Herbs and spices have been highly sought for their medicinal and culinary purposes even before written history. Although many common herbs – such as basil, thyme, and rosemary – can be grown in our own garden or home, many spices come from more exotic parts of the world. Most spices originated in the tropical or subtropical climates of Africa, India, South East Asia, the Caribbean or Mexico.
The spice trade was one of the most lucrative businesses in history. Arab traders came up with fantastical stories about the origin of the spices, often saying that winged animals or poisonous snakes protected the spices! This not only dissuaded others from trying to find the spices themselves, but it also increased the cost of spices on the market.1
Top 10 most exotic spices
Many people use spices like black pepper, cinnamon, and paprika on a daily basis, but some of the best spices are actually the most exotic ones.
Saffron is by far the world’s most expensive spice, and can cost up to $5,000 per pound! It has been used for thousands of years as a dye, medicine, seasoning, and fragrance, and is originally from Persia (modern day Iran). Part of the reason it is so expensive is that of all of the work it takes to grow and harvest. Saffron comes from the stigma of the blue flowering crocus, botanically known as Crocus sativus. It takes between 200 and 500 stigmas to make a single gram of saffron, and they are all handpicked. There are usually only three stigmas per flower! No wonder saffron is so rare and expensive. 2
Sumac comes from the dried berries of Rhus coriaria, a plant native to Southern Europe. Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and North African dishes use sumac, and it adds a sour lemony flavor to meals. Sumac is packed full of antioxidants and can help lower blood sugar levels.3
Ferula is a perennial herb native to Central Asia, and its gum resin makes Asafoetida. Many people use it in Indian vegetarian dishes, and it is a wonderful replacement for both onion and garlic. Additionally, some people use it in herbal medicine to treat gas, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal worms. 4
Anardana is actually the dried seed of wild pomegranate plants. It is a common ingredient in chutneys and is very popular in Indian cuisine. It adds a slightly sour and fruity flavor that complements many dishes.
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5. Grains of paradise
Grains of paradise look a lot like whole black peppercorns, although they are related to cardamom and ginger. The Melegueta tree is native to West Africa and produces grains of paradise. Melegueta pepper or Guinea grains are other names for grains of paradise. Additionally, the Caribbean and African cuisine both use grains of paradise. Furthermore, when black pepper became too expensive in the 19th century, grains of paradise took its place.
6. Juniper berries
Juniper berries come from both a cold climate and a coniferous plant, and they are the only spice to do so. They grow on the small juniper shrub that grows throughout the Northern hemisphere and are one of the primary ingredients in gin. They can take up to three years to become mature enough to harvest, and the aromatic flavor is popular in many European cuisines.
Annatto is a brightly colored spice native to Central and South America. The seeds of the achiote tree produce it. It adds a delightful orange or red color to foods. Additionally, people add it to dishes for its earthy, musty and slightly peppery taste. Many Latin American dishes use annatto.5
Galangal is a rhizome that looks similar to ginger, yet comes from a different botanical family. It is a common ingredient in Malaysian and Indonesian cuisine. There are two different types, known as greater galangal and lesser galangal. Greater galangal is native to Java, while lesser galangal is native to China. It can be found in both full rhizome and powdered form.6
Fenugreek seeds are very common in Middle Eastern cuisine and are often an ingredient in curries and chutneys. It is an annual plant that is native to Southern Europe, the Mediterranean region and Western Asia. People often grind the seeds before adding them to dishes, and also roast them beforehand to mellow out the naturally bitter flavor. Fenugreek adds a slightly sweet, nutty flavor.7
10. Ceylon cinnamon
I know what you’re thinking. Cinnamon isn’t an exotic spice! However, most cinnamon found in the United States is actually cassia cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is “real” cinnamon and is native to Sri Lanka. Even so, both types of cinnamon come from a plant of the genus Cinnamonum. Although the two are similar in taste, Ceylon cinnamon is thought to have a slightly sweeter taste and more fragrant aroma.8
The next time you’re looking for a way to add new, exciting flavors to your cooking, think about trying an exotic spice!
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