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Less Known Spices



 

This page will touch on the less known spices of the world. There are so many spices that are used around the globe; some that are completely unknown to us in the western world. With my keen interest in Indian cuisine, I have come across many of them and hope to present a little bit on each one here. Most of the less known spices on this page are ones used in Indian cuisines, though they also may have use in many other of the Asian and Southeast Asian countries, also.

Any time I find a recipe with a spice I am unfamiliar with, I seek it out and try it. So far, I have not been disappointed. If you have interest in lesser known flavors and love enriching your palate, this is the place to find out a bit more to set you on your path.


For the rectangle closeup photos for many of these spices, I used a little form 1-inch by 3-inches.  All the similar photos were set into the same little form, so the size differences between them is readily apparent.
Fenugreek - Trigonella foenum-graecum

Parts of the fenugreek plant are used as an herb, a vegetable and a spice. The leaves of the fenugreek plant are used as an herb either fresh or dried, and can also be counted as a fresh vegetable, used as microgreens or sprouts. The seeds are used as a spice, either whole or ground, or may also be sprouted.

Fenugreek is most often used in Indian cuisine and around the Middle East. It is often called Methi. Part of the Fabaceae family of legumes, peas and beans, fenugreek  is an annual plant cultivated worldwide, though its largest producer is India. The leaves of the plant are arranged in sets of three, very much like common clover seen everywhere. Its flowers resemble flowers of the pea plant and are generally white or pale yellow. The seeds are mustard-seed yellow in color and vaguely rectangle shaped.

The seeds have a most distinctive sweet smell much like maple syrup, and in fact are used to flavor artificial maple syrup, butterscotch syrup and others. Though the seeds themselves are bitter, toasting them first removes some of the bitter quality. In cooking, the seeds may be used whole (if soaked ahead of time) or ground. The bitter and sweet quality works well with other strong flavors such as coriander, cumin and paprika, all commonly found in Indian cuisine.

Fenugreek Seed or Methi
Fenugreek Seeds - Methi

Dried Fenugreek Leaves
Dried Fenugreek Leaves or Kasoori Methi

Star Anise - Illicium verum
Star Anise - Illicium verum

Star anise is little used outside of its native Southern China and Vietnam and has spread to wherever these cultures have gone;  taken along both to use and where possible, to grow. The shape of star anise is that of an irregular eight and sometimes up to twelve pointed star. In Chinese, the name means eight points.

It is a very pretty and decorative spice, often used in crafts or floated in tea. The stars are the fruits and each point of the star is a pod holding one very shiny oval seed. The color of the pods is a deep rusty brown, and the shiny seeds a lighter caramel color. The brittle seeds are less aromatic than the fruit.

Star anise is the fruit of a small evergreen tree that grows to a height of about 26 feet, with shiny leaves and small yellow, multi-petaled flowers, followed by fruits. The tree can continue to bear fruit for 100 years. The fruits are picked while still unripe and then sun dried. Its flavor is anise like, though much more potent and with a heavier licorice flavor component than common anise seed, and with a distinctly sweet note. If using as a substitution for anise seed in a recipe, it is best to cut down the amount by a half to two thirds.

Star anise is a key ingredient in Chinese Five Spice Powder, along with cinnamon or cassia; other possible mixtures may include Szechuan peppercorns, black peppercorns, cloves, fennel, anise seed or ginger.


 
 
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Sichuan Peppercorns
Sichuan Peppercorns  - Xanthoxylum piperitum

Unrelated to pepper, these little petal-like pods are extensively used in Southeast Asian cuisines. An essential component of Chinese Five-Spice Powder, they are also used on their own in many dishes. Their flavor is unlike pepper or chiles with no heat but instead a slightly lemon or citrus flavor. The pods are used whole or slightly crushed, unless ground into a spice mixture. The name is also found spelled as Szechuan or Szechwan.


Black Sesame  - Sesamum indicum nigrum

This may not be a really unusual spice. From the same plant as white sesame seeds but a different cultivar; Sesamum indicum nigrum. It is commonly used in Chinese cooking as well as Indian and other Southeast Asian cuisines. The black and white sesame seeds come from the same plant, but just a different variety. Black sesame seeds have a slightly stronger flavor than white. They are an extremely good source of calcium; studies have shown that one gram of seeds contains approximately 85 milligrams of calcium. If you like the flavor of white sesame seeds, these will not be so different.  They make a lovely presentation when sprinkled over rice, and are often included in Indian dishes, or sprinkled on breads just like the white sesame we know.

Black Sesame
Black Sesame



Black Cumin
Black Cumin

Black Cumin  - Bunium persicum

This is truly an unusual spice, hardly known outside of India. Many places mistakenly sell Nigella seeds under the name of black cumin. Black cumin is Bunium persicum, and has a more nutty and earthy aroma than common cumin. It is far thinner and finer in size than regular cumin seed. As its name implies, the seeds are black and used commonly in northern Indian Moglai cuisines. It has a sweeter, lemony character with caraway notes. It is commonly used in yogurts, chutneys, curries and biryanis, some garam masalas. If you search out this spice, look for Bunium persicum specifically, or you may get nigella seeds.
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Black Cardamom  - Amomum subulatum

Black Cardamom or Hill Cardamom is related to green cardamom and are both from the ginger family, but there the comparison stops. The flavors of black cardamom are far different and do not lend to use in sweet dishes. The seed pods are larger and coarser and have a camphor like flavor and a smoky character from the method of drying over fires. It is commonly used in savory dhal or rice mixtures, and in some northern Indian garam masalas.

