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.


  • I understand and applaud the urge to go minimalist with your spices, especially when you’ve got a lot you’ve never used. However, I’d find it hard to replace things like ground ginger or even garlic with the real deal in all cases. Ground ginger in pumpkin pie, cake, or other preparations is good (as is nutmeg). Making any type of sandwich with a “salad” preparation (egg, tuna, etc.) pretty much requires that you abandon garlic of go for powder as I don’t know any way to use fresh garlic in such things without it being overbearing or too raw tasting.

    As you say, every person is different, but if I pared down as much as you, I’d be finding myself back at the store again in a month. ;-)

  • I had no idea you could make tea from fennel seeds!
    You don’t know how great this is . Four years ago, I brought home a fennel seedling from a garden center – the leaf-and-seed type, not the bulb – and let it flower and seed to it’s heart’s content. Little did I know at the time that this is a plant that dreams of world domination! The seedlings pop up everywhere, and I have more than enough seeds saved for cooking. I hate to let anything go to waste, so now I’ll have to try it as tea.
    Tablespoon per cup of boiling water? Or more?

  • Filter coffee with a couple of green cardamom pods in the grounds is a really wonderful variation.

    And for the saffron, look for a recipe for Cornish Saffron Bread. Lovely!

    You’re quite right, though. Can’t imagine cooking without black pepper!

  • Well as a guy that is currently developing my own online store to sell spice blends, I disagree that you can not have too many spices and herbs. However, my wife would agree with you.

    I would add Grains of Paradise to your “nice-to-haves”. It has replaced the black pepper in my table grinder. It certainly has a unique flavor. When you crack a seed in your teeth, you initially get the peppery flavor followed by something that can be described as a citrus taste then finishes with a herb-like flavor. I coarse grind it with fleur de sel and use it as a rub for charcoal steaks.

    Also, for an “essential” I would add Greek oregano. I married into a Greek family, so I gradually grown to love it as well.

  • At first I was nervous to read this because I thought you’d only have five things on here, but I’m glad to see it’s a longer list.
    I noticed salt was absent, is that just a given?
    I’d have to keep the turmeric (my husband puts it on everything despite my protests) and I’d have to add cayenne pepper to my list (same reason)
    What about cream of tartar? Is it a baking necessity?

  • Wow, what a great reference! I’ve bookmarked this so I can refer back to it. I’ve never made lentils on their own before–I normally just add them to soups–so I’ll have to give these a try.

  • before you ditch the Szechuan pepper you need to make mapo-tofu. it is 10 min (ish) to cook but more than 5 ingredients but even tofu haters love it (mainly because there is meat in the sauce).

    fry garlic and ginger in oil. add a small amount of pork mince and fry. add chopped spring onions, chili-bean paste, szechuan pepper, soy, water, oyster sauce and cook. add a tub of silken tofu and stir gently. serve with rice and greens.

    cumin and pepper are at the top of my list too, and i love baharat – even more than garam masala. I have just counted 56 jars of spices in my pantry. Im sure i can ditch a couple…

  • orchid
    funny I have never used dried garlic – my mum used to use it and I just thought it was a relic of the 70s.. each to their own hey;)

    I know where you’re coming from with the fennel – it grew everywhere in the Barossa. Yes about a tablespoon per cup and the great thing is the seeds just sit on the bottom so no need for a strainer.

    Salt isn’t in there because it isn’t a spice. And I’d use chilli flakes where you use cayenne – slightly different but I’m cool with that. And cream of tartar is useful in baking but definitely not a spice.

    sorry but someone beat you to the post on the nutmeg grater – glad it’s going to a home where it will be more loved and appreciated!

    yes tofu and pork mince are a winning combo – thanks for sharing this recipe – sounds lovely

  • Interesting.

    I agree with all your ‘essentials’ although I would probably go for whole cumin and coriander, as some recipes require the whole spice, and you can always grind them yourself with the mortar and pestle.

    Turmeric is an essential for me as I use it regularly in curries (see http://itpleasesus.com/2010/02/02/gobi-dhal/). I also really like dried ginger for Indian curries, I tend to use fresh for asian style dishes. I also use dried ginger in baking and make some pretty delicious ginger kisses. Ginger kisses are a great fall back when I am dying for something sweet as the dried ginger, sugar and butter are always available!

  • Yes, sadly I was indeed waiting for your awesome list ;) I actually scoured the site on Saturday before I went to the spice store to see if you had written anything on the subject. I did go out on my own though and happily did get the ones on your list. I also added Chinese 5 spice and yellow curry powder to the mix and nixed the Fennel Seeds.

  • Mmm…I’m so excited that it’s getting to be fall because nice warm lentils sound awesome :)

    Love the spice list – really informative! I could never do without turmeric though, but mostly because I put a ton of it on my scrambled tofu.

