We live in a time and a place where we have more access to food and spices than ever before. Online stores, specialty stores and even grocery stores all offer the chance to try spices that we simply aren’t familiar with. This is a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time, global trade has heavily promoted some spices while completely neglecting others. Many spices have faded into obscurity and most of us tend to use the same spices over and over again, without even realizing the vast amount of alternatives that are available.
At the same time, if you or I were to go into a specialty store, we might find ourselves confronted with a wide range of interesting spices that we don’t have the slightest idea what to do with.
Many of the spices out there are actually amazing additions to a standard kitchen –regardless of you level of skill or how often you cook. For example, grains of paradise is a spice with many similarities too pepper that can be used in the same way, but offers a much more complex and interesting flavor to food.
In my travels online, I’ve come across a number of interesting spices that are worth trying out. Some of them are extremely rare in America, but others can be found at specialty stores or with a little digging online. Even though they might take a bit of work to find and get used to, your taste buds will thank you for bringing something new to the table.
Asafetida looks and sounds a bit odd as a spice, especially as it is actually gum resin that has been powdered. It can also be purchased in the resin form, although it generally needs to be powdered before use. The spice is often used in Indian dishes and it offers a strong garlic-onion flavor, especially once it has been lightly fried. Despite its popularity in India, the spice isn’t common in other parts of the world, but it is a fantastic spice if you can find it.
Native to the Middle East, the sumac bush has dark red berries, which are used to produce this spice. The coarse power has a tangy flavor with a lot of similarities to a lemon, although it isn’t as tart, which makes it a more versatile option for many dishes. Because of this flavor, sumac can be used in any dish that calls for lemon. The color of the spice is especially appealing, and it can be a great way to make a dish stand out. Although the spice is rare, you can sometimes find it in international sections of grocery stores, online and in stores specializing in Middle Eastern products.
Kokum is another Indian spice, although it is not very common even in India. Visually, I find the spice to be quite unusual, and it doesn’t look like most other spices that we see. This is because the spice is essentially a halved and dried fruit, and the dried seeds are normally visible. A key property of kokum is its souring nature, and it is often used to enhance dishes like potatoes, fish curries or coconut-based curries. Many recipes will add the entire skin, allowing the flavor to diffuse throughout the dish.
No, I’m not talking about the pepper spray. The spice mace comes from the waxy red covering that goes around nutmeg seeds. This source means that mace has a similar taste to nutmeg, although it tends to be a little more peppery. The spice is especially versatile, and the nutmeg flavor means that it works well in both savory and sweet dishes. Normally ground mace is easier to find, but getting mace in the blade form (like in the image) is desirable, as it helps to maintain the flavor. Cooks can always ground the blades when they are ready to use the spice.