World flavours the healthy way

Want to add international flavours to your food? It can be easy to simply buy a ready-made sauce or spice paste, but these are often more expensive and can be high in salt and/or fat, so combining your own herbs and spices is a better way to go. We’ve got some easy steps to get you started with spicing up your cookery.

Mediterranean flavours

Piri-piri chicken 

For a simple Mediterranean herb and spice mix, you can combine parsley, basil, oregano, fennel seeds, garlic powder and finely grated lemon rind. You can use this mix to rub onto meat and poultry or to add into spaghetti bolognese, soups, salads or tomato-based dishes. Simply adding oregano to a tomato-based sauce or salad adds a taste of sunnier climes.

Dill is popular in Greek cooking and can be added to vegetables and salads. Dill or mint taste equally good in tzatziki, the classic Greek dip which you can make in minutes with low-fat Greek yoghurt, grated cucumber and some crushed garlic.

Find more inspiration in our Mediterranean meals interactive.

A taste of North Africa

Moroccan-spiced carrot soup

Cumin, cinnamon, coriander and paprika are key spices to get you started with Moroccan or Tunisian cuisine. They can be added to meat and vegetable tagines and stews. Saffron, a yellow spice, adds colour and a subtle perfume to rice and couscous.

Tunisian food is generally more spicy than the rest of North Africa. Harissa is a traditional Tunisian chilli paste including roasted peppers, chilli, coriander, garlic, caraway and cumin, but usually has salt added, so check the ingredients or consider making your own.

Indian spice

Curried green bananas 

There are different Indian regional cuisines, but key spices include cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom and chilli pepper. Used in different combinations, they can flavour sweet or savoury dishes.

Garam masala is used in many recipes. Although you can buy it pre-mixed, it’s easy to make your own by combining coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamon seeds, black peppercorns, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, cloves, chilli seeds and turmeric. It can be used to flavour curries and marinades and you can experiment with the intensity of flavours and spice.

A taste of China

Chinese chicken with lime, ginger & cashew nuts 

Chinese food has been named Britain’s most popular takeaway, but the good news is you can make your favourite dish at home, with less salt and fat. Diversity of colour, as well as aromatic flavour are important in Chinese dishes. Star anise, cinnamon, ginger, garlic and chilli can enhance the aromatic flavour in Chinese cuisine. Chinese five-spice powder can be bought ready-made, and is useful in Vietnamese as well as Chinese cooking. It often includes more than five spices, typically star anise, cinnamon, fennel, cloves, nutmeg, Sichuan pepper and ginger.

Soy sauce is a popular Chinese condiment, but is usually high in salt, so choose a reduced-salt version or leave it out and add extra spices instead.

Cook it Thai style

Thai turkey stir-fry  

Lemongrass, coriander leaves, cumin, and lime zest can be added to give soups, stir fries and curries a Thai twist. Galangal is a Thai spice similar to ginger – if you can’t get hold of it, use fresh root ginger instead. Kaffir lime leaves taste best if you can get them fresh rather than dried – substitute zest of a lime if you can’t get hold of them.

Thai basil is usually used fresh, rather than dried, and has a more aniseed flavour than Mediterranean basil. If you can’t buy it, it is easy to grow your own from seed – it will do fine in a container on a windowsill or outdoors after the danger of frost has passed.

Coconut milk is a popular ingredient in Thai cooking, but is high in saturated fat, so go for a reduced-fat version if you are using this.

Mexico and South America

Beef and bean burritos  

The most commonly used spices include garlic, oregano, cumin and chilli powder. They can be rubbed into meat, added to tomatoes to make salsa, or added to stir-fried meat and vegetables.

Shop-bought fajita and taco kits are popular, but most contain added salt, and are expensive. It’s easy to make your own spice mix for fajitas or Mexican stir-fries by combining chilli powder, paprika, garlic powder, and cumin. Note that tacos (the crispy shells) are usually fried, so soft flour tortillas are a healthier option – you can warm these in the oven, microwave, or a dry frying pan.


Jamaican jerk marinade with prawns 

Characterised by sweet and fiery flavours, traditional spices include paprika, thyme, Scotch bonnet chilli, and jerk seasoning. Ready-made jerk seasoning usually has salt added, but it’s easy to make your own by combining cinnamon, allspice, peppercorns, thyme, nutmeg and cayenne or chilli. Spices can be rubbed dry or as a marinade on poultry or meat before roasting, grilling or barbequing.

Try adding your home-made jerk seasoning to a stew or casserole of chicken (or beans) and vegetables with chopped tinned tomatoes.

More useful information