Maltese SPICES and HERBS


Traditional Maltese 

Spices and Herbs

When it comes to distinguishing herbs from spices we tend to confuse which is which. Indeed, while both spices and herbs are derived from plants, each of the two is distinguishable in various ways by many.

Some maintain that herbs are normally derived from the fleshy green parts of plants, while spices are derived from the roots, stalk, bark, seeds or fruit, very often dried up. But this is just a broad definition; there are instances when this is not the case.

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Others have defined herbs and spices somewhat differently. For instance for some, herbs are those plants that contain a moderately strong pleasant scent. Spices would include those dried pieces of plants that contain oils or that produce a distinct sharp flavour.

Some plants may actually be termed both as a spice as well as a herb. Take for instance, the fennel plant. This plant has its green leaves harvested and served as an aromatic herb. The Italians love to consume the leaves raw or else savoured as a condiment with a pasta dish such as penne with cream. Once the plant dries up in the summer months, its seeds can be flicked off from its dry twigs and collected to be used for seasoning on a variety of foods such as roast potatoes, fish and meat dishes. From such seeds are used as herbal infusions as a kind of tea – note that the term here is not a spicy infusion but herbal.

Others have provided other definitions to distinguish spices from herbs. For instance, in his book Dangerous Tastes, Andrew Dalby refers to spices as those dried plants that are preserved and traded across geographical distances. On the other hand, he states that herbs are those aromatic plants that are grown by gardeners. Such definition may have taken root (pun not intended) by historians when discussing medieval trade across continents, or else, by novelists who conjured romantic images of commercial desert caravans and maritime journeys undertaken throughout history. So the definition of both herbs and spices may cling, after all, to semantic rather than to a scientific fact.

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Spices have also been traditionally used to maintain the longevity of certain foods which would otherwise rot or else become bland and inedible by time. Sure enough, certain foods, such as meats when cured or sun-dried for months require spices to help them achieve a longer shelf life.

Whilst herbs have been traditionally regarded as condiments that go with daily food, often consumed by the poor, spices have been regarded as a commodity that enriched meals served on the tables of the more opulent. This has always been true of those spices that originated in faraway countries and whose price was therefore, prohibitive. Rarity and their exotic taste made spices fetch a better price.

One must also not forget that both herbs and spices were – and still are – used in medicine as ‘herbal’ remedies. The Maltese term spiżjar indeed comes from speziale, one who dealt in spezie, that is, spices, up to not so ancient times, a product that today is regarded as folk medicine.

The following aromatic herbs and spices are mentioned by D. Miège in his book L’Histoire de Malte (1841) as growing wild or else cultivated then. Miège was quoting the works of the Maltese doctor and naturalist Dr. Stefano Zerafa, Floree Melitensis Thesaurus, which had been compiled between 1827 – 1831:

– caper bush – cloves – coriander – sweet and chili peppers – black garlic / broad leaved leek – anise – wild leek – melissa – rosemary – lavander – sweet marjoram – black mustard – mint – bay laurel – myrtle – parsley – vanilla.

Hereunder are two lists, one of herbs, the other of spices and their usage. Both types of plants or their parts have been traditionally harvested by the Maltese for ages. Some of these grow locally in the wild and therefore have been consumed for hundreds of years. This is evinced by their semitic name. The more recent plants, that were or are still consumed and have an Italian or English sounding term are often imported.



Name in English Name in Maltese

Uses in cooking or seasoning


Medical uses Availability


Sc. n. Anaethum foeniculum

Bużbież Meat – fish – roast or boiled potatoes Good for stomach ailments Grows in the wild


Sc. n. Ocimum basilicum

Ħabaq Fish and meat dishes   Cultivated locally
Bay leaves


Sc. n. Laurus nobilis

Rand Sauces such as one that goes with rabbit dish  

Cultivated in Malta



Sc. n.  Matricaria recutita

Kamumilla   Stomach ailments mental relaxation. Tea infusion Grows in the wild


Sc. n. Capparis spinosa


Fish dishes and bread and bread sanwiches or ftira with tomato paste   Grows in the wild


Sc. n. Allium schoenoprasum 

Kurrat irqieq Popular with salads   Cultivated locally


Sc. N. Allium

Tewm Fried rabbit dish pasta and bruschetta

Good for healthy intestines

Cultivated locally



Sc. n. Allium cepa

Basla Fried or boiled with all sorts of food and sometimes eaten raw   Cultivated locally


Sc. n. mentha

Nagħniegħ Very popular with fish dishes and bread snacks, lamb.   Cultivated locally


Sc. n. Petroselinum crispum



Very popular with all dishes particularly fish dishes

  Cultivated locally


Sc. n. Rosmarinus officinalis


Many dishes amongst which chicken red neat and fish   Cultivated locally


Sc. n.  Salvia officinalis

Salvja Meat dishes   Cultivated locally
Sweet marjoram


Sc. n.  Origanum majorana


Good for meat and fish dishes

  Cultivated locally
Wild leek


Sc. n.

Allium porrum

Kurrat Same like onions   Grows in the wild but also cultivated locally

hwawar u exejjex




Sc. n. Pimpinella anisum

Ħlewwa Mixed with sweet dough rings (qagħaq)   Used to grow  in the wild now imported
Cinnamon Kannella Apple pie Christmas cake   Imported


Sc. n. Syzygium aromaticum

Msiemer tal-qronfol Very popular with foods and as tea infusion

Tooth aches and digestion



Sc. n. Coriandrum sativum

Kosbor To spice Maltese sausage   Used to grow in Malta – now imported
Curry (mixture of spices e.g. tumeric Trab tal-kari Very popular to spice various sauces   Imported
Fennel seed 


Sc. n. Anaethum foeniculum

Bużbież Used with food of all sorts, such as meats and fish dishes and roast potatoes Relieves stomach indigestion 

Grows in the wild

Black mustard


Sc. n. Sinapis nigra

Mustarda Meat dishes    Imported 


Sc. n. Lavandula angustifolia

Sombor   Very popular essential oils for relaxation Used to grow in Malta – now imported


Sc. n. Papaverum dubium

Żerriegħa tal-peprin Boiled or roast potatoes   Grows in the wild – but is imported for use.


Sc. n. Sesamum indicum

Ġunġlien Used as condiment with bread-like soft cake (qagħaq)   Imported



Sweet chilly peppers


Sc. n. Capsicum annuum

Bżar aħmar  Used to spice all sorts of food   Is grown locally
Wild Thyme


Sc. n. Thymus capitatus

Sagħtar Chicken dishes Antiseptic Grows wild locally

Martin Morana



Dalby Andrew, Dangerous Tastes The Story of Spices. The British Museum Press. 2000.

Gambin Kenneth & Buttigieg Noel, L-Istorja tal-Kultura tal-Ikel f’Malta. PIN 2003.

Lanfranco Guido, Ħxejjex Mediċinali u Oħrajn fil-Gżejjer Maltin. Media Centre. 2000.

Miège Dominique, Histoire de Malte, Gregoire V. Wouters et Co., Brusselle 1841.

Tedesco Carmen, Ħxejjex Aromatiċi u Ħwawar. (leaflet).

Thanks to Joseph Aquilina and Terry Morana.


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This book deals with the story of Maltese humour since Roman times up to present.

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