Exotic Spices to use with Singaporean Dishes

Exotic Spices that will tempt your local palate!

Exotic Middle Eastern spices are slowly making their descent in Singapore. We’re slowly but surely moving towards the Middle Eastern influences in food, giving the herbs and spices from the more traditional souks a chance in Singapore. Personally, I cannot get enough of Hummus and Babaganoush – two dips from the Middle East that are great with toasted pita bread (or in my opinion, anything and everything). But its not just exotic dishes that we should be adventurous in trying, it should be the spices, as well.

To take it a step further, I embarked on exploring how these spices can be used in Singaporean dishes. Locally, we love our Char Kway Teow, Prata or Mee Goreng. But here’s my question: how different will these local classics taste if we meddle with the recipes slightly and add a little harrissa in place of sambal blachan?

When I say exotic, I don’t quite mean the deep-forested interiors of Africa (though that’s where Argan Oil comes  from and we don’t hate that). The Middle East has long had its own methodology of cooking, including marinating its meat with an interesting combination of spices and fruits (yes, fruits) unique to its geographical location. When viewing food through geographical lens, we can easily conclude that people are very enterprising when it comes to the food they eat. When life gives them lemons, they use its juice to marinate chicken. When they find pomegranates in abundance, they pair it with some lamb. While the latter maybe a combination we haven’t quite come across, it can be more than commonplace in some parts of the world.

With increased affluence (and some very well placed television shows on TLC), exotic spices are available in Singapore now. Cold Storage Supermarket stocks quite a bit of these spices (all jarred in beautiful glass bottles), while Mustafa carries others that we can’t quite find around the country. Here are 3 spices that are just awesome and should get you started on your Middle Eastern spice journey in the kitchen:


Sumac is a bushy plant from the Middle East. The berries of the plant (which are highly poisonous when fresh) are sun dried and ground into a powder to be used in cooking. Sumac has a distinctly sourish taste, although its flavour is not as sharp as lemon juice. Besides flavour, Sumac adds a lovely deep cherry red colour to dishes, making it a popular spice to sprinkle atop hummus and other dips to create depth and contrast. Sumac is best consumed when sprinkled over salads, grilled meats and vegetables. I wouldn’t pair this with seafood – fish and prawns react better to lemon zest and juice than they do with this pungent powder.

In Singapore, you can find Sumac in Cold Storage as well as Mustafa Shopping Centre. You can also try speciality stores in Geylang.


Harissa is the Arabian cousin to the Asian Sambal Belachan. Made by grinding together roasted (spicy) chillies, olive oil, garlic and spices such as cumin and caraway seeds, harissa packs quite a punch for those looking to spice up their local palate with something other than sambal. Harissa is great when stirred through some yogurt to make a spicy sour dip. If you’re more adventurous, harissa can be used in everything from fish to chicken and meat as a delicious marinade. You can also use a spoonful of it to spice up your soup or a teeny drop of it on some salmon and cream cheese delicately built on a cracker. I like beating a teaspoon of Harissa into a couple of eggs before frying them – the result is lovely. Although you can get store-bought Harissa, making it on your own is not too challenging, according to My Singapore Kitchen.


This is a highly subjective spice – it changes composition from one area of the Middle East to another, depending on the type of spice that’s most prevalent in that specific region. An interesting spice blend made of herbs (including some sumac) and even dried rose petals; Za’atar is perfect as a dry condiment for salads. In fact, the popular Fattoush Salad features Za’atar as a main component. However, the very original version of Za’atar should contain four prime ingredients: Salt, Sumac, Sesame Seeds and the dried Za’atar herb, which originates from Zawtar, Lebanon. So, what is Za’atar spice, you ask? It’s wild thyme, people. If you’re looking to Za’atar in Singapore, try Cold Storage – they are now beginning to stock a range of Middle Eastern spices, which I find positively delightful.

I normally marinate chicken pieces in Za’atar, salt and olive oil (and perhaps lemon juice, depending on my mood) and roast it 2 hours later. The chicken turns out tender and juicy. You can add vegetables (such as carrots and potatoes) to this, if you like. The Kitchn has an awesome list of recipes you can borrow for your next Za’atar dish, as well.

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