A Spicy Encounter - Part 3 of 4 - Pungent Spices

A Spicy Encounter – Part 3 of 4 – Pungent Spices

Spices come from the buds, bark, stems, roots, berries and seeds of plants. Any part except for the leaf is termed a spice, the leaves are classified as herbs.

Spices are generally grouped into five categories based on flavor – sweet; tangy; pungent; hot and amalgamating. Today we will delve further into the pungent spices and discover there secrets.

Pungent spices are the ones which give a burst of flavor. They are reliably strong and as such only a small amount is needed. But do not be fooled into thinking that such a small amount of ingredient must mean it is not important. The pungent spice is the secret to many superb dish and often is the difference between OK and gourmet.

Caraway Seed

An ancient spice, known to be used as early as 3000BC. Caraway seeds were valued for their medicinal uses as well as culinary.

The seeds have a warm, earthy aroma with hints of aniseed, orange peel and fennel. Caraway seeds assist in balancing rich, fatty foods and that is often used in cheese dishes. It is also a common ingredient in garam masala, used in Indian cuisine.


This is a very versatile spice and can be used in either sweet or savory dishes. Green pods are picked from a native Southern Indian tropical plant. The pods contain 10 to 20 tiny brown seeds. These seeds have a warm, flowery taste.

Cardamom is used in Indian curries, Middle-eastern dishes, rice dishes and desserts. Use ground cardamom or often a bruised cardamom pod is called for. The pod is slightly squashed which assists in releasing the flavor.

Celery Seed

The celery seed comes from and ancient European herb. It has a strong flavor that compliments well with tomatoes and vegetable juices. Celery seed will often find it's way into a 'Bloody Mary'.

Celery seed is often blended with other spices such as paprika, ginger, cinnamon and pepper to create spice blends for seafood, chicken and red meat.


We have probably used cloves at one time or another. But did you know they are a natural antiseptic and anesthetic.

Cloves are the dried flower buds of a tropical tree native to Maluku (formerly Indonesian Spice Islands). They are crimson in color but have little flavor when first picked. Once dried they turn dark brown and eugenol, a pungent oil develops.

Cloves although native to Indonesia played a large role in the spice trade and are found in almost every cuisine the world over.


Cumin is native to the Nile valley and has been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. It has also been used in England since the 13th century. The Spanish took cumin seeds to the Americas and it is an integral part of Mexican chili powder.

It has a pungent, earthy, curry-like flavor and used to produce full-bodied flavor curries. For the best results use gently roasted whole seeds or good quality dark, oily cumin powder. Try some in your pumpkin soup next time.


This is one of those things I can never work out how to spell. Fenugreek seed comes from a clover looking plant and has been used medicinally since ancient times.

It has a distinct bitterness that adds distinct bite to hot curries such as vindaloo. Hard to believe but the seeds produce an extract that is used to make imitation maple syrup.


From South-East Asia, galangal is similar to ginger but has a sharper aroma. It comes from the rhizome of the plant and is used in Thai cooking.

The pungent flavor helps to neutralize overly fishy flavors.


Ginger comes from the rhizome (root) of the tropical ginger plant. The strength of flavor of the piece of ginger is determined by how old the rhizome was when picked. Young, tender rhizomes are almost sweet as opposed to older rhizomes which are more fibrous and have a strong flavor.

Find ginger used in many Indian and Asian dishes. It can be used in desserts and in savory dishes. Ginger is also good for upset stomachs.


The juniper berry is a small blue-black berry with a unique pine aroma and astringency. It is best known as the flavor enhancer of gin.

Use dried juniper berries to reduce the strong flavor of game and the fattiness of duck. It is very strong and only a few berries is needed – 5 berries per 1 pound of meat. For a spectacular chicken casserole (red wine, sage, thyme, bay leaves), add a couple of juniper berries.

Lemon Myrtle

A native of Australia, it is the leaves that are used (a contradiction to the rule that leaves are herbs). They give a unique fresh lemony aroma and a flavor that is more like lemon zest.

Fantastic in Asian dishes especially with chicken, seafood and vegetables.

Nigella Seeds

I first discovered these about two years ago. They are strong, sharp tasting, little black seeds.

Nigella seeds work well with Indian cooking, potato and other carbohydrates.


The most expensive and precious spice in the world. Saffron threads are the dried stigmas of a purple, autumn, crocus flower. Each flower only produces 3 stigmas. It takes approximately 75,000 flowers to produce 1 pound of saffron. But because of it's strong coloring power and intense flavor, only a small amount is required.

Saffron produces a bright orange-yellow color and an intense pungent flavor. It is best to buy good quality threads and not powder to ensure authenticity. Soak the threads in warm water for at least 15 minutes prior to use.

Star Anise

Star anise is a dried, star-shaped fruit harvested from a Chinese Magnolia tree. It has a warm, licorice flavor with under currents of cinnamon.

It is used in spice blends and found in Chinese cooking.


Another native to Australia. It is seed collected from specific species of acacia. Ground battleseed has a woody, nutty flavor with coffee overtones.

It can be used to flavor ice-cream, cake and cookies or used as a rub on white meats.

Well, there you have it, a brief introduction into the world of pungent spices, do not let their strongness scare you off.

Until our next Spicy Encounter
Enjoy Cooking!

Lisa "The Crock Cook"


Source by Lisa Paterson

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