A. wanted to make the Fish in Coconut Sauce recipe from my last blog, but didn’t have any coriander powder. She wanted to know if she could substitute it with another spice.
A specific spice, like coriander, cannot be substituted with just another spice. Each spice has its own unique medicinal property – be it preservative, astringent, digestive, or antibacterial, as well as its own aroma. When the spices are combined, the aromatics act as flavor enhancers and work together to add depth to a dish.
However, note that a recipe will sometimes specifically label a spice as optional. This “optional” spice is used in negligible amounts and does not affect the overall flavor of that dish, in which case it can be omitted from the recipe. Alternatively, you can swap spices as long as you stay within the same family of spices. For example, if the recipe asks for black mustard seeds (available in ethnic stores), you can replace them with yellow mustard seeds (found in all grocery stores). They might lack the piquancy of the black mustard seeds, but they are in the same family of flavors. Cassia bark is cheaper than its distant relative, cinnamon, but it is coarser and less aromatic. Similarly, green chilies can be replaced by jalapeno, serrano, or scotch bonnet – depending on your tolerance for heat!
A spice can be a bark (cinnamon), the stigmas of a flower (saffron), a bud (pepper) a fruit (nutmeg), a seed (mustard), or an underground stem or rhizome (ginger). Herbs are the leaves and young stems of a plant, and in some cases, the leaves (coriander/cilantro) grow on a spice plant.
The use of spices and herbs started out in culinary history to flavor and preserve food at its optimum best at a time when refrigeration was uncommon. Spices and herbs continue to offer health benefits, keep food pathogens in check, and add zest to everyday foods. Herbs, like spices, were added to a dish because of their medicinal properties and fragrance. Tried and tested herb and meat combination such as rosemary and lamb, sage and sausage, or veal, basil and tomatoes have been passed down through the ages. As herbs are usually added toward the end of cooking, there is a little more flexibility with substituting herbs. However, it is important to choose similar flavors. Both rosemary and oregano have strong flavors, and work well with the equally bold flavors of meat or poultry. Chives are in the onion family and can replace leeks in egg dishes. Marjoram is a relative of oregano, and can replace oregano for milder flavored tomato-based sauces. Both rosemary and sage have a minty flavor, and can be used interchangeably with poultry dishes. If the herbs are added to a dish during cooking or are part of a marinade, stick to the recommended herbs in the recipe. Flat-leaf parsley and thyme can stand up to heat, and some herbs like bay leaf and sage develop spicier or deeper tones as they dry, so substituting a herb could result in unexpected outcomes.
Some common spice and herb mixes include Indian (garam masala, panch phoron, kaala masala, goda masala), Chinese (five-spice powder), Mexican chili powder, Ethiopian (bebere), Italian herbs, French (quatre-épices, herbes de provence, boquet garni), as well as mixed (pudding) spice, pumpkin pie spice mix, and mulling spices.
To summarize my answer to A.: Generally, omission is better than substitution. But, when whole spices can be purchased inexpensively and stored for long periods, and fresh herbs can be grown on a windowsill, why not use the originals?!