Swahili Spices and Seasonings

The cuisine of coastal East Africa is characterized by seafood, rice, couscous, and chicken dishes that are boldly seasoned with chiles and a bright palette of spices—many of them originally brought over from Asia by Arab traders centuries ago—and often tempered by the flavor of coconut.

byBen Mims| PUBLISHED Apr 6, 2010 8:00 AM
Swahili Spices and Seasonings

1. Cumin seeds are often cracked to release their earthy flavor before being added to celebratory meat and rice dishes, as well as to slow-simmered vegetable dishes like stewed kidney beans (see ** Stewed Kidney Beans**).

2. Ground turmeric lends a mellow spiciness and vibrant yellow color to East African sauces and to curries like chicken stewed in coconut milk (see ** Chicken Stewed in Coconut Milk**).

3. Grated coconut is a cornerstone of Swahili cooking; cooks mix the meat with water to extract fresh coconut milk, which is often used to balance spicy, hot flavors in dishes like ginger crab (see ** Ginger Crab**).

4. Curry powder—a blend of ground spices that's usually sold at East African markets in small packets—allows cooks to add a burst of multidimensional flavor to marinades, curries, and stews.

5. Fresh tamarind—often soaked, seeded, and mashed into a paste, a product that can be bought in blocks and jars at markets—has a sour-sweet flavor that's crucial to Swahili grilled preparations like grilled whole fish with tamarind (see** Grilled Whole Fish with Tamarind**).

6. Coriander seeds, a principal seasoning in spiced beef flatbread (see ** Spiced Beef Flatbread**), provide a vividly aromatic character to all kinds of foods.