Hardly will you eat a typical African food that doesn’t contain African spices and herbs. What is even more fascinating is the processing of herbs and spices for use. Although these spices have numerous uses, they are mostly used in soups.
Africans living in the diaspora who love to use these local spices face the challenge of finding where to purchase them. Have a look at ten popular African spices and their uses. We will also point you to where you will find them.
#1. Saffron (Get it here)
Saffron spice is obtained from the Saffron praesidium, a plant cultivated by the Moroccans living around Taliouine mountain village. The government and some NGOs support the cultivators. The farmers gather the flowers between the months of October and November. The gathering is done early in the morning before the flowers open.
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Once collected, the flowers are stored in a cold room, where the stigmas are separated from the rest of the flowers. Even though the flowers are not as beautiful as roses, their redeeming feature is the unique, unforgettable aroma. African spices from saffron have two main uses namely;
- Making medicine that can treat asthma, whooping cough, and reduction of phlegm
- To add yellow food coloring and flavoring
#2. Mau Forest Dried Nettles (Get it here)
Farmers in and around the Mau Forest region have been domesticating wild stinging nettles for their edible leaves. Hitherto, the communities around Mau forest in Rift Valley, Kenya, gather nettles leaves and use them as herbs.
Some Kenyan cuisines have nettle leaves as one of their major ingredients. Although the new generation has little knowledge regarding the use of nettle leaves as herbs, there is a growing group of health-conscious individuals who are taking it up.
To make African spices after harvesting the nettle leaves, immerse them in water to reduce their stinging effect. It is a bad idea to touch the nettles when they have just been plucked. Call it a distant cousin of poison ivy and you won’t be wrong.
Subsequently, the leaves are dried—but not under the sun. Drying is done in the shades to maintain its green color. Once dried, the leaves are ground into powder. This powder carries a premium price tag due to its various uses which include;
- As one of the potent African spices in various recipes such as mukimo. A Kenyan meal that is made by mashing beans, maize, and potatoes in a single pot
- The preparation of millet porridge where it counts as the best dietary supplement among breastfeeding mothers
- Some people have found a way to make nettle-powder tea
The powder is widely sold in local markets, but that is probably not going to work for you. Your best bet for African spices is most likely through online retailers.
#3. Alnif Cumin (Get it here)
Alnif Cumin is one of the African spices used in Moroccan cuisines. It got its name from a village of the same name, Alnif, that plants cumin predominantly. The cumin plant itself originated from Asia and is popular for its great aroma and quality. The spice is prized depending on how aromatic it is and the amount of zest it leaves on the taste buds.
The cumin plant is usually harvested before it completely ripens. This ensures that no seeds are lost. The method also helps to maintain the green color. Once the cumin is harvested, it is first dried in a shade before it is beaten to release the seeds. Subsequently, the farmers sieve out the dust and other materials collected together with the seeds.
The packaging may differ but the content is always the same. The shelf life of these dried leaves can go up to two years. The seeds are crushed by the use of a traditional mill to obtain the Alnif Cumin powder. African spices made from Alnif Cunim can be used for;
- The preparation of traditional soups
- The preparation of tajine and couscous
- Seasoning meat and vegetables
- Treatment of colds and coughs
#4. Mitmita (Get it here)
Mitmita is an Ethiopian spice that is red-orange in color and a bit coarse to the touch. The spice is crazy hot and aromatic as well. There are variations in dishes among the different groups of Ethiopians.
People use the spice in bringing out the best taste in vegetables, meat dishes, and stews. This is one of the African spices that is useful in seasoning raw lean beef dishes. It is made from blending several other African spices together.
The spice leaves a hot zingy taste and a rich aroma. You can also combine Mitmita with Berbere to make a delightful spice used as a table condiment.
#5. Ras el hanout (Get it here)
Ras el hanout is an Arabic term that translates literally to ‘head of the shop’ that in an actual sense means the top of a shelf. In Morocco, a grocery shop without this spice may as well fold. Preparation of the spice is by blending the best available ingredients.
You can at times make this blend from over 50 individual African spices. The most common Ras el hanout spice is made from around eight spices which include salt, cumin, coriander, black pepper, ginger, allspice, and cinnamon. It is useful in the flavoring of roasted chicken and lamb burgers.
#6. Berbere (Get it here)
Berbere is a deep blend of hot African spices that is popular among Ethiopian cuisines. There are different versions of the spice in use. Some versions of this spice include the use of the unpopular nigella seeds and korarima. However, there are spices that are common in the blend from where it derives their hot, highly aromatic taste, and bright red color.
You can use this in meat, chicken, and fish as a rub. The spice is also useful in seasoning soups and vegetable stews. Berbere is a delightful spice that acts as a central ingredient on most Ethiopian tables. It stands out as one of the most unique African spices.
#7. Peri-Peri (Get it here)
Peri-Peri is a South African spice whose name originated from the Swahili word pili pili which means pepper. South African cooks use this ingredient to add heat to their serving. These African spices have moderate heat with a savory and glassy flavor.
You can make the spice by blending pepper alongside other ingredients such as lemon peels, paprika, and black pepper. It is used in the seasoning of trinchado, a spicy beef dish introduced by the Portuguese settlers.
#8. Za’atar (Get it here)
Za’atar is a spice that originated from the Middle East—and is very common in Egypt. You can make this spice by blending several African spices together. Choose a flavor depending on the type of spice you like.
Many people would combine toasted sesame seeds, thyme, dried oregano, sumac, and marjoram. Other people go the extra mile to add salt to the blend. The spice is valuable for flavoring chicken, eggs, and yogurt, among other foods. Foods containing za’atar have exciting tastes and feel special to savor.
#9. Xawaash (Get it here)
Xawaash is a proprietary spice made by blending fived different African spices together. The spices that make up Xawaash include turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin seeds, and coriander. It can be used for seasoning all kinds of meat including beef, pork, fish, and poultry products. When used as a rub, it will mix with the natural fats contained in the meat to give off an irresistible flavor.
Xawaash is 100% organic and doesn’t contain preservatives and additives. This is because the constituent ingredients are dried to a moisture safe content which makes them resistant to spoilage organisms. Interestingly, some manufacturers have found a way of producing this African spice in the United States.
#10. Eware Spice (Get it here)
Also known as Iru, this is one of the African spices that traces its roots to Nigeria. Fermenting the final spice that comes from these seeds gives it a strong pleasant aroma. It is a staple in both West and Central Africa.
Eware makes an appearance in most West African dishes, especially in Ghana and Nigeria. The spice is predominantly used in soups, vegetables, and meat stews. Eware (or Iru, depending on which name is more endearing) has two notable features, namely;
- Has several medicinal values
- Rich in protein and natural fats, hence, adds a deep flavor to any sweet dish
The only downside of this spice is that its method of preparation is slowly losing fame. Therefore, there is the danger that it may go extinct.
Even though these are some of the best African spices around the continent, there are many more. Unsure of how to use them? Visit the African Vibes Recipe Page to see various foods where they have been called into action.
It would be fun to hear about your cooking adventure and what you think about these African spices. Do you have any special spice from your region? Feel free to share with us using the comment option below.