Patterns, Patterns Everywhere: Five-Spice Mixtures

Many chefs and cookbook authors spend their careers touting the unique aspects of the cuisines they cook and write about.  I’m different from most.  I look around and see nothing but commonalities and connections between the major Asian cuisines and spice mixtures.  In The Silk Road Gourmet Cookbook, I write a lot about how ingredients and dishes swirl in patterns across Asia and tell us a lot about relationships between countries whether through trade, diplomatic relations, cultural or religious connections.

A Masala

One of these patterns in ingredients is found in the makeup of the major spice powders. Whether used as a pickling spice, an advieh, a masala, a curry powder, a spice paste or a five-spice powder, the same spices, with some variations in amount, preparation, use, or local addition of ingredients swirl across the continent from Armenia to Indonesia.

Take for example a relatively familiar Northern Indian garam masala: 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons cloves, 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 2 2-inch cinnamon sticks, ½ nutmeg corm, grated, 2 tablespoons cardamom seeds.  Moving west of India, the first three ingredients are also found in most Pakistani garam masalas, which tend to omit cinnamon and nutmeg, and substitute black cardamom for the green cardamom found in the Indian masala.  The same ingredients as those in the Indian masala can be found in an Afghani char masala – minus the nutmeg and also replacing the cardamom with black cardamom as in Pakistan; and in Iranian advieh  – this time with the addition of coriander seeds and Persian lime powder.  A commonly used modern Armenian pickling spice share four ingredients with the Iranian advieh but adds bay leave and the New World allspice to the mix.

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East of India, many Nepalese masalas have the same ingredients as the Indian masala mentioned here – only they tend to add black cardamom to the mix.  One important difference between Indian and Nepali masalas is that Nepali masalas are often roasted, whereas this is an option in Indian cuisine.  Sri Lankan curry powder has the same ingredients as the Indian garam masala except that it adds coriander and fennel seeds and omits nutmeg.  Several additional spices and herbs (pandanus) are also added that are not related to the five or six spice base in most of the other mixes.  Like Northern Indian spice preps, the spices in the Sri Lankan curry powders are sometimes roasted and sometimes not.

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Masala Ingredients

Tibet’s masala adds coriander seed and bay leaves to the Northern Indian base and Khirgistan’s five-spice mix omits black peppercorns from the Indian recipe all together.  Sichuan peppercorns replace black peppercorns along with the addition of star anise and fennel in varying degrees in Mongolia, China and Vietnam.  Like Sri Lanka, Indonesia’s curry paste uses many ingredients not related to other spice mixes around Asia (candlenuts, laos etc), but still it shares the core of spices (black peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg and coriander seeds) with several of the other powders mentioned.

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A teaspoon here, a tablespoon there and the proportions of the spice mixtures change – but the ingredients remain the same – to some degree across the entire continent.  Likewise, we may be different ethnicities or different religions, but to some extent, the foods we eat are part of the cultures we share – all of which have been shaped by the Silk Road (Words and pattern analysis by Laura Kelley).

Take Two Curries and Call Me in the Morning #2

Once again, its time to look at some of the health benefits of curries and their constituent ingredients. Like the previous post that extolled the medicinal virtues of turmeric, marigold, coriander, black onion seed and bay leaves, this post will look at the uses of cumin, black cumin, cardamom, black cardamon and fenugreek both in the kitchen and in the armamentarium of treatments used by doctors and pharmacists around the world. Modern scientific research is also cited to discuss the antimicrobial, antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effects of these herbs and spices.


Cumin seeds (fruits), also known as Cuminium cyminium has been known for its culinary and medicinal uses since antiquity. Called kamunu in Akkadian, the spice was widely used in ancient Mesopotamia and spread to the rest of the world from its origins in Western Asia. In traditional medicine it is used as an anti-inflammatory to treat a wide variety of ailments from stomach upsets to colds, asthma and fever, but modern science is finding that it has powerful antimicrobial properties as well. Recent research has shown that it can be used to inhibit the growth of bacteria on food as well as an inexpensive adjuvant for oral fungal disease. J. Appl Microbiol. 2011 Jan 12.1365-2672; J. Med Assoc. Thai 2010 Dec; 93 Suppl 7:S227-35; and Indian Dent Res. 2010 Jul-Sep;21(3):334-6.)

Black Cumin Seeds

Black Cumin

Often confused with black onion seeds in the literature, black cumin Bunium persicum is the earthy, smoky spice that is unrelated to cumin. It’s scimitar-shaped seeds, use of which first arose in Central Asia or Northern India are used in traditional medicine in Western, Southern and Central Asia to treat a wide variety of inflammatory conditions from colic and other digestive illness to irregular menstrual periods. Modern science is finding black cumin useful in reducing pain and has shown antioxidant and free-radical scavenging activity in vitro. (Pharm Biol. 2011 Feb;49(2):146-51. Epub 2010 Oct 13; Pak J Pharm Sci. 2010 Jul;23(3):300-4.)


Cardamom is not just for coffee, curries and desserts anymore! Green cardamom, also known as Elettaria cardamomum hails from the southern Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka and has been traded and used as a culinary spice for millennia. Cardamom is broadly used in South Asia to treat infections in teeth and gums, to prevent and treat throat troubles, congestion of the lungs and pulmonary tuberculosis, inflammation of eyelids and also digestive disorders. It also is used to break up kidney stones and gall stones, and was reportedly used as an antidote for both snake and scorpion venom. Recent research is also uncovering that the phytochemicals in cardamom have antimicrobial and anti-cancer properties. Other research has found that cardamom can reduce blood pressure in stage 1 hypertensive individuals as well. (Pak J Biol Sci. 2010 Apr 1;13(7):340-3; Recent Pat Food Nutr Agric. 2010 Jun;2(2):166-77; Indian J Biochem Biophys. 2009 Dec;46(6):503-6.)

Black Cardamom

Black Cardamom

Despite the similar name, black cardamom, the large, dark, smoky flavored seed, Amomum subulatum, is only distantly related to green cardamom. Medicinal and culinary use of black cardamom arose in Nepal and the Himalayas and spread into Eastern Asia and Northern India from there. A distinct subspecies of black cardamom is cultivated and used in northern China and is used throughout Eastern Asia to treat a wide variety of digestive ailments, malaria and enlarged spleen of other causes. Recent work is showing that is has powerful metal-chelating and antioxidant properties, and can both prevent superoxide generation as well as scavenge them once they arise (Biofactors. 2007;31(3-4):219-27; Biofactors. 2007;29(2-3):147-57.).


Fenugreek is an ancient spice used in medicine and in the kitchen from Europe to China. Use of Trigonella foenum-graecum probably started in the Eastern Mediterranean, but its use is so ancient and so broad that it is difficult to determine its origin. Like cilantro, both the leaves and the seeds are widely used both in the kitchen and out. Traditionally used to increase the flow of milk in lactating women, it also has uses as a general anti-inflammatory and is used in Chinese medicine to increase kidney health. Modern science is confirming the benefits of these traditional uses as well as identifying new uses for the herb such as pancreatic a-amalayse inhibition (anti-diabetes) and as a promoter of male sexual health. (BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011 Jan 20;11:5; Phytother Res. 2011 Feb 10.3360).