Exotic Spices

Herbs and spices have been sought after for thousands of years, predating even the beginning of written history for culinary and medicinal purposes. Yet still, people confuse herbs and spices. A spice is usually the dried fruiting body of a plant which may be called the plants' fruit, kernel, or seed. A spice can also be the dried roots, rhizomes (i.e. turmeric or ginger) and bark of a plant, as is the case with cinnamon. An herb is generally considered the dried leaves of a plant, with a few exceptions. The dried leaves of the fenugreek plant, Methi curry, are a spice and not an herb.

Many of our spices come from places like Africa, India, South East Asia, Mexico, and the Caribbean, which are all quite far away from us. Huge fortunes were made from rare spices as they were carried back to Europe by spice merchants and trading companies who knew they would be able to sell these to different people across the globe. The spice trade can actually be traced back thousands of years and was instrumental in establishing commerce and the movement of goods around the world.

Today, spices that were considered luxury items only available to the rich are more readily available thanks to advances in technologies in all divisions. Better growing practices and more plant diversity has led to crops with better yields and higher quality herbs and spices. These products can now be purchased in specialty stores or through online retailers. Still, many people are not aware of the variety of spices that exist outside of the food world that is their local grocery store. Some of these spices may not be available to you locally but are worth seeking out.


The most expensive spice in the world because it requires a lot of work to grow. It comes from the stigma of the blue flowering crocus, Crocus sativus, and it must be handpicked. About 200-500 stigmas make up a single gram of saffron, and usually there are only three per flower. It takes acres upon acres of land to grow enough flowers to even produce a pound of this spice. It's a good thing that most recipes only call for a pinch of it then, since only a small amount is required to give food both beautiful color and flavoring. Saffron is used in paella, sauces, rice, seafood dishes, as well as many other foods from many cuisines all over the world.

Grains of Paradise

These are also called Melegueta pepper or Guinea grains. Coming from the Melegueta tree that grows in West Africa, these are related to both ginger and cardamom. Grains of Paradise were commonly used as a pepper substitute when the price of pepper became too high. They will give your cooking a hot, spicy, aromatic flavor and are used often in Caribbean and African cooking.


This spice comes from the dried berries of the Rhus coriaria plant, which you may know by the name of Sicilian Sumac. This is not the only plant that gives us Sumac. Rhus aromatica, or the North American Sumac is another source for this spice. There are some other varieties of sumac which are poisonous so be careful to avoid those varieties. This spice imparts a sour lemony flavor and compliments fish or red meat. It is used widely in North African, Middle Eastern, and Southern Mediterranean cooking.

Amchur Powder

Made from unripe mangos that have been sliced, sun dried, and then ground into a fine powder, Amchur powder is a commonly used souring agent in North Indian cooking. It is frequently found in curries, chutneys, stews, soups, and in vegetable dishes.


Asafoetida is an incredibly powerfully smelling spice that is used mostly in Indian vegetarian cooking. It is a good replacement for onion and garlic and is used in a lot of diets that are popularized in America. Some people who are eating gluten free gravitate toward this spice, which comes from the dried and powdered gum resin from several species of Ferula, a perennial herb.


You may encounter this spice with the name Ajowan Caraway, Carom Seeds or Bishop's Weed. It has a stronger flavor than thyme or caraway seeds, which it tastes like. Ajwain is used in small quantities and it is typically only used after it has been dry roasted or fried in ghee or oil. It belongs to the Apiaceae family along with coriander and cumin and is found in Indian and Pakistani cooking.


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. Popular in Greece, Middle Eastern Countries and Mediterranean cooking, this spice has a flavor that hints at almond, with a touch of rose and cherry as well. It is used predominantly in baking, particularly in Greek bread.


Anardana is the dried seed of various wild pomegranate plants that has a sour and slightly fruity flavor. It works well in dry seasoning fish or as an ingredient in a marinade to season meats. Venison is exceptionally delicious when paired with anardana. It is also a common ingredient in chutney and is popular in Indian cooking.