  • that was interesting to read – and i will try that recipe. the look reminds me of a nepalese lentil soup i ate on expo a bunch of years back when it was in germany and we went there with school (yeesh, quite some years back).

    also, i find it interesting to see how a large part of your essentials and a hand full of the nice-to-haves make the backbone of our cooking in the family. chili flakes make everything better. and what chiliflakes dont make better, cumin will. baharat is absolutely awesome and is not that hard to prepare at home, too. after all, nothing extraordinary in it, when you take the liberty of using run of the mill cinnamon instead of cassia. :)
    and please, please, please share your recipe for harissa! it is so tasty but i always buy it in jars. the one kebap booth owner from baghdad who did the most delicious homemade harissa moved away, too :(

  • It is hard to minimalist with spices, at least for me, I love to try out many ethnic and traditional spices with my cooking experiment. But, I throw away older spices and buy just enough when I am trying out. I love to use Za’atar, I have heard so much about it but yet to try it out.

  • I start to have heart palpitations when I think of paring down the spice mess in my cupboard, but there sure are a bunch I haven’t used in a couple of years. That should make me want to toss them, but then I think of some fantastic dish that requires them, and hang on. I once found a recipe for a baked potato topping that had cottage cheese mixed with a number of spices, notably Nigella (kalonji in Indian cooking). It was so delicious that I think about it every time I bake a potato. If only I could remember the recipe! I haven’t used black mustard seeds in a while, but on stir-fried shredded carrots, they’re amazing! I could never get rid of nutmeg, I use it in rice pudding about once a week. Ground ginger… so different than fresh. Little pumpkin custards are a favorite with my kids, so it stays. I use turmeric with any kind of Indian bean dish or curry (it’s an anti-inflammatory, like olive oil and ginger). I have decided that I have little use for whole cloves, though. I tried to grind them in a coffee grinder once, and they turned into this amazing gummy tar, and cracked my grinder. Oops.

    The idea of minimizing in this area is going to rattle around in my mind for at least a month or so, and then I’ll give it a try.

  • Being a native ‘dahl’ eater and maker, I know that it takes more than just 5 ingredients to make the perfect one. But can I recommend my super easy, authentic version?

    1. Heat 1 tbsp of oil (whatever you prefer best) in a saucepan.
    2. Splutter 2 tsps cumin seeds.
    3. Add 1 clove of chopped garlic and 1 chopped onion and stir fry till slightly brown.
    4. Add lentils, 1 chopped tomato and water and let it cook.
    5. Add salt and garam masala for flavour, depending on your spice threshold.
    6. Garnish with fresh, chopped corriander.

    I know it’s more than 5 ingredients but it is still really easy!

  • Spices are very personal that’s for sure. Mine are quite different to yours, but I totally agree it’s better to go minimal. There are almost always spices lurking in people’s cupboards (mine included) which are so rarely used that they simply aren’t worth having and storing.

    Are the fenugreek seeds the same as the fenugreek used in Indian cooking? I’m wondering if we are talking of the same spice or not…I have it and I used it when I’m frying up vegetables sometimes. For example a fave of mine is spiced green beans which has fenugreek, cumin, coriander, chile, garlic and ginger mainly.

    Mmm just talking about spices is making me want to cook – and eat! Your recipe looks excellent. I must try the dark lentils sometime soon.

    @ M – I like your idea for dahl too! Using the garam masala is a good way to make the spice application a bit easier I guess.

  • My spice keepers are very close to yours, except the cloves. I keep whole cloves ever since I discovered this amazing chicken soup recipe – it uses whole cloves and fresh dill to make a broth that (on top of being warm, fatty, and soothing) is deeply aromatic and astringent enough to cut through congestion. When I’m sick, nothing in the world is better, and so keeping a small jar around makes sense for me. :)

    I love the new cookbook – congratulations on the publication!

  • Tumeric is so good for you and so easy to use. A pinch in your water for making basmati turns it beautifully golden. I keep a small jar next to the stove and use it for more than rice. It is used daily in south asian kitchens. It’s a natural anti-septic and anti-inflammatory and is believed to prevent alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, diseases which are not seen as often in south asia as they are in the west. Don’t throw it away unless you’re replacing it with something fresher!

  • i knew i loved you the minute you gave cumin #3 spot! it might be the single spice i can identify and know i love!

  • I love herbs and spices and would be loathed to throw out any of mine, apart from the out of date ones. My mum once asked me why her curry never tasted as aromatic as mine so I checked the date on her jar and it was 10yrs out of date and had no flavour left in it at all, just colour! Other than a good curry powder I tend to keep whole spices rather than ground ones, for the simple reason that the flavour is sealed in until you use it. I agree with the comments above on turmeric for it’s healing properties, love cloves when making chicken or beef stock (stick them in an onion) or in an orange for Gluh wine… Also use mace which is the outer shell of the nutmeg, and has a lovely mild flavour, again can’t do without in aromatic chicken stock. Really surprised to see thyme only mentioned once and rosemary not at all!!! What about bayleaves… I couldn’t possibly be without them. Suppose they are herbs rather than spices. My partner has become addicted to pepper since I tried Parameswaran’s Special Wynad Pepper, not cheap but totally superior to any other pepper I’ve ever tried. I buy it mail order in 200gr bags as a present for him… sorry this is not very helpful for those who are paring down their spice collection, but they take up very little space really.

  • Zoos will take your expired spices to use for enrichment activities for the animals. So you can donate your spices to a new use – no guilt in cleaning out the cupboards! Contact any local zoo or exotic animal rescue to learn more. They take old perfume too.

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