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Egyptian and Middle Eastern Cooking: Ali Baba's spice cupboard and pantry

Updated on May 6, 2014
Ali Baba's kitchen
Ali Baba's kitchen | Source
Chillies from Ali Baba's spice cupboard
Chillies from Ali Baba's spice cupboard | Source

Alibaba's wordl of spices


Welcome to Ali Baba's kitchen in Cairo Egypt.

Before you start cooking like Ali Baba and enjoying Middle Eastern cuisine and recipes there are few basics which are really good to know.

One of the most important ingredients of any recipe are the spices - without the spices there are simply no flavor and no taste.

After all it is the spices which give each style of cooking or cuisine it's own unique taste.

Spices have long been used in Middle Eastern and Egyptian cooking and cuisine. Since the Middle East covers such an extensive area the range of spices used in Middle Eastern cooking is huge, and it could be a good idea to start stocking up. Another good investment for Ali Baba's kitchen is some type of spice crusher, spice grinder or simply a mortar and pestle which is what is found in most kitchens in the Middle East.

Spices are not only used to add flavor and taste to food but they are also used to color food, and typical example of that would be rice dishes.

A typical example of that would be "Baqiyah" which is a dish made from rice and leftovers. Most people will recognize this dish as the Spanish paella. The Spanish Paella has its origins in the Arabic world and was brought to Spain by the Moors over 1200 years ago.

How spices came to the Middle East

All bazaars or souks in Cairo Egypt are packed with spice traders, stalls and merchants. Many traders have their own blends and mixes but they all have fantastic stocks of herbs and spices. Many herbs and spices are still used for medicinal purposes in the MiIddle East and you will find that your local spice and herbal specialist will have a wealth of knowledge of herbs and spices. A large part of the joy of shopping with a spice specialist is listening to the story of each spice or herb, the history of its origins, how it used and what health problems it can treat. These traders really do have a wealth of knowledge, and it is worthwhile spending some extra time talking to them. You might even get invited for a cup of sweet tea. Stories and verbal communication is still worth its weight in gold in the souks of Cairo, and many of the stories have been passed down through the generations.

Many of the herbs and spices which we see for sale today were also for sale thousands of years ago thanks to the great caravans which used to travel the Arabian deserts with merchandise from India and as far as way as China. Some of the most treasured spices and herbs are still Frankincense and Myrrh. Saffron can still be bought in bulk and an average week supply will cost you a few pence. I know it is very expensive outside the Middle East but here it is a daily essential and we even make a tea from Saffron and Ginger when we have a cold.

Tomatoes and rosemary

 A sweet Egyptian cherry tomato and Rosemary fighting for space. To give you an idea of cost of spices the rosemary cost about 20 cents
A sweet Egyptian cherry tomato and Rosemary fighting for space. To give you an idea of cost of spices the rosemary cost about 20 cents | Source

Step into Alibaba's spice cupboard and pantry


Spices and herbs are either bought in bulk or on a weekly basis. Saffron is one of the herbs which is bought more often and the small strands are lovingly added to a small bag for you. You may not add saffron to all recipes but it is very popular in rice dishes.

There are however an an official top ten of spices and herbs which you should keep in your spice cupboard or spice pantry.

1) Garlic - fresh garlic is is used every day and I think I sometimes eat garlic from early morning to late at night. Garlic is actually used quite sparingly in most dishes but it is used in every one so even my morning tahini or hummus on toast has garlic in it.

2) Cumin - cumin is used in rice dishes. It is very strong spice and a little goes along way so be careful with this spice.

3) Nutmeg is used when cooking meat but can also be found added to bread. In the West nutmeg is mainly used in desserts but here in the East it is a bit of all round spice.

4) Cardamom - if you have ever been to an Arabic coffee house you would have tasted Cardamom without knowing it. It is added as a ground spice to coffee and it is what gives the coffee here in Egypt its distinct flavor. It is also used for desserts and cakes, and we will be making a cake with cardamom as one of its ingredients in Ali Baba's kitchen.

5) Tumeric - this is found in so many dishes, It goes great with vegetables and meat but don't wear white when you cook with tumeric. This spice really stains and it is impossible to remove.

6) Sumac is a sour spice and a popular substitute for lemons. Not all spice traders sell this spice so you need to find one that does. It is a very ancient spice and was used as a healing herb to treat arthritis.

7) Baharat - this is an Arabic word and means mixed spices. All traders have their own special blends so depending on what you are cooking you need to see you "Spice specialist". Alternatively you can let him know what you are going to be cooking, and a blend will be made up for you. Seba Baharat is a spice mix available in supermarkets and it means seven spices.

8) Caraway - this is one of the most popular spices in Egypt, and found in many dishes. It is spicy but I think it still has a slightly sweet flavor.

9) Aniseed - this is probably one of the world's oldest spices. used in drinks, makes a great tea and if you suffer indigestion it really helps.

10) Chillies - the Egyptian love chillies and is used in dishes to give them both flavor and color.


On sale you will also find fresh spices such as parsley, dill and rosemary. Most of them are bought as small pot plants and grown on at home so that they are readily available. Ginger is also considered a fresh herb and can be bought almost everywhere. It is more commonly used during the winter but ginger tea is very popular during the summer and often drunk cool.

It is important to know how to store your herbs and spices. Cairo Egypt is blazingly hot sometimes and finding a cool place to store your spices can be difficult.

As so many of the spices are used not only to flavor food but also to color food it is important to not late the spices fade. I store mine inside a dark cupboard, and most of them are hanging on the inside of the door in my homemade spice rack.

Here in Cairo Egypt most spices are sold by weight and put into small bags which makes it easier to store them.

My fresh spices such as Rosemary are grown on my balcony, and I even grow my own lemon grass which is great for rice dishes during the summer months. Spices and herbs fight for space between tomatoes and other home grown vegetables on my balcony garden.

Halloumi Cheese

Many of you may have heard of halloumi cheese as it is not only used in cooking in the Middle east but also in Greece.

Its origin can be traced back to the early Beduin tribes, and it used to be an essential part of the Beduin diet. Now it has become part of Arabic food culture and is sold in supermarkets.

Modern halloumi cheese differs slightly from the original cheese which was made by the beduin. It was first of all only maded by suing goat's milk but cow's milk has now been introduced, and there is a bit of a difference in taste. The cheese is still just set with rennet, and normally no starter cultures are added.

It takes a lot of heat to melt halloumi cheese, and it is a great cheese to grill or fry. When grilled it turns crispy and golden brown. Another advantage of halloumi cheese is that it absorbs flavors easily, and popular herbs to add to this wonderful cheese are mint, rosemary, garlic and chilli.

A popular current proverb
A popular current proverb | Source

Arab proverbs

All Arab cultures love proverbs and you see them everywhere.
This is one which is very popular at the moment after the regime change in Egypt. Lots of people are looking to the future but the road to get there is going to be long and hard.

Recently Egypt lost a large portion of its bread subsidy and for a poor country that is not very good news. We are also coping with power outages, and even the lights at Cairo's international airport has gone out a couple of times.

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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Great article on the spices and the shops. Nutmeg in meat is new to me, but if you do it, I'll try it too. Thanks for lots of good information and all the best to you!