Juniper Berries

Juniper berries are thought to be the only spice that comes from a conifer (cone-bearing seed plants) and a cold climate. They grow on small juniper shrub that is common throughout the Northern hemisphere and are a prime ingredient in gin. The seeds can take three years to mature and turn blue when they are ripe enough to be picked. Their aromatic flavor with its sweet accent is popular in European cuisines. In the United States the juniper berry is frequently found in marinades, brines, stuffing and sauces.

Kala Jeera

Popular in Northern Indian Cuisine, this member of the parsley family adds flavor to rice and meat dishes. The seeds are small and crescent shaped and has a sharp bitter odor, with a flavor that is rich and nutty but also slightly grassy. Kala Jeera is also sometimes referred to as black cumin.

Long Pepper

Also known as Bengal pepper, Long Pepper is a close relative to Black Pepper, though it is hotter with some sweet undertones. Popular in Indian, African, Indonesian and Mediterranean cooking, this is a small but long catkin that can be grated or crushed just before use. It compliments any rich food, especially if it is buttery.

Nigella Seed

Fennel flower is another name for this spice. It has a pungent and slightly bitter flavor with a hint of sweetness and a body that is small, black, sharply pointed. This seed 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 the United States during the 1990's when it was introduced to Chef Mario Batali. What makes this often described as "Culinary Fairy Dust" is how Fennel Pollen imparts a full, rich, savory flavor to cooked foods. This is sometimes described as umami, that deeply intense and savory flavor that top chefs are always in search of.

Dried Kaffir Lime Leaves

Native to Southeast Asia, Kaffir Lime is also grown in Australia, California and Florida. Kaffir lime has other names such 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. Kaffir Lime is very popular in Balinese, Cambodian, Malaysian and Thai cuisine.

Pasilla de Oaxaca Chile

Pronounced "Pah-SEE-yah day Waa-HAAK-kah," this chile is not well known in the United States but it is gaining some popularity among serious chile heads. Most people in the US are more familiar with the smoked chipotle, also called smoked jalapenos, but the Pasilla Oaxaca possesses a bit less heat than the chipotle and twice the smokiness. It is in the hilly region of Oaxaca in southern Mexico that these long pasilla chilles are smoked. These chiles are popular in vegetarian dishes for their rich smokiness that brings out a bacony ham flavor without the addition of any meat. Also used in the famous "mole negro", Latin style bean dishes, soups, sauces and in a regional favorite – rellenos.


Turmeric is a rhizome from the ginger family. Popular in Indian cooking, it has a flavor that is mildly sour and bitter, slightly pungent, warm, and musky. Not only does this spice light up any dish it touches with a vibrant yellow coloring, it adds a unique flavor that is hard to find anywhere else. You will find turmeric most commonly in the western sphere in Golden Milk, a drink made with this colorful spice.

Tasmanian Pepperberry

This spice is used primarily in Australia's bushfood, which are foods from local cuisines that have gained mainstream popularity in recent years. These dishes are usually made with ingredients that are indigenous to Australia, hence the popularity of the Tasmanian Pepperberry. This spice tastes slightly sweet, then gets spicier as the day goes on. 

Piment d'Espelette

Grown and cared for almost exclusively by women, this chile is the pride and joy of the Basque region. This chile is fruity with just a little bit of heat, making it a perfect fit for the otherwise mild French cuisine it calls home. Piment d'Espelette is just about the spiciest thing you will ever find in authentic French cuisine. Every October, it is celebrated with a festival that spans the entire Basque region, and the scent that fills the air is a welcome reminder of the hard work women have put into maintaining this delicious crop and source of pride for the area.

Each one of these spices offers something unique to the cooking experience. When you experiment with new flavors and styles of cooking, you not only branch out with your food options, but also your exposure to the different tastes of the world. Work some of these into your regular routine and you will find your standard recipes become exciting and new again.

Read More

Spices by Cuisine
Holiday Spices
32 Rare Spices to Jumpstart Any Everyday Kitchen
What is the Shelf Life of Spices?


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