Kitchen Herbs & Spices for Tropical Dishes

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Living in the tropics we not only enjoy a fantastic climate and an incomparable way of life. The tropics enchant with unique flavors – in everyday life as well as in tropical cuisine. So, for example, if you stroll through the colorful alleys of a Central American village and literally follow your nose, you can discover the most amazing things.

The local cuisine enchants with intense spices such as coriander, saffron, vanilla, cinnamon, coconut and lemongrass. Inevitably, we are then surrounded by wonderful scents that turn even simple dishes into true culinary delights.

Tropical spices enable us to experience exotic cultures from a completely new, sensual perspective. But we don’t necessarily have to ask for a table in a specialty restaurant. Those who like to wield their own wooden spoons at home can easily surround themselves with some of the most delicious kitchen spices and herbs from the tropics and sub-tropics. And there are no limits to your own creativity: some of the classics from grandmother’s time can be spiced up and adapted with the appropriate spice from the tropics.

Sunshine and intense flavors

Central America, Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines or even Central Africa – all these regions exert a certain magic on us. A touch of the exotic beckons. But we don’t necessarily have to get on a plane to experience some of the special features of these fascinating countries. Instead, in our (own) kitchen we can discover the benefits of the tropics with all our senses in no time at all.

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The freshest herbs and spices are those that you grow in your own garden. Image: © Markus Spiske

Exotic herbs and spices, meanwhile, not only provide powerful aromas and unique flavors, but promise a culinary adventure at the stove. While many spices can be cultivated and used as fresh plants directly in one’s own kitchen, international markets present us with the choice between dried, ground or even untreated spices and herbs directly from different countries. For a long time, we were only able to choose between classics such as ginger or cayenne pepper. Now, saffron, vanilla, cinnamon, lemongrass, coriander or cloves are also part of the repertoire and can be used in a variety of ways.

Cooking for the senses

From the now world-famous basmati rice with curry to spicy ginger coconut soups from Asia to fiery pepper sauces from Central America – kitchen spices add that certain something to feasting and accompany us on a culinary journey across the globe.

While we have probably already tried the local tropical cuisine in all its facets in our place of residence, we should not miss the opportunity to also use such spices that are used in other tropical countries.

Central America, Colombia and Brazil in particular delight our palates with a veritable fireworks display of flavors. In Colombia, for example, the typical fiery sauce made from cayenne pepper is an indispensable part of the meal. In combination with fresh coconut flakes or coconut oil, unique dishes can be created. Those who want to try Colombian cuisine and typical dishes for themselves are faced with an enormous choice of dishes: chicken, meat, fish or seafood to experiment with.

sancocho-colombia
Sancocho is a Colombian dish, the flavour of which can be varied using different spices. Image: © Jeser Andrade Arango

Meanwhile, one of the most famous dishes from the region is probably the classic Sancocho – a fantastic dish made of plantains, yuca, rice and – most definitely – fresh coconut. If you want to round off this exotic menu with a special herb, you should dare to reach for fresh cilantro. This herb promises to transform any dish, no matter how simple, into a revelation, not only in terms of color but also in terms of taste.

I still remember the first time I tried a dish with cilantro. Because not only in Colombia, but in all of Central America, cilantro is part of the standard equipment for cooking. The at first glance rather inconspicuous plant, has a lot to offer. Like a wake-up call, it adds freshness and energy to rice dishes, soups and fresh juices.

So, for example, if you stroll through one of those Latin American street markets in search of new revelations, fresh fruits and vegetables, or a treat or two, you will undoubtedly discover cilantro. Take the opportunity and take some of this fantastic spice home with you. The application possibilities are numerous and once you have acquired a taste for this spice, you won’t want to miss it.

And traditional Brazilian cuisine is no less tasty: On the one hand thanks to coriander and on the other hand thanks to all the fresh ingredients that especially local chefs know how to use. The typical Brazilian fish stew Moqueca baiana from the Brazilian north entices with an incomparable mixture of chili, coriander and coconut. Bright colors and intense flavors on the plate then let us taste something of the local savoir vivre with each bite. If you still haven’t had enough (coconut), you should treat yourself to a Quindim for dessert – the juicy Brazilian coconut cake – without question a must for all foodies!

saffron-spice
Saffron is an expensive spice but it imparts a unique flavour to dishes. Image: © Mohammad Amiri

But of course the list of typical kitchen spices and herbs for tropical dishes does not end with coriander, chili and cayenne pepper. Saffron – probably the most valuable spice in the world – is also used time and again in tropical dishes. Especially in the Arab countries this highly priced crocus plant gives rice dishes their unmistakable flavor.

Nevertheless, rice may be diligently tasted and spiced – not only with saffron. Combinations of cinnamon and bay leaves, coriander, spicy ginger and cardamom, cumin and paprika or fresh cloves playfully transform traditional dishes such as woks or soups into a journey of discovery for the palate. And these traditionally tropical spices also make a great addition to modern treats like fresh smoothies. Give them a try!

Coriander is also an essential ingredient in fresh fish dishes such as ceviche. While this delicacy is increasingly being prepared in Peru, fish and seafood “cooked” in freshly squeezed lemon juice also make for special moments and unique dishes in Central America. If you want to spice things up even more, you can use lemongrass in addition to the lemon juice, which is used generously anyway.

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Coriander is used a lot in Central American and Vietnamese cooking. Image: © restyledliving

Further sweet classics such as flan and rice pudding may not be missing in Latin America. And here, too, spices are traditionally added. As a self-confessed fan of vanilla and cinnamon, I personally hardly go a week without one of these two delicacies. The caramel pudding, which is typical for all of Central and South America, only develops its full flavor with a little vanilla.

And especially on hot days, fresh rice pudding with cinnamon and vanilla beans simply can’t be missing in my kitchen. While I enjoy the sugary treats, these two spices have a particularly invigorating and anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Thus, vanilla and cinnamon are a must-have in the kitchen!

Nevertheless, there’s no reason to just stick to existing dishes and recipes and recreate tropical dishes one-to-one. Get creative and combine typical ingredients such as couscous, poultry, lamb, sweet potatoes, plantains and much more to your heart’s content. After all, there’s no accounting for taste.

Especially in the kitchen and when it comes to gastronomy, the following applies: Trying things out is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. If you enjoy eating, challenging your palate and trying out new things, you should not do without a range of tropical spices in the kitchen.

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