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Besides the usual garlic, onion, salt and pepper that seem to be found in kitchens the world over, no Egyptian kitchen can be without these herbs and spices:
1. Cumin, after salt and pepper, is the most commonly used spice in Egyptian cuisine. Honestly, I had never even heard of it until I married Ali; now I can't imagine having a spice cupboard that doesn't have a very large jar of cumin in it! Of course it makes sense that this spice would be used so often in Egyptian food considering that it comes from a plant that is native to Upper Egypt!
2. Coriander grows wild in Egypt and was probably a part of the staple diet of the ancient Egyptians before its seeds were ground and became a staple in the spice cupboards of modern Egyptians. In addition to being used for cooking in both seed and ground forms, coriander is eaten in its raw, green form.
3. Dill is my personal favorite of all the herbs and spices on this list. Over the years, I have found that adding it to old-time family favorites like potato and macaroni salads only makes them taste gazillions of times better! To make the best Egyptian style stuffed grape leaves, lots of fresh dill is a must.
4. Chili Peppers, whether fresh, dry, crushed, chopped, or grated, make up an integral ingredient in several Egyptian dishes. And if the chili isn't cooked into the food, it is served as a condiment. Green chilis are the most commonly used type, but red can be found in Egyptian markets as well. The average Egyptian loves hot and spicy food!
5. Saffron, the world's most expensive spice, is not used as often in Egyptian cuisine as it is in the foods from the Arabian Peninsula or Iran. Still, it belongs in the Egyptian kitchen where it is added to rice and pickled lemons to give it a beautiful vibrant yellow color.
6. Bay Leaf is used to flavor soups along with habahan (cardamom in English). During Ramadan, a 30 day period of fasting from sunrise until sunset, it is customary to begin the first meal of the day with a bowl of soup. And that bowl of soup will most likely have been made with meat and flavored with bay leaf.
7. Cilantro is every bit as as common in the Egyptian kitchen as parsley, and it is rare to find one that doesn't have one or both at all times. Cilantro is used in salads or to provide flavor in cooked dishes such as kofta. It is also eaten by itself much the same way that raw celery or carrots are eaten in the West.
8. Parsley may be little more than a decorative element in the States, but in Egypt it's used for so much more! Like cilantro, parsley is a staple in salad and kofta, and it's one of the main ingredients in falafel. In fact, you could say that without parsely, falafel wouldn't look the same at all because this herb gives that Middle Eastern favorite its characteristic color!
9. Aniseed, that wonderful seed that gives us the taste of licorice, is used in baked goods in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians used anise for both culinary and medicinal purposes as far back as 1500 BC, and the tradition continues today. In addition to making delicious baked goods that feature aniseed, Egyptians brew a tea, called Yansoon, from it.
10. Mint, especially fresh, is a must have whenever guests are over. Egyptians are quite famous for their hospitality, so much so that it is nearly impossible to escape an Egyptian household without drinking at least one cup of tea. Fresh mint leaves are offered with the tea and if the guest likes, shay-bil-nana or tea steeped with mint, is served. It is customary for guests to eat something, too, even if it's just a cookie or two.
11. Cardamom is another expensive spice and one that I haven't really learned to appreciate very much. It is quite pungent with an easily recognized taste that Egyptians use to flavor soups with. Saudis grind the seeds and make a coffee with it. In any case, cardamom is very much an acquired taste.
12. Cinnamon has been known in Egypt for centuries and was even used in the embalming process when mummies were prepared for burial. It was quite an expensive spice back in the day, though, so it was used quite sparingly. In modern day Egypt, cinnamon is still used sparingly as a baking spice as well as way to give added flavor to meat dishes.
13. Nigella is another spice that I had never heard of until I married an Egyptian, and I have to confess that it's one I still haven't tasted. You see these little "black seeds" as they are called in Egypt are used primarily in pickled dishes, and Egyptians pickle just about everything you can think of, including lemons! Lucky for me, and you, the Amazing Egyptian Dude recently made a HUGE batch of pickled lemons, several jars of which are currently "curing" around the house. I snapped a picture so that you could see both nigella and saffron in action.