Legend has it that Pharisees paid tithes in cumin seed and that when Alaric the Visigoth held Rome under siege in the fifth century, the ransom included 3,000 pounds of peppercorns. In the 14th century, one pound of nutmeg could be traded for seven fat oxen in Germany.
Spices have played an epic role in human history. As Michael Krondl, author of the book “The Taste of Conquest” writes, “Empires were won and lost on trading spices. European expansion and its eventual conquest of the greater part of the world was set in motion for these little aromatic betties and pods. Globalization set sail on spice-scented galleys and sailing ships.”
It's hard to imagine that now, when a quick trip to the supermarket yields exotic vanilla from Tahiti and nutmeg from Indonesia. But while the American pantry is regularly stocked with dozens of bottles filled with exotic seeds and pods to help bring life to food, there are hundreds more that many of us have never heard of. If you’re looking to spice up your cooking even more, consider trying some from the list below.
Asafoetida powder is a staple in Indian vegetarian cooking, but it's not one you're likely to find nestled between the anise and basil at your local grocery store. Derived from the roots and stem of a species of giant fennel, asafoetida also goes by the names hing, food of the gods, giant fennel, jowani badian, stinking gum and Devil's dung. The last two names give an indication of one of asafoetida’s distinguishing characteristics – its strong and fetid smell. Fortunately, once cooked the stench mellows to a smooth flavor best described as a mix between garlic, onions and leeks.
2. Cassia buds
Although they look much like cloves, cassia buds are actually the unopened flowers of the cassia (cinnamon) tree. Their flavor is similar to cinnamon but a little more complex. They are frequently used for pickles, chutneys and mulling spice blends.
3. Ghost chili powder
In 2007, the ghost pepper (bhut jolokia) took home the Guinness World Record for the world's hottest chili pepper, which it held until 2012 when it was out-hotted by the Trinidad moruga scorpion pepper. But even if it no longer has the crown, it’s still one hot pepper. In terms of Scoville units, the scientific measurement of a chili’s spiciness, the ghost comes in at 1 million units; for comparison, a jalapeno pepper rings in at between 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units. Powders made from this pepper are often smoked, adding another level to the lethal heat.
4. Grains of paradise
Grains of paradise look very much like pepper, but the taste provides so much more; they’re spicy like pepper, but also fruity, floral and offer hints of coriander and cardamom. Unlike pepper, they are dried seeds, not berries, and they come from West Africa. They were first introduced centuries ago as a cheaper substitute for expensive black pepper; they are more rare now, and thus more expensive, but not prohibitively so. They can be used anywhere you might employ pepper for an some spicy je ne sais quoi.
This baking spice comes from the pit of the sour cherry and has been used for centuries in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries where it is used in breads, cakes, and cookies. It has a deep and unique taste, like cherries, but also redolent of roses, almonds and vanilla. You can sometimes find the seeds whole, but more often it is sold in powdered form.
6. Nigella seeds
These small jet black seeds are used in India and the Middle East in vegetables, legumes, salads and breads; you may have seen them on the Indian bread, like naan. They are also one of the ingredients in the Bengali spice blend, Panch Phoran. The seeds may be used whole or ground, they are commonly roasted prior to use.
The bright red berries of the sumac bush (not poison sumac) are dried and ground for this spice most commonly found in Middle Eastern cooking where it is used to make fattoush salad, za’atar spice rub and added to tabbouleh. It’s super tangy and bright in flavor and can be used in place of lemon when you don’t require the acidic properties of citrus in your dish (since it is not actually acidic). Its vibrant color also adds a lot of punch to marinades, soups and stews, rice dishes, casseroles, salad dressings, dips and many other dishes.
Leave it to the Australians to have a spice with a curious name like “wattleseed.” The seed from down under comes from the Australian acacia tree and is a highly versatile spice. The seeds are roasted and then minimally ground to show off notes of coffee, chocolate and hazelnut. It is often used to flavor ice cream, whipped cream, pavlovas, cheesecakes and other desserts. It can also be used in savory dishes.
Note: If you don’t live near a gourmet market stocked chock-a-block with exotic ingredients, you can purchase all of these online; notable online spice merchants include The Spice House and Kalustyan’s.
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