Spices and herbs have been sought after since the beginning of written history for culinary and medicinal purposes, but many people confuse the terms spice and herb. A spice is the dried fruiting body of a plant, whole fruit, kernel or seed. A spice can also be the dried roots and bark of a plant, where as an herb is generally considered the dried leaves of a plant. There are a few exceptions to these definitions, for example the dried leaves of the fenugreek plant, Methi curry, is considered a spice instead of an herb.
Many of our spices come from faraway places like India, South East Asia, Mexico and the Caribbean. The spice trade that brought these once rare spices back to Europe created huge fortunes for many trading companies over the years. Indeed, the spice trade can be traced back over 5000 years and was instrumental in establishing commerce and trade around the world.
Today, spices that were once practically unavailable to the general public are now more readily available due to advances in commerce and shipping. These once rare and expensive spices can easily be purchased at specialty stores or online. Still, many people are not aware of the variety of spices that exists beyond their local market. Here is a list of some of the more exotic spices that you may not find locally, but are worth seeking out.
Saffron - Saffron is easily the most expensive spice in the world. It comes from the stigma of the blue flowering crocus (crocus sativus). The stigma must be handpicked and it takes a lot of stigmas (200-500) to make 1 gram of saffron which explains why it is so expensive. Fortunately, only a small amount is necessary to impart its beautiful color and flavor to food. Saffron is used in paella plus many sauces, rice, and seafood dishes.
Grains of Paradise - Also known as Melegueta pepper or Guinea grains. It comes from the Amomum melegueta tree that grows in Western Africa. This tree is related to both ginger and cardamom. It was commonly used as a pepper substitute when the price of pepper became too high. Grains of Paradise are widely used in Caribbean and African cooking and will impart a hot, spicy, aromatic flavor to any dish.
Sumac - Sumac comes from the dried berries of the plant Rhus coriaria also known as Sicilian Sumac or the North American Sumac Rhus aromatica. There are many varieties of Sumac and some are poisonous so care must be taken to avoid those varieties .The berry or the powder is used as a souring agent. It imparts a sour lemony flavor and complements fish and red meat nicely. It is widely used in North African, Middle Eastern and Southern Mediterranean cooking.
Amchur Powder - Amchur powder is made from unripe mangos that have been sliced, sun dried and then ground into a fine powder. It is commonly used as a souring agent in North Indian cooking.
Ajwain - Also known as Ajowan caraway, Carom seeds or Bishops weed. It has a flavor similar to thyme or caraway seeds, only stronger. It is used in small quantities after it has been dry roasted or fried in ghee or oil. It belongs to the Apiaceae family along with coriander and cumin. It is used in Indian and Pakistani cuisine.
Machalepi - Also spelled Mahleb or Mahlebi, this spice comes from the pit of the St. Lucie cherry, Cerasus mahaleb, which is a member of the Rosaceae or rose family. Its flavor has a hint of almond with rose and cherry accents. It is popular in Greece, Middle Eastern Countries and Mediterranean cooking. It is used in baking.
Anardana - Anardana is the dried seed of various wild pomegranate plants. It has a sour and slightly fruity flavor. It works well in a dry seasoning mix for fish or as a marinade to season meats especially venison. It is a common ingredient in chutney.
Juniper Berries - Juniper berries are thought to be the only spice that comes from a conifer (cone-bearing seed plants) and from a cold climate. They grow on small juniper shrub that is common throughout the Northern hemisphere. They are use a prime ingredient in gin. The seeds can take three years to mature and are picked when they turn blue. They have an aromatic flavor with a sweet accent and are popular in European cuisines. In this country the Juniper berry is frequently found in marinades, brines, stuffing and sauces.
Kala Jeera - It is in the parsley family and is popular in Northern Indian Cuisine to flavor rice and meat dishes. It has a rich nutty flavor that is slightly grassy. The seeds are small and crescent shaped and has a sharp bitter odor. Also known as black cumin.
Long Pepper - (pipalli) Also known as Bengal pepper, Long Pepper is a close relative of Black Pepper, but is hotter with sweet undertones. It is a small long catkin that can be grated or crushed just before use. It is popular in Indian, African, Indonesian and Mediterranean cooking. It compliments any rich buttery food.
Nigella seed-Also known as fennel flower. It has a pungent and slightly bitter flavor with a hint of sweetness. It is a small, black, sharply pointed seed that is commonly used in Bengali cooking.
Fennel Pollen - With a long culinary history in Northern Italian cuisine just a pinch of fennel pollen can make an average dish extraordinary! Fennel Pollen started gaining in popularity in this country in the 1990’s when it was introduced to Chef Mario Batali. But what makes this often described as “Culinary Fairy Dust” is how Fennel Pollen imparts a full, rich, savory flavor to cooked foods. Often described as umami that deep intensity and savoriness that top Chef’s are always in search of.
Dried Avocado Leaves - Avocado leaves (known as “hojas de aguacate” in Spanish) are harvested from the native Mexican avocado plant Peresea drymifolia.
The leaves are used both fresh and dried. Avocado leaves are used predominantly in the
southern regions of Mexico, most predominantly in the states of Puebla
and Oaxaca. Both fresh and dried leaves are toasted and then added to
(black) beans, moles, pipianes (these are sauces made mostly of nuts or
seeds), soups, stews and tamales.
Dried Kaffir Lime Leaves - Kaffir Lime is very popular in Balinese,
Cambodian, Malaysian and Thai cuisine. Native to Southeast Asia, Kaffir
Lime is also grown in Australia, California and Florida. Our Kaffir Lime
Leaves are grown in Thailand. Kaffir lime is also known as Indonesian
lime, wild lime or by its Thai name – makrut lime. Kaffir Lime Leaves are a signature flavor of many Thai curries, salads, soups and stir-fries.
Pasilla de Oacaca Chile - Pronounced “Pah-SEE-yah day Waa-HAAK-kah”.
The Pasilla de Oaxaca chile is not well known in the US but it is
gaining in popularity among serious chile heads who enjoy it’s deep
smoky flavor. In the hilly region of Oaxaca in southern Mexico these
long pasilla chilles are smoked. While we in the US are much more
familiar with the smoked chipotle (smoked jalapenos) the Pasilla Oaxaca
possesses a bit less heat than the chipotle but twice the smokiness. Pasilla de Oaxaca is popular in vegetarian
dishes with a rich smokiness that brings out a bacony ham flavor without
the actual fatty meat. Also used in the famous “mole negro”, Latin
style bean dishes, soups, sauces and in a regional favorite – reallenos.
What is the Shelf Life of Spices
Spices by Cuisine
How to Store Spices