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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 Penzeys.com: "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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urfa_Biber

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.

              2. man, this is so coool; you CHs are great!

                1. A really interesting spice is called Sumac
                  It adds an interesting acidity to dishes and marinades, while not adding liquid (lemon juice, eg.), as amchoor does in Indian cooking( dried green mango powder). It is added to the spice blend Za'atar to produce a 'Red' Za'atar which I love to use during BBQ season;
                  You can mix the Za'atar with oil and brush on grilled bread, onto grilled fish or chicken.
                  I grind up sumac, cumin, corrriander, and hot paprika to marinade chicken with yoghourt and garlic.
                  Sumac works well with orange zest and Cubebe peppercorns as a marinade for duck breasts.
                  You spoke of Mastic as well. It is also used in the Moroccan spice blend Ras-el-Hanout.
                  Ras-el-Hanout can be used as a finishing spice with Tajine and Coucous. Brushed on grilled meats. Added to roasted chicken. Sometimes when I make a roasted leg of lamb, I add a pinch of Ras when making a sauce of the pan drippings. The best blend I have ever tasted was the product available from the website Les Épices de Cru
                  The owners travel the world in order to find superior quality spices.
                  I've used their sumac, Ras-el-Hanout, Za'atar, and Ethiopian Berbere blends...stellar
                  One last spice which I adore, Black Cardamom, which I use to make my Phở broth.....and in my garam masala.
                  You really should check out the Épice de Cru website. No, I don't work for them, but the first time I used their spices to cook with, it was a revelation. A bit expensive, but worth it. They sell starter sets with various spices, a great way to start.

                  25 Replies
                  1. re: hypomyces

                    I second Sumac, Berbere, Ras-el-Hanout and Zatar (make all my own blends including masalas and such). I didn't include them on my list above because I use them regularly.

                    Though I've never ordered from Epice de Cru, I have purchased whole spices from a couple of specialty shops. LOVE them. (Several in my list above are from them.)

                    1. re: chefathome

                      The blend at Épices... has 24 different spices, including iris root, cubeb, mastic resin, and Moroccan rose buds!

                      1. re: hypomyces

                        What is the blend called?? I will be at that specialty store I mentioned in two weeks and WANT THAT!

                        1. re: chefathome

                          Chefathome, it is the Ras-el-hanout spice blend. I hope you can find it. It is a very personal blend of spices, changing from one home to another, from one store to another, much like garam masala. I have researched the spice and have found that some of the ingredients include belladonna leaves, cantharides ( crushed beetle, also called Spanish Fly), hashich, Monk's pepper (an aphrodisiac), and chufa (a tuber from a grass-like plant with a bitter almond taste).
                          I don't have a recipe, but here is a list of ingredients to make your own:
                          Cayenne pepper, Cassia bark and buds, Clove, Nutmeg, Grains of paradise, Cubeb pepper, white pepper, Zedoary, Orrisroot, Lavander, Licorice root, Cumin, Nigella seeds, Niora pepper, Cinnamon, Rose blossoms, Mace, Long pepper, Black pepper, ginger, Turmeric, Saffron, Mint, Bay leaf, Fenugreek, Black cumin, Cardamom, and Mastic......which is why I purchase mine already made!

                          1. re: hypomyces

                            Although I've been making my own Ras-el-hanout this sounds amazing! Will definitely look for it because it obvoiusly contains a couple of things I do not have on hand such as Spanish Fly... I do, however, have pretty much everything else you list in your ingredients to make your own except for orrisroot, mastic and licorice root. Can't wait!! Thanks lots.

                            1. re: chefathome

                              I would not bother trying to find the odder ingrediants in the above. Spanish fly is not only NOT an aphrodesiac, it's actually mildly poisionous and an irritant. Ditto belladona leaves and monk's pepper aka Vitex (which is actually tradinally an anti-aprodesiac hence it's alternate name of "chaste tree" (the monk's part of the name comes from some monks in medival times making use of it to reduce thier lusty urges.) It has been shown to possibly ease PMS but that's about it. It's use is tradional, but "traditional" does not neccecarily equate with "a good idea". It's a bit like all of the Thai and Southeast Asian recipies that call for Candlenuts and those who use macadamias to subbstitute. Candlenuts are of course the "traditional" choice but since they are also mildly poisionous and macadamia 1. are not and 2. are generally regarded as being an adequate subsititute flavorwise. none but the most arch traditonalist would fault you for doing the sustitution.

