As cheesy or overdone as this sounds, spices really are the spice of life. They add depth, flavor, intensity, and heat to cooking and can elevate an ordinary dish to one that’s spectacular. The problem is understanding what some of these exotic spices are and the best ways to use them.
Take, for example, saffron. Expensive yes, but simply adding a pinch of these crimson strands gives a stunning orange hue to any dish. Use it to brighten up rice or add more complexity to soups.
To help you navigate the aromatic world of exotic spices, we paired up with Aliya LeeKong, chef and culinary creative director at Junoon restaurant in New York City, who wrote a quick primer on seven exotic spices that she thinks are essential for any home kitchen.
Soak in what she says below and then try your hand at a few of the spice-filled recipes that she offers as examples of the magic that spices can make when used properly.
Cardamom is known for having astringency and a warm, camphorous, palate-clearing flavor. Although black cardamom is sometimes thought of as a lesser version of green cardamom, that is completely untrue. Where green is more pungent and menthol-y, black cardamom is earthier, with less of a eucalyptus flavor, and more woodsy and smoky. Green cardamom is used a lot in Middle Eastern and South Asian desserts, coffee, and other sweet stuff; black cardamom works better in savoury applications — added to lamb or beef marinades and stews, and found in Asian soups and vegetable stir-fry dishes. Black cardamom, which is also referred to as brown cardamom, is fantastic in plain white or brown rice, thrown in whole or split to add a little kick. When the seeds are ground, they make a delicious addition to a barbeque dry rub or burger and work well thrown into the braising liquid of beef short ribs.
To try a recipe with black cardamom, try making the Smoky Lamb Burgers with Mint-Chile Pickled Cucumbers pictured at left.
If you want to have one black peppercorn on hand, it’s this one. Tellicherry pepper comes from its namesake region on India’s Malabar coast. Compared to other black peppercorns, this one is cleaned of stems and lesser-quality peppercorns, is extra large, and has the best grade based on its flavor profile. It’s largely regarded as the highest quality black peppercorn in the world and, with its high volatile oil content, has a strong fragrance and pungency. With Tellicherry pepper, a little goes a long way.
Anyway you slice it, if you want good saffron, you’re going to have to shell out some money. Kashmiri and certain Italian saffrons, though not marketed as much as Spanish saffron, are the highest quality and the most potent in terms of aroma and color. Persian, or Iranian, saffron is as good as (if not better than) the best saffron from Spain. The thing that distinguishes Persian saffron is that it has a lower moisture content, which means it keeps for a longer period of time and also crushes easily into a powder so you can use less. Saffron is one of the most versatile spices, amazing in both savory and sweet dishes. Use it to dress up a risotto, infuse a soup, or elevate a sweet rice pudding.
Urfa biber are chile flakes made by coarse-grinding a Turkish chile variety. These peppers are grown in southeastern Turkey, close to Syria, and range in color from burgundy to purplish-black. They undergo a two-part process, alternatingly dried in the sun and wrapped overnight — a process that develops the amazingly smoky, sweet, and earthy character. The flavor is a lot like ancho chiles, although with a bit more heat. It hits you more at the front of your tongue, in a black-pepper kind of way and has a beautiful smokiness to it. This is a go-to for grilled meats, in Sunday breakfast scrambled eggs with pancetta and green onions, as a pizza topper, and to give sautéed fish more depth of flavor. The peppers have a pretty high oil content, and the ground spice should look shiny. It should be stored in the freezer and keeps for months that way.
Spidery, little star anise is actually the fruit of an evergreen tree that’s been dried. The spokes of star anise are usually split, revealing a shiny, oblong seed; interestingly enough, the pod has a lot more flavor than the seeds. Although completely unrelated to aniseed, the flavor is similar, with really strong, licorice-like notes. There’s also a woodsy spiciness, not unlike cinnamon or even clove — truly complex and warm and deep. When you inhale the fragrance of the spice, it smells sweeter and more herbal than it tastes.
Star anise is a secret weapon, that ingredient you can add to everything from desserts to braises that people won’t be able to identify. Key in Indian garam masala and Chinese five spice, this spice takes barbeque sauce to a new level and makes a mean, super-spiced apple pie with vanilla bean, cinnamon, and nutmeg . Although beautiful in its whole state, beware that it is extremely difficult to grind star anise to a complete powder without industrial strength. The whole ones are great to throw into liquids, as the flavor diffuses easily, and the powdered form works better for dishes where a ground spice is more appropriate.
Ajwain is one of those crossover ingredients. You may have seen ajwain seeds labeled as ajowan, bishop’s weed, or even carom seeds, and it’s actually a member of the parsley family. The leaves are not really used in cooking, and the seeds bear a close resemblance to celery seeds. The seeds contain high levels of thymol, thus their thyme-like flavor, but they have a slight bitterness, even a sharp peppery bite to them. They go incredibly well with vegetables, lentils, and starches, particularly when dry-roasted or even fried first. Cooking them brings out their herbaceous quality and mellows most of the bitterness. These seeds were meant to be paired with mushrooms and work beautifully in a tart or flatbread. They are also delicious with roast potatoes or in a green lentil side dish with tomatoes.
Ground Vanilla Bean
It’s undeniable how much rich flavor a single vanilla bean adds. That’s the thing though — you have to buy and use the whole (expensive!) bean. Ground vanilla bean is incredible because you can use as little or as much as you like; it has that real vanilla flavor and is more potent than extract; and you still get those cool specks in your ice cream, whipped cream, or whatever you happen to be making. It isn’t cheap, but it’s much less expensive than buying the whole beans. Having the ground bean on hand lets you experiment with a pinch in a cream sauce, a rub, or other savory dish you wouldn’t have broken open a whole bean for.
Have leftover spices that don't seem quite up to par? Check out this easy tip on how to revive them.