown cardamom pods
Another relic from my Indian cooking phase.

bush tomato
An indigenous Australian spice, I couldn’t resist trying it.

Apparently these ‘tears’ are from the sap of a Mediterranean tree and used in sweet cooking.

spice week-3
[5 ingredients]
minimalist dahl

serves 2

I hadn’t cooked with brown lentils in ages so thought I’d try them out in this recipe. While they taste absolutely delicious, they’re not exactly the most beautiful of lenitls. My Irishman thought they looked like dusty cement but agreed with me about the flavour.

If you’d prefer a more appetising looking daal, please feel free to use red lentils or even french-style green lentils.

Best served with some steamed basmati rice or naan bread.

1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 cup lentils (see note above), rinsed
squeeze lemon juice

1. Heat a few tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan.

2. Cook chilli, coriander and cumin, stirring, over a medium high heat for about 30 seconds.

3. Add lentils and 4 cups water. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally for about 45minutes, or until lentils are tender and starting to turn to concrete mush. You may need to add more water if the lentils are drying out or if you like your dahl more soupy than stewey.

4. Season well with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.


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