The word spice comes from late Latin word “species”, meaning kinds of goods. Humans have used spices dating as far back as around 50,000 B.C. The spice trade developed throughout the Middle East in 2000 B.C. with cinnamon and pepper.
“Spices were among the most luxurious products available in Europe in the Middle Ages, the most common being black pepper, cinnamon (and the cheaper alternative cassia), cumin, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. They were all imported from plantations in Asia and Africa, which made them extremely expensive.”
Among the most widely used spices today are pepper, basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic, paprika, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, and a host of others. But here’s a list of some of the most unusual spices from remote parts of the world used to enhance the flavor of exotic dishes.
Top Ten Most Unusual Spices
1. Szechuan Pepper: Originating from the Szechwan province of China, Szechwan pepper is associated with dishes from that region which feature hotter and spicier cooking than the rest of China. Duck and chicken dishes in particular work well with the spice. Hua jiao yen is a mixture of salt and Szechwan pepper, roasted and browned in a wok and served as a condiment to accompany chicken, duck and pork dishes. Star anise and ginger are often used with it and figures prominently in Szechwan cuisine.
2. Grains of Paradise
Grains of paradise are commonly employed in the cuisines of West Africa and of North Africa. Try it in dishes where black pepper would be used, cracking the grains and pressing into meats, or grind onto pastas or vegetables. Alton Brown is a fan of Grains of Paradise.
Any plant of the genus Lavandula, comprising about 30 species of the mint family Lamiaceae, native to countries bordering on the Mediterranean. Add to sweet dishes. Try in short bread cookies, ice cream, honey, cakes and icings. Ensure you are using a culinary grade lavender that has been raised and harvested, and safe for human consumption.
4. Roasted Cumin
Dry-roasted cumin has a full-bodied, nutty flavour that is complementary to Indian, Mid-Eastern, Mexican and Malaysian cooking. If you just have seeds, heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add two tablespoons of cumin seeds and cook until dark (about 1 1/2 minutes), shaking the pan constantly.
5. Juniper berries
Pine-like, spicy, refreshing and savoury, an excellent foil for rich, gamey or fatty foods. Try mixing it with wine for game, fish or chicken dishes. Juniper Berries are used in Northern Europe and the United States in marinades, roast pork, and sauerkraut. They enhance meat, stuffings, sausages, stews, and soups.
6. Lime Leaves
Also known as kieffer lime and limau purut, it’s a type of lime native to Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine, and widely grown worldwide as a backyard shrub. Kaffir lime leaf adds a refreshing taste in many Thai soups and curries. Grind the leaf to use in curry blends or use it whole in soups and stir fries.
7. Maple Granules
Pure Maple Granules is a healthy alternative sweetener made entirely from pure maple syrup. Use it in cookies, muffins, breads, milk shakes lemonade, and tea. When rubbed onto meats or fish it creates a light glaze when cooked or grilled – much easier to work with and less likely to burn than maple syrup. Uncooked, it has a crunchy texture adding dimension as a condiment when sprinkled on vegetables, sweets or even breakfast cereal.
Native to Iran, sumac is a berry of a bush that grows wild. It is widely used in different kinds of the Middle Eastern food. The Lebanese and Syrians use it on fish, and Iraqi and Turks on vegetables. In Greek cooking, sumac is used as a rub for grilled meats, and as a flavoring most notably on meats, in stews, and in pita wraps. It is also used in rice and vegetable dishes. Try adding a dash to the top of hummus for a new taste treat. Sprinkle liberally over rice, and kebabs.
9. Nigella seeds
Nigella is used in India and the Middle East as a spice and condiment and occasionally in Europe as both a pepper substitute and a spice. It is widely used in Indian cuisines, particularly in mildly braised lamb dishes such as korma. It is also added to vegetable and dhal dishes as well as in chutneys. The seeds are sprinkled on to naan bread before baking. Nigella is an ingredient of some garam masalas and is one of the five spices in panch phoran. In the Middle East nigella is added to bread dough.
10. Star Anise
This dried, star-shaped spice has a smokey, licorice flavor, used in Chinese braised dishes and Malaysian curries. Star anise is used in the East as aniseed is in the West. Apart from its use in sweetmeats and confectionery, where sweeteners must be added, it contributes to meat and poultry dishes, combining especially well with pork and duck. In Chinese red cooking, star anise is nearly always added to beef and chicken dishes. Chinese stocks and soups very often contain the spice.
Some spice descriptions were obtained from the Encyclopedia of Spices.