Black Cardamom
Black Cardamom

Carom or Ajwain
Carom or Ajwain Seed

Carom Seed or Ajwain  - Trachyspermum ammi

Also known by Ajowain, Ajowan, Ajwan and many other spellings. It is a tiny seed with a flavor similar to thyme, but more aromatic and bitter. The seeds have a tiny stalk attached, much like anise seeds and looks similar and is related to celery seed. Carom is popular in Indian dhals or potatoes and is almost always used cooked in a dish as its flavor can be overwhelming when raw. It is good for digestion and is often used in lentil dishes for its anti flatulent effect.


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Mahlab - Prunus mahaleb

Outside of Turkey, the Middle East and Greece, Mahlab is little known. This spice is the inner kernel of the pit of the St. Lucie Cherry, Prunus mahaleb. The name may be spelled differently in different countries: Mahaleb, Mahleb, Mahalabi, Mahiepi and others. The tree is deciduous and can grow to 40 feet in the right climate. The bark is smooth and red. The fragrant flowers are white, on long stalks and in clusters. The fruits are small, only up to about 3/8 inch, turning black when ripe. It grows wild in southern Europe, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Turkey.  It is also grown as an ornamental tree as it has a somewhat weeping habit. It can be grown from seed, is quite disease resistant and its strong root stock can be used for grafting.

The tiny inner kernel of Mahlab is an oval, 3/16 inch long, buff or tan colored with wrinkled skin and a creamy colored interior. The scent is a pleasant mix of sour cherries, bitter almonds and a hint of rose. This lends most greatly to baked goods such as breads, cakes and cookies, but this should not have to be its only use. Biting into a kernel raw will leave a bitter note, but once baked the flavors transform to fruity and rich, but subtle. A little can go a long way. Think of nutmeg when using Mahlab. A spare hand will yield excellent flavors, but it can make all the difference between a plain dessert and something uniquely alluring.

When using Mahlab, it should be ground just before use, as the flavors dissipate quickly once ground. It is easy to grind with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. If grinding by hand, use some of the sugar and or salt called for in the recipe, as the grains help with the grinding action on the seed kernels and yields a nice powder. As for amounts to use, approximately 1/2 to 1 teaspoon per 2 cups of flour in a recipe is a good rule of thumb. Mahlab is a good addition to breads, sweet pastries, cookies and biscuits. It would also be a great way to transform simple pudding or rice pudding. The flavors lend themselves to milk based foods and cheese.

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Mahlab kernels
Mahlab kernels

Nigella Seed  - Nigella sativa

Nigella is sometimes mistakenly called Onion Seed, but is totally unrelated to onions. It is also confused with Black Cumin, as explained above.  So what is this seed that is so confused with other species? It has a pungent bitter taste and smell with an oregano undertone. It is used often to top Naan bread, and used in the well-known Indian spice blend called Panch Phoran. A common mixture for this Indian five spice might be equal parts cumin, fennel, mustard, fenugreek and nigella seeds. This blend generally uses the spices left whole. They may be fried in oil to release flavors and the oil used in a food.  Nigella seeds also are used in kormas, dhal and braised lamb. 

Nigella
Nigella




Grains of Paradise
Grains of Paradise

Grains of Paradise  - Aframomum melegueta

A species in the ginger family related to cardamom and sometimes known as Guinea Pepper or Melegueta Pepper. This spice has been out of vogue for a long time. In the 14th and 15th centuries, production of the spice was so important that the Gulf of Guinea coast became known as the Melegueta Coast. The ease of access to Europe made this spice a popular substitute for pepper from far away Asia.

Grains of Paradise are actually small reddish brown seeds that are found in 2 – 3 inch long pods, whereas pepper comes from the berries of the pepper plant. The little pyramidal shaped grains are separated from the bitter white pulp of the ripe fruit and allowed to dry. The Grains have long been used as a stand in for pepper and are known to be less irritating for the digestion. When tasting these Grains there is an inviting heat, but a gentler version than the harsher heat of pepper.  There is an herbaceous and citrusy character with warm spicy undertones of cinnamon, cloves or cardamom, though the components that make up the flavor of cardamom are present only in traces. The pleasant heat lingers for a while on the finish.

Largely unknown these days in cooking outside of the West African Coast, some popular chefs have once again begun making Grains of Paradise a sought after spice. It is sometimes used in the spices flavoring Scandinavian Aquavit, as well as some popular beer. The intriguing flavors lend themselves to flavoring foods both sweet and savory. They are a great addition to something like a gingerbread or spice cake, with the gentle warmth.  Grains of Paradise work well with other herbs such as rosemary and thyme, or lemon thyme to pick up the citrusy note. It can be used in most any place pepper is called for, though the flavor is not that of pepper. I believe they would be a perfect substitute for pepper in Pfeffernusse Cookies.

