As with many countries, traditional Greek foods and the spices the cooks use vary depending on the country's various regions, such as coastline and mountainous regions. Most of the spices used in Greek cooking, such as allspice, anise, and curry powder, are imported, although mastic or gum mastic is indigenous to Chios, a Greek island. Many Greek spices, including cardamon, coriander seed, and nutmeg, are internationally well known, and a few are less popular with the average cook.
People often shorten gum mastic to simply mastic. It is the sap of the lentisk evergreen bush, which people call the mastic tree. The Greeks exported it to many Mediterranean countries for flavoring sweet breads, especially Easter breads. The Greeks also use it in liquor making.
One of the different regions of Greece are the coastal areas where native Greeks interacted with foreign sailors. Through trade with these marine merchants, spices like allspice from the New World countries became popular. The inland plains and mountainous areas were more isolated. Foods from these areas did not incorporate as much spice.
Anise is one of the spices that ancient Greek writers have written about and is the base flavoring for ouzo, a Greek liquor. Anise is a popular flavoring for sweet breads and other desserts, and because it has a strong flavor, cooks use it sparingly. Another popular flavoring for sweets is allspice, which has a flavor similar to a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Cloves are the unopened flower buds of an evergreen tree in the myrtle family and is another strong-flavored spice that Greek cooks use sparingly.
Other Greek spices that are used in flavoring desserts and sweets include cardamom, which is a pungent and complex spice from the ginger family; coriander seed, which is derived from the Greek word koris; and nutmeg. Mahlab, also called St. Lucie cherry kernels or ground cherry stones, has an almond-like taste, and Greek bakers use it in sweet breads, especially holiday breads. Merchants sell vanilla powder in glass vials, and Greek cooks use it to flavor sweets and beverages.
Many of the Greek spices that cooks use to flavor sweets are also used in meat and vegetable dishes. Some of these include coriander seeds and nutmeg. People spice pork, stuffed cabbage, and mushroom dishes with coriander, whereas nutmeg adds flavor to sausages, potato dishes, and pastitsio, which is a ground meat and macaroni dish covered in béchamel sauce.
Other Greek spices that people use for meat and vegetable dishes include curry powder, saffron, and sumac. The sumac is a non-toxic variety, and cooks use it in meat-based stews, rice dishes, and some vegetable dishes. Cumin, which is the dried fruits of an annual herb that belongs to the parsley family, is an ancient spice, and Greek cooks use it for meat and vegetable dishes. Black pepper is another one of the Greek spices that is internationally known, although many Greek cooks use it more sparingly than many other regions.