The notorious asafetida (Ferula assafoetida) is the strong smelling, even stinking, dried yellow-brownish resin extracted from the root of a plant that grows wild from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia. Related to fennel, asafetida gets its name from assa, a Farsi word meaning “resin”, and the Latin foetidus meaning “stinky.”
Fresh asafetida resin is powerful and can be highly unpleasant to the uninitiated, yet intriