Mediterranean spices and herbs are a big part of the region’s food culture, which is known for producing some of the world’s most flavorful dishes. Most classic Italian, Greek and Spanish dishes are known for the flavor profiles that their seasonings bring. Many of those ingredients are native while others are imported from various parts of the world. Here is a look at some of the most popular Mediterranean spices.
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Primarily used in savory dishes, oregano is the first herb that comes to mind for many people when they think of Mediterranean seasonings. There are several different types of oregano, each with a variation on the savory and minty flavors of this herb family. Some varieties have peppery notes, while others contribute strong citrus flavors, and even some even have a little heat. Oregano is usually used dried instead of fresh and is popular for seasoning pizza sauce, braised meats, and even salads.
Harvested by hand from crocus flowers, saffron is widely known as being the world’s most expensive spice, but despite its cost, it’s widely used in a range of Mediterranean dishes. This orange-yellow spice gives food a grassy, herbaceous flavor and has been used in the region for more than three millennia. Saffron is essential for classic Mediterranean dishes like bouillabaisse and paella.
One of the seasonings that originated in the Mediterranean, thyme is also one of the region’s more pungent herbs, and it is used both for its flavor and the fact that its antimicrobial properties make it an excellent preservative. It brings a minty, savory character to foods that are similar to the flavors of oregano and marjoram. Thyme takes well to drying, and the dried herb is best used in dishes that braise for a long time. Use it in your stews and tomato-based pasta sauces.
One of the most distinctive herbs in Mediterranean cooking, Basil’s flavor profile consists of licorice and mint notes combined with a bright herbaceousness and a little citrus. Basil pairs well with tomatoes and is as enjoyable on a Margherita pizza as it is on a Caprese salad. Outside of Italy, basil is used in Greek-style tomato sauces and some versions of Spanish gazpacho.
Cumin comes from the area around the Mediterranean, and it’s used for its slight bitterness, nuttiness, and spicy warmth. While it is more often associated with Indian and Latin American cooking than with classic Mediterranean cooking, it does show up in dishes like the spinach and feta cheese pie from Greece known as hortopita and Spanish espinacas con garbanzos.
Another intensely flavored Mediterranean herb, rosemary’s leaves are narrow and thin like pine needles, and its flavor is a combination of resinous pine with a strong floral quality as well as a hint of lemon. Rosemary is great, whether dried or fresh, and its flavor goes well with both meats and vegetables. You will see it used in lamb dishes in both Italy and Greece. Rosemary is also one of the essential seasonings for a classic Spanish paella.
Cinnamon’s origin is in Asia, but it has found a place in the hearts of the Greeks and is widely used in both savory dishes and desserts. Cinnamon brings a distinctive sweetness and heat to dishes like the Greek pilafi pourgouri, a version of pilaf made with bulgur. You will also see it used in Italian desserts like pizzetti di cannella from Puglia.