Readers, especially those new to Primal eating, frequently request quick and easy ideas for ancestral cooking. While new recipes may be inspiring, sometimes expanding your kitchen repertoire doesn’t require whole new meals—but new flavors you can infuse into multiple recipes you’ve already mastered. More than just another ingredient to extend the cooking process, herbs and spices are quick, inexpensive additions that can literally transform just about any Primal meal. Parsley and cinnamon need no introduction, but how well acquainted are you with sumac and fenugreek? When was the last time you added lemon balm or Mexican oregano to a recipe?
Here are 8 herbs and spices to add a new burst of flavor to your Primal cooking. They’re easier to use and more versatile than you might think. Most can be found in the spice aisle or produce department of regular grocery stores, but a few might require visiting a specialty market or online shop.
Dried Mexican Oregano
Most of the dried oregano sold in the spice aisle is Mediterranean. Finding Mexican oregano takes more effort, but it’s worth it. The flavor is similar to Mediterranean oregano, but more complex, with hints of citrus. Most importantly, it’s bolder than dried Mediterranean oregano, so it can stand out in highly spiced dishes like chili. To release the most flavor, crush the dried leaves of Mexican oregano between your fingers when sprinkling it into a recipe. Try Mexican oregano in this recipe for sweet potato chili.
Use dried Mexican oregano to flavor: chili, beef roasts, shellfish, chicken, salsa, soup, any Mexican or Tex-Mex recipes calling for oregano
Pairs well with: chili powder, basil, chives, cumin, thyme
Ground coriander is a staple in many spice racks (often next to cumin), but whole coriander seeds should definitely be in the spice rack, too. A little bit perfumed, floral and citrusy, the seeds add a unique burst of flavor that stands out much more than ground coriander does. Toast coriander seeds in a skillet with a little oil for a few minutes to release the flavor and aroma before incorporating the seeds into a dish or sprinkling them over food as a garnish. Try coriander seeds in this recipe for lamb stir-fry.
Use coriander seeds to flavor: roasted vegetables, lamb, pork, shrimp, cabbage, stir-fries, feta cheese, olives
Pairs well with: cumin, cinnamon, allspice, basil, cardamom, peppercorns
Dried Fenugreek Leaves
Not quite as aromatic as fenugreek seeds (which have the unmistakable scent of maple syrup) dried fenugreek leaves have a milder flavor that’s slightly sweet and herbal. Dried fenugreek is a secret ingredient that adds mysteriously delicious flavor. Try it in this recipe for lamb meatballs in coconut fenugreek sauce.
Use fenugreek to flavor: Recipes from India, the Middle East and North Africa, and also in tomato sauces, coconut milk soup or sauces, root vegetables, dark leafy greens, lamb, beef and chicken
Pairs well with: cumin, coriander, cardamom, fennel seeds and turmeric
Mustard seeds flavor pickles and are ground up to make mustard. The seeds can also add a crunchy burst of spicy, nutty flavor to dishes. Toast the seeds in a skillet with oil or butter for 1 to 2 minutes until the seeds begin to pop, then sprinkle them over a finished dish or salad. Look for either yellow/white seeds (mild) or brown mustard seeds (more pungent).
Use mustard seeds to flavor: salads, potatoes, cauliflower, roasted vegetables, onions, dark leafy greens, chicken, pork, fish, sour cream and yogurt
Pairs well with: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, turmeric, curry powder
Pink peppercorns add eye-catching color and warm heat to food. The flavor is often described as fruity, which makes sense since they’re actually dried berries and not true peppercorns. Pink peppercorns are best used in small amounts to add color and a pop of flavor. Pink peppercorns can be eaten whole or crushed with the flat side of a knife; they’re too soft for a pepper grinder.
Note: pink peppercorns may trigger an allergic response in people with allergies to tree nuts.
Use pink peppercorns as a garnish for: salad, meat (especially game), fish, and cream sauces or add to trail mix or fruit salad for a spicy kick
Pairs well with: ginger, lemongrass
Sumac is not subtle. It adds bright red color and tart, lemony flavor to everything it touches. It’s the spice equivalent of squirting lemon juice on food to brighten up the flavor. Sumac is usually added as a finishing touch to food just before serving. It’s a little bit addictive, making everything taste brighter and bolder. Try it in this recipe for yogurt dressing and turkey kefta.
Use sumac to flavor: raw and cooked vegetables (Try it with Turkish salad), beets, yogurt dressing, lamb, seafood
Pairs well with: thyme, coriander, cumin, chili peppers, mint, marjoram
The lemony, minty aroma and flavor of this herb is most often used in tea; just pour hot water over the leaves. Finely chopped lemon balm can also add fresh flavor to salads, chicken and seafood. Lemon balm doesn’t just taste good, it has historically been used to reduce anxiety and lower stress.
Use lemon balm to flavor: Seafood, vegetables, chicken, tea
Pairs well with: Mint, basil, dill
Thai basil is similar to sweet basil in flavor, but definitely different. The licorice flavor is more pronounced, and there’s a citrusy flavor in there as well. Predominately used in South Asian dishes, the flavor of Thai basil is best if the basil is served raw or gently wilted, so add it at the very end of cooking.
Use Thai basil to flavor: Vietnamese and other South Asian dishes, stir-fries, coconut milk (soups, sauces and curries), sweet peppers, salad, fish, beef
Pairs well with: cilantro, cumin, coriander, fish sauce, ginger, lemongrass, mint, turmeric
Which of these do you use (or would like to) in your cooking? Other herbs and spices you’d recommend for Primal dishes—share them below. Thanks for reading today.