Spices and spice mixtures by Claudia Roden

Sephardi communities are known for the wide range of aromatic herbs, seeds, bark, roots, pods, pistils, petals, flower waters, and oil they use. Every community has its favorites. Where one uses saffron, another uses turmeric. Cumin and coriander are favorites of Egyptian Jews, allspice and cinnamon are much used by the Turks, and cardamom is popular with Iraqis and Indians. Tamarind goes into sweet-and-sour foods of families originating in Syria, Persia, Iraq and India, and sour pomegranate syrup has the same role with people from Persia and Syria.

Where North African Jews use orange-blossom water, Turkish and Balkan Jews use rose water. Grated orange zest, chocolate, and vanilla are a sign of Iberian ancestry. The sharp red berries of the sumac tree; mastikah (mastic), the resin of the acacia tree; and sahlab, the ground bulb of a type of orchid, are a sign of roots in the Arab world. Each community used all the aromatics of its locality, but in a slightly different way from the general population, so that the food tasted a little different.

Spice mixtures suitable for certain kinds of dishes were common. Ready made ones were sold at the bazaar, but Jews made their own, in case tiny insects had invaded a batch, or because of something that was not kosher — such as the golden beetle in the ras el hanout mixture of North Africa. They bought fresh whole spices and roasted and pounded them themselves. Nowadays in many homes you still find two or three jars of ground mixed spices in the larder.

In Egypt (where I grew up) we used a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and all spice, which we called quatre epices (four spices). Za’tar, a mixture of wild thyme [or hyssop leaves], roasted sesame seeds, the ground sour red berries of the sumac tree, and salt, has become very popular in Israel, where it is eaten with bread dipped in olive oil.

Kama is a Moroccan blend of black pepper, turmeric, ginger, cumin and nutmeg used for stew and soups. Hawaij, a Yemeni ground spice mixture famous in Israel and used in meat dishes and soups, is made up of black pepper, cardamom, saffron and turmeric [more about Yemenite spice mixtures and recipes below]. The Aden version has coriander, cumin, cardamom, and black pepper. Adenis also have a mixture of ground cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom for their tea, which they drink without milk, and a mixture of ginger, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon for their black coffee.

Herbs and spices were also valued for their therapeutic and medicinal qualities, as aphrodisiacs, and for magic purposes. People knew which were good for digestion, which calmed the nerves and helped circulation, which killed bacteria, increased the appetite, and acted as sexual stimulants. Garlic was supposed to protect from the evil eye and evil spirits. The Jews of Turkey were in the habit of hanging a head of garlic outside the door; when no one in the community died during a cholera epidemic, Muslims said it was the stench of garlic that had kept away the bacteria.

Habibe Krief, Tunisia, 1956. Habibe, the grandmother of Orit Kariv-Manor, is pictured here with a ceramic pot of couscous.
Yemeni spice mixtures and recipes by Joan Nathan**

In addition to hawaij, Yemenite Jews enjoy a spicy sauce called helbeh (in Arabic) or rubiya (in Hebrew), meaning "be fruitful and multiply." The sauce is made from soaked fenugreek seeds, which symbolize fertility. According to a Yemenite legend, fenugreek is supposed to keep women plump and fertile. The fenugreek is combined with fresh tomatoes and zhug, the Yemenite combination of pepper, black caraway seed, cumin, cardamom pods, garlic, fresh coriander, and dried chili pepper (see recipe).

Hot spice combinations such as the zhug and hawaij are as important to Yemenite cuisine, as sauces are to the French.

We include here three basic recipes:
HAWAIJ: Yemenite spice combination
HELBEH dipping sauce made from fenugreek seeds and zhug
YEMENITE ZHUG: ground spices with herbs


* The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York (with more than 800 Ashkenazi and Sephardi recipes) by Claudia Roden (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. [back]

** The Holiday Kitchen. New York: Schocken Books 1988. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. [back]


Claudia Roden travels extensively as a food writer. She has published several prize-winning books on cookery and received Italy’s two most prestigious food prizes for her London Sunday Times Magazine series “The Taste of Italy.”

Joan Nathan has written widely on Jewish ethnic and holiday cooking, sharing recipes from around the world in both her books and her special feature articles in The New York Times and Gourmet.

Top photo: Archive Gerard Silvain



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