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Mar 9, 2011 09:37 PM

Used, Seen, or Read About Any Very Unusual Spices?

I'm just starting to read some books on the world history of spices. It has always fascinated me to come upon little known spices***(see note at bottom) many of which are part of the cooking of a very small area. In my limited reading thus far, I have come upon three spices new to me.
One is Turkish, Salep.

The second is Greek, Masticha. Aside from the the many uses of mastich, the berries of this plant can be "used to make sausage".

The third is Kala Jeera(this is the only spice unknown to me in Penzey's catalogue of spices they sell.
)from "Known as black cumin because of the shape of the seed (not the flavor), or Shah Jeera, kala jeera (zira) is prized by Indian and Pakistani cooks. Kala jeera is used in small amounts because of its exotic, flowery flavor. It is often confused with jeera (regular cumin) and kalonji."

I recently found and purchased at my local Whole Foods Market some 'Long Pepper' which, it turns out, was used before Black Pepper was discovered and traded. I have also bought a few of the ground red peppers used in Moroccan/Mediterranean/ Armenian cooking:
--red aleppo pepper(what a difference it makes in hoomus!)
--urfa pepper

Note: *** My definition of spices here is very specific. So please don't include herbs (green, stems or leaves) on this thread!
This is what I have in mind, from Wikipedia:

"Spices can be grouped as:

Dried fruits** or seeds, such as fennel, mustard, and black pepper , chile peppers
Arils, such as mace.
Barks, such as cinnamon and cassia.
Dried flower buds, such as cloves.
Stigmas, such as saffron.
Roots and rhizomes, such as turmeric, ginger and galingal.
Resins, such as asafoetida."

(** remember- fruits, as a botanical term, does not just mean apples,oranges etc.


Plse tell us about any unusual spices you have learned about or used! Thanks much!

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  1. A chef friend gave me two that l had read about but never seen. Manna, as from biblical days, is a sweet granular product that feels and tastes like a slightly sweet finely ground brown sugar.
    The second is Grains of Paradise. This one has a unique 'spicy' smell, similar in intensity to ground coriander, that adds wonderful flavor to dips and salads. l have not heated it yet in cooking to see what that will do. Urfa, available cheaply at Kaluystan in Manhattan, is my carry around pepper for pizza restaurants. The third Turkish/Syrian pepper you might like to try is Marash, not as hot as Italian red pepper, has great flavor.

    1. Unusual is totally subjective, as what is novel to me might be normal for you.

      I am pretty much intimately familiar with North Indian and Pakistani cooking, but occasionally I come across a spice that is not used in the regional cuisines that I know well and it is very exciting for me. One of these is kokum. (Botanical name is garcinia indica.) It is used widely in Western Coastal Indian regions like along the Konkan Coast, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. It is also used in some regions in Keralite cooking further south.

      A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was showing me how to make Sindhi karhi, and she used kokum as the souring agent. I had never seen it before. She gave me a few pieces to try at home, and since then, I have used it as a souring agent option in some of my cooking---it has a similar effect as lime juice, tamarind, dried mango cheeks, or mango powder. While all of these are sour, they each have their own distinct qualities. Kokum pieces give a slight smokiness along with the sour punch.

      2 Replies
      1. re: luckyfatima

        Fatima ji, if you ever visit Konkan or actually any large city in Maharashtra, look for Kokum sharbat. As you likely know "sharbat" in India is not the frozen kind. It is just a cold or cooling beverage. Get two though - it is very addictive. :-)

      2. Another seasoning that was new to me when I first moved to the Arabian Peninsula was dried black lime. They are called limoon aswad (black lime/lemon---there is no distinction in Arabic but they are technically limes) or loomi and are used heavily in Gulf Arabic, Iranian, and also Iraqi cuisines. I have never heard of them being used outside of these regions. In the Gulf they are used in watery tomato meat curries called "marag" or "salona." Black limes are also used to flavor some very typical Gulf Arab soups. They impart a distinct muted sourness.

        3 Replies
        1. re: luckyfatima

          I LOVE these and am thankful to have them in a specialty store in Edmonton. Whenever I see them, I grab 'em!!

          1. re: luckyfatima

            Are these limes the same as limoo Omani? They are new to me as well.

            You're right to point out that novel is totally subjective. I am rather familiar with shahi zeera, asafoetida and Aleppo pepper, but I've recently taken on Mexican cookery and with that a variety of chiles (guajillos, mulattos, arbol, etc) that might be old hat to some, but are totally new to me. And although I've used star anise for years, I'm only now learning how to use it intelligently and coax out its slightly sweet, candy-like flavors in new ways.

          2. Spices are one of my very favourite things in the world. I have and use most that are mentioned here including loomi, grains of paradise, kala jeera, long pepper, etc. Also:

            birch bark
            chicory root
            nigella seeds
            tonka beans
            mace blades
            allspice leaves
            avocado leaves
            black assam cardamom
            aleppi turmeric
            smoked citrus

            I love to bring spices back from travels and replicate dishes I've had.

            3 Replies
            1. re: chefathome

              Tonka beans are banned by the FDA for use in the USA because they contain coumarin. I don't know the level of toxicity but I myself would never use them in food. Guerlain puts them to gorgeous use in their fragrances, however.

              1. re: buttertart

                Ah...I thought I read that somewhere! Haven't used them yet - they are just sitting there. Thanks for mentioning it.

                1. re: chefathome

                  They smell really nice, put them in your lingerie drawers maybe?

            2. You know that Penzey's sells cassia chips, right? I use those to grind with my morning coffee. I have no idea what else you could do with cassia chips, although I imagine another Chowhound will know! I like their Vietnamese cinnamon as well, but that isn't exotic or strange.

              3 Replies
              1. re: sueatmo

                Cassia is what we call cinnamon in the US. Real cinnamon is kind of rare here.

                1. re: JMF

                  Depends on where you look. Practically any supermarket that caters to an East Indian or Latin American clientele carries it (usually marked as "canela" or sometimes "canela vera") as true Zeylancium Cinnamon is the one that most of latin america (and much of europe for that matter) uses (now that Germany has issued warnings about cassia cinnamon, over fears it may be carcinogenic). True cinnamon is usally more expensive than Cassia though (4x is about normal) and you often need more of it to get the same "punch"

                  1. re: jumpingmonk

                    I was taking about mainstream USA supermarkets and how they label cassia as cinnamon.