                              1. re: jumpingmonk

                                I know - I was being a bit facetious. But I still do really like Ras-el-hanout!

                                Interesting information about origins and names - I really enjoy ancient food history and culture.

                                1. re: chefathome

                                  I sort of thought so. BTW you may want to go easy on the licorice root as well; it's supposed to be a carcinogen in large doses (then again so is cassia cinnamon....... )
                                  BTW I know it tecnically does not count on the list, (as ir is a herb, not a spice) but one of the most intertesting flavorings I've bumped into (and actually have a growing plant of) is conehead thyme (Cordiothymus thymbra) (no, it isn't something Beldaar brought from Remulac g>) imagine something that tastes like a cross between thyme and really, really strong black pepper (it will actually burn your tounge the first time you taste it). It's supposedly an ingrediant in what I have sometimes called Old time Zatarr, the version that hasn't been adapted for more conventional herbs. Most of the herbs in that are odd, there's syrian oregano (Orginarum maru) which is so powerfu you ony need part of one leaf to flavor a standard pizza, cat thye (Teucium maru) a for of gemander and one of the few thing that cats love more than catnip maybe dangerously so (my cat actually tried to chew her way through a metal wasebasket to get at some leaves). Barrel sweetener (Saturneja thymbra) a kind of savory (with a name like that, it may also have something to do with beer making), plus a lot of other odd mint family members.
                                  another odd one, blue fenugreek aka curd herb (the secret ingredient in the swiss cheese Sapsago)

                                  1. re: jumpingmonk

                                    monk, this is FASCinating. how could you possibly know all this? career? hobby?

                                    and did you mean to say"cat thyMe (teuchRium maru)" /germander as more potent than nepeta for cats?

                                    i grow vitex agnus castus here iin my boston area arboretum; i thought it had been used for heart medicine....but maybe i'm confusing it w/ aconitum..................


                                    1. re: opinionatedchef

                                      Pretty much except cat thyme is a germander relative, not germander itself.

                                      1. re: jumpingmonk

                                        Oh an no this is just a hobby, I am a plant taxonomist by profession, by my speciality is weed science, not seasoning science, and few thing I come across in my work would really count as seasonings (except maybe musky mint and that's really more of an aromatic). If you want to try growing themselves try mountain valley growers; that's where I got my plants (the barrel sweetener is often out of stock though). One warning though, conehead thyme is a bit fussy to get started (though one it is established it's suprisingly hardy) I had to go through 6-8 tries before I got one that lived long enought to grow mesurably. Also try the clove/tree basil a nice clove scented herb that will shoot up to the sky after a few years (unlike sweet basil, it's a perrenial if it doesn't get too cold (it can take zone 8 or higher through the winter north of that you can keep in indoors over the winter (though it does have a real whitefly problem) Cat thyme can take zone 7 or above outdoors, so one can in theory get a big hedge of it going.

                        2. re: hypomyces

                          i hope this doesn't hit you as pickayune, but i wonder if it really is iris root. The reason i ask is because the spice i mentioned recently learning about, salep , is (some particular) orchid tuber, ground. And if your spice mixture ingredient really IS iris root, then that will be another spice to add to the list here!

                          1. re: opinionatedchef

                            I believe that it is really iris root. The owner of Épices de Cru and his wife travel around the world looking for spices and recipes for spice blends. They are sticklers for quality and authenticity. Here is a page from Wiki about iris root (Orris Root)

                            1. re: hypomyces

                              well, isn't that so coool?! i do grow all those iris varieties but (a trivial point indeed) the flowers really have no scent to speak of, but obviously the root does! thnx so much for that info.

