Food display at Wafa's Mediterranean Restaurant.

The Empty Plate | The Spice Alphabet A-L

 by Debra Calhoun

Hello, Spiceologists!

My name is Debra Calhoun. I am a GrandMa, mother and food visionary. Of the many hats that I wear, one of my passions is food. I collect African and African American regional cookbooks. My goal with this column is to support food diversity in our area. We are fortunate to have a United Nations right outside our doorstep. I want everyone to be expert Spiceologists—able to source out and use spices and herbs to make food exciting.

I am not a doctor, but I know that better health and a good diet go hand in hand. In the United States, we are overweight, have children who are overweight, and the leading cause of death is heart disease. Food-related illnesses, to me, mean that deliberate food choices can put us on the path to better health. We can dictate how we live. We have to take risks and work with things that may initially be unfamiliar to us. 

Foods high in fat, salt and sugar, are known risks. I know our grandparents raised us on these foods, but the conditions are different now. We don’t work 12-18 hours a day to burn off those calories. We have sedentary lives, our kids are couch potatoes… we can do better. We will do better. The less reliant we are on salt and fat, the better our food and our bodies will be.

Today’s spice journey takes us through the first part of the alphabet. 


Aniseed: Distinct licorice notes.  

(Star)Anise: A star-shaped savory spice used in mulled ciders, poached fruits and Asian stews.  

Annato seed: Often called the “poor man’s saffron” because of its distinct red color. Peppery undertones. 


Basil: Key to Italian dishes. The varieties here are endless: lemon, chocolate, pineapple, purple, Thai basil.  There are at least 15 varieties.  

Black Peppercorns: “The King of Spices” and workhorse of the kitchen. Comes in red and white varieties.  


Caraway: Great in soups and stews. Used to flavor meat dishes, potatoes and liqueurs. 

Cardamom: Used either whole with the pods bruised, or peeled open to use the seeds. Often referred to as the “Queen of Spices.” 

Celery seed: Found in salad dressings and pickled items.   

Chilies and chili: Chili ranges from 0 Scoville units (SHU), like the common green pepper, to 1,463,700 SHU for the Trinidad Scorpion pepper. Peppers are either “sweet” or “hot” varieties. Cayenne pepper is a mix of chili varieties. Wear gloves, and in some cases protective masks and eyewear, when using the volatile varieties.  The heat is in the seeds and white ribs running through the center. A general rule is the smaller, the hotter. Chilies come in both dried and fresh varieties. 


Dill: Used in pickled dishes, seafood dishes and starchy dishes.  


Fennel seed: Used in seafood dishes, liqueurs, sausage and salamis. 

Fenugreek: Related to the licorice root. Used in curry powders and spice blends. Popular to aid digestion and reduce inflammation. 


Galangal: Galangal is a rhizome related to ginger. It comes in “greater” and “lesser” varieties. Popular in Southeast Asian dishes.  

Garam Masala: A popular spice blend used in Northern India. 

Garlic: A global player. To soften its effects, roast whole heads, which makes the spice sweeter. Chop it fine for a stronger flavor. Leave it whole for a  softer, nuanced flavor.   

Ginger: Flavors sweet and savory dishes, teas, stews and desserts. When pickled, it is served with sushi and sashimi.  

Ginseng: Also a rhizome known for medicinal qualities and popular in energy drinks. In the Korean dish, samgyetang, it is the star. 


Horseradish: A root native to Northern Europe. Also has a Japanese counterpart. Used for its nasal-clearing effects in dips, and sauces that accompany seafood. Pairs well with potatoes. 


Juniper berries: A spicy citrus berry used in seafoods, sauerkraut, and cabbage. Used for gin distillation. 


Lemongrass: A grass cultivated for food and medicinal use. Used for flavoring soups stews, teas and spice pastes. Popular in Africa, Southeast Asia and Japan. Use the bulbous end and 3 inches of the stalk. 

Licorice root: Used in Africa and the Caribbean as a natural toothbrush. Chewing releases the natural sugars and freshens the breath. 

Some helpful hints: Buy small quantities of bulk spices. Use whole spices and herbs, then grind your own as you need them. Invest in a coffee grinder or visit your local ethnic grocery and purchase a mortar and pestle for grinding your spices. Both work equally well. Reuse sterilized, small-capped jars and containers to store your spices.  

Remember, Spiceologists, research any spice or herb listed to get more information about how to use them. THE resource for me is The Spice Bible by Jane Lawson. It has the origins of any given spice and basic recipes that make the spice shine. 

A beginning step for Spiceologists is to visit a market that you have never been to before. Our area has a growing international community. I have never been to a market where the owners and workers were not helpful. They are experts. Ask questions about how to use something, then take that item home and get in the kitchen lab to experiment. 

Remember, if your plate is empty, cook something.  

Local sources for fresh tubers, leaves and spices: 

Morrie’s International Market, 216 E. Cuyahoga Falls Ave., Akron

Far East Oriental Market, 738 E. Archwood Ave., Akron

Asian Market, 2419 State Rd., Cuyahoga Falls

Indian Grocery, 2619 Bailey Rd., Cuyahoga Falls

Sanabel Middle East Bakery, 308 E. South St., Akron

Contact Debra at  or visit her on Facebook at DesignsbyDebra Calhoun.