In the African countries where Grains of Paradise originate, they are used both for food and for folk medicines. The Grains are excellent in braised lamb dishes and with potatoes or eggplant.  They are generally an addition to the Moroccan Spice mixture called Ras el Hanout, loosely meaning Best of the Shop. This spice mixture can have up to 30 ingredients. This is my own version of Ras el Hanout, and it is great used as a spice rub for pork, beef, lamb or chicken before grilling, and adding into Moroccan tagines or other long braised stews.


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Sumac  - Rhus coriaria

You may hear Sumac and immediately think of poison sumac. The spice sumac is not from the same plant as the poison sumac, although they are from the same plant family.  As a matter of fact, the sumac used as a spice grows wild mainly in the Middle East, so there is no problem with running afoul of the wrong plant, here in the US. The sumac commonly used as a spice in the Middle East is from the plant Rhus coriaria. The poison sumac found in the US is Rhus vernix.  They are from the tropical or subtropical cashew or sumac family of trees, shrubs and vines, all bearing drupes, or fruits with a single stone or seed. 

Sumac bushes grow wild in all the Mediterranean countries, in Sicily and southern Italy and especially the Middle East countries, notably Iran, Lebanon and Turkey. The parts of the plant used are the dried and ground berries which are an essential part of Arabic cooking.  The dried and crushed fruits yield a reddish powder, preferred over lemons for its fruity sourness and astringency.  Sumac can be sprinkled into dishes as they are being cooked, macerated in hot water and mashed to release flavor, or mixed into spice mixtures, most notably the Middle Eastern spice mixture called
Zahtar

Sumac Powder
Sumac Powder

The use of sumac in cooking closely parallels the use of tamarind or dried green mango powder in contemporary Indian and Indonesian cuisines. The fresh berries can also be made into a refreshing drink similar to lemonade. In the US, there is a relative to this sumac, Rhus Glabra, mainly used in the tanning industry, but Native Americans also used the red berries to make a refreshing drink.

Sumac can be used in a shaker on the table to sprinkle onto foods such as rice or to lend a pleasant fruity sour note and soft reddish color to sauces, poultry or fish, or sprinkle it on meat before grilling. Sumac also has purported healthful properties. A sour drink of sumac is made to relieve stomach upsets. It is also said to have diuretic qualities and may be helpful with reducing fever. Whatever its use, find some sumac at a reputable spice shop and try it out.

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Galangal  - Alpinia officinarum

Galangal or galanga rhizome goes by many names as well as scientific names.  There is a greater galangal and a lesser galangal. The formal title for the galangal plant used most for cooking is Alpinia officinarum.  It looks very much like ginger root and is related to ginger, but there the similarity ends.  Galangal is a rhizome, or underground stem. It is sharper and hotter and more like mustard than ginger. It is one thing that gives Thai cooking some of its heat. Another galangal is perhaps used more often as an herbal medicine by the same Asian cultures. This variety looks far different with long fingerlike roots.

Galangal grows in East and Southeast Asia, and also in the East Himalayas and South India. It is used in most of the Asian cultures and was once commonly found exported to Europe. As there are various kinds of galangal, some countries use one variety and other countries another. China uses a different type of galangal than Thailand, for example. The Polish use galangal to flavor vodka and the Russians still use it to flavor vinegar and some liqueurs. The oil produced from galangal is common in India. A common Southeast Asian use for galangal is making a paste with the root along with shallots, garlic and chiles. This paste is used to flavor seafood or meat curries.

If interested in planting galangal, and you live in a frost free climate, choose a well formed and fresh healthy rhizome, and plant it in well conditioned soil.  Allow plenty of room, as once established, galangal gets quite large and grows to about 5 feet tall. The plant has long dark green, spear shaped leaves and white, pink or lavender sweetly scented flowers that strongly resemble irises. It can be grown as an ornamental plant. Once well established, to harvest the rhizome, uproot a section and cut it free.

Galangal root is of harder fiber than ginger and will require a sharp knife to cut. The inside is also much more creamy white than ginger. If using fresh galangal, find a young root, as they toughen with age. Pounding the root helps to release more of its flavors. Its strong flavors blend well with the use of coconut milk, such as in coconut based soups. If using fresh, uncooked root in a hot and sour salad for example, slice the root extremely thinly as it is intensely aromatic and pungent.

As fresh galangal is not available in many places, the alternative is the dried or powdered variety. Dried galangal has a muskier and rootier flavor than the sharp bite of the fresh root. Once ground, it loses flavor easily, as with most ground spices. It is used in some Indian dishes, and sometimes in the spice mixture called Ras el Hanout from East Africa.

Galangal is also used as an herbal medicine much like ginger, for stomach ailments, indigestion and stimulating the release of gastric juices to aid digestion. It is said to be antispasmodic and antibacterial and like ginger, to aid in seasickness.

Galangal dried
Galangal: dried, above
powdered, below
Galangal powdered
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