                            2. re: opinionatedchef

                              You're right; salep is made from ground orchid roots. However, it's not a spice; it's a starch used to make hot drinks and puddings. I've had salep in Turkey- it was frothed like a cappuccino and tasted like vanilla with a hint of floral essence. I buy a mix from Kalyustan's in NY and add a drop of orange flower water, cinnamon, cardamom and ground pistachios. The problem with the mix is that I can never get it as frothy as the one I had in Turkey; I probably need a machine for that.

                              1. re: NicoleFriedman

                                thnx for the info! maybe an immersion blender would do that for you?
                                gosh, doesn't it suprise you that something that sounds so precious would be commonly used? i mean it's not like orchids are tapioca plants?!

                                so the drink is not milk based/has no milk?and alw served hot? i want to try that! we have turkish/lebanese/greek/armenian stores here in boston; i'll look for it.

                          2. re: chefathome

                            Sumac is great in Fatoosh Salad Dressing

                            1. re: 02putt

                              I second that - sumac is awesome in fattoush.

                              1. re: jeanmarieok

                                Sumac is awesome in a rub on poultry, too. I love Sumac and am always looking for interesting ways to use it.

                            2. re: chefathome

                              In college and when out in the wilderness I used to make a 'lemonade' with fresh sumac berries, water, and sugar. Once I left it in the fridge for spring break and it had done a slow ferment and tasted like a beautiful light white wine.

                              1. re: JMF

                                Really? That sounds incredible. Love the sounds of "out in the wilderness". My husband and I do a lot of wilderness camping and foraging.

                                1. re: chefathome

                                  I am a licensed wilderness guide. During college and grad school I worked summers and winters guiding back country trips, whitewater, and mountain climbing. Then for a few years after I was a outdoor educator and adventure psychologist. So I did a lot of foraging. I also taught wilderness survival. Fun stuff.

                                  1. re: JMF

                                    What a brilliant occupation! That is something I could dream of. We used to go whitewater rafting regularly at Kicking Horse, BC, and loved it. Now we just camp and forage. Our house in Croatia is located in a wonderfully natural rural area chock full of foraging opportunities from wild asparagus in the stone walls in spring to fresh herbs to scores of mushrooms, wild ramps and fennel, wild fruits and berries, and nuts.

                                    1. re: chefathome

                                      I have more fun now as a food and beverage writer/consultant; and winemaker, brewer, distiller. Also my knees and back appreciate it more.

                            3. Interesting thread. What about spiced salts from around the world, e.g. Chilean merquén?

                              1. I love spices, also herbs, roots, leaves, etc. I have over 175 different botanicals I have put together in my "Flavor Library", besides the bulk bags in storage I have each one in apx. 2 oz jars, and all have been made into tinctures, with a few dozen distilled as well. So I can check on what they smell and taste like in different forms. My favorite are ones that you don't see being sold, you have to forage them yourself. One of them, a spice that was used by Native North American Indians and colonials, which I won't name because there is only ONE source for it in the US and I bought out his whole supply, is my signature flavor/aroma for my new distillery. I special ordered 360 of the shrubs to plant on the grounds of the distillery this spring so I can harvest it.

                                Here is a blog post I rote a year ago when I only had 115 botanicals in the library.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: JMF

                                  well you and monk are two MAJOR hot tickets! how fascinating!

                                  1. re: JMF

                                    Hmmm... how come the w from wrote is missing?

                                  2. I use a lot of spices so some things that others may think of as unusual are fairly standard for me, so... A couple you may find interesting afre in the pepper family.

                                    Sichuan pepper, also called sansho in Japan. You can buy it preground or in the pepper form (which is what I use) and grind it in a pepper mill. It has an interesting flavor and bite that is very distinctive. It's one of the very few spices used in Japanese cooking. It's the madatory finish to my chicken teriyaki.

                                    Tasmanian pepperberry is veeeerrry interesting! Reminiscent of black pepper, but not exactly, it has a delayed action in the kick department. After you've chewed and swallowed and think you're done with it, it just keeps rolling along! Afficianados recommend using about a tenth the amount you would of black pepper. It's almost addictive!

                                    I use a fair amount of roses and lavender in my cooking. Roses are pretty versatile and a lovely surprise in things like stews and broths, and of course desserts. Lavender can act as a flavor tamer with things like cabbage or Brussels sprouts that may be a bit past their prime. I also mix my own herbs de Provence, and lavender is critical to that blend.

                                    7 Replies
                                    1. re: Caroline1

                                      I also use Sichuan peppercorns - love them! Would like to try the Tasmanian pepperberry. I have many kinds of peppercorns but not that one - yet.

                                      I also like to use roses and lavender - also all kinds of citrus peel that I use in tons of preparations including seasonings, rubs and so on. Yum!

                                      There is something incredibly addictive about collecting and using marvellous spices. I would have difficulty without my vast spice pantry, that is for sure.

                                      1. re: chefathome

                                        About six months or so ago (maybe a year?), I converted from a very large spice rack to a whole wall of spices. Now I'm running out of room again. Spices and money have a lot in common. The more you have, the more you need! '-)

                                        1. re: Caroline1

                                          That makes me giggle because it is SO TRUE! I have a vast supply and whenever I see or read about something new I seek it out and have friends from the US bring it back (more available in the US than Canada I find). It is an obsession of mine to not only collect and hoard spices but keep craving more. But I do use them, though.

                                          1. re: chefathome

                                            I'm not absolutely certain, but I think worldspice.com ships to Canada. That's where I get most of my spices. Good prices and very good to excellent quality. Even if they don't ship to Canada, it's fun window shopping! '-)

                                            1. re: Caroline1

                                              Caroline, I will look into it. And I agree that window shopping is fun, too! Thank you.

                                      2. re: Caroline1

                                        Lavender flowers or leaves? My flowers have long gone for the winter, but I have plenty of fragrant leaves waiting to do something special.

                                        1. re: JungMann

                                          Flowers. I don't think I've ever seen dried lavender leaves, but I'll bet they would make a great tea! mmmm Lavender tea with honey. I want some!

                                      3. Since my mother bought me Herbs and Spices: a cook's reference. And I read it cover to cover. I've been a rare herbs and spices fiend. I've gotten: Grains of paradise, long pepper, sumac, smoked paprika, fennel pollen, cubeb pepper, chevril, rose water, galingal, different of basil, kaffir lime leaves, pandan leaf extract and others I can't recall. I want wattle from Australia but I can't get it so far. Mostly I ordered these spices form Adriana's caravan or purchased them at Kaluystan's. (Both of which are in the back of the book). Soooo..... here's a link for the book:
                                        http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0789... It has EVERY spice and herb.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: YAYME

                                          coooool; thanks!

                                          btw, this will seem sooo nitpicky to you but it is "Herbs & Spices: THE cook's reference" and the reason i correct it here is because the STUPID computer system of my library network of 40 libraries- showed ZERO copies in the system until i changed the mistaken 'a' to the correct 'the' and then many copies came up, so i was able to order it through my local library network!!!

                                          1. re: YAYME

                                            If you do a search for "wattleseed" you'll find it on line. There seems to be a wide variance in prices though. Good luck

                                            You might find Tasmanian pepperberry interesting. I get mine from worldspice.com, and I find it a LOT more interesting than grains of paradise. After you've chewed and swallowed, the heat just keeps rolling along. Start out sparingly.

                                          2. Not sure if this could be considered a "spice" if it comes from ground-up Thai water bug: Mangdana.

                                            Your thoughts please!

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: j.w.w.

                                              Well, some people consider Spanish Fly a spice (not that I reccomend it's use) which is a beetle, it used to be a pretty standard additon to a lot of top end formulae for Ras al Hanout (though hopefully not anymore). And people somtimes add cocineal to food (which comes from a scale insect); it's a pretty common "organic" red colorant.

                                              1. re: j.w.w.

                                                not from a plant so i would say no, but fascinating none the less! wonder what it tastes like........

                                                1. re: j.w.w.

                                                  I've smelled the synthetic water bug extract (has a strong sweet aldehydic smell), does the powder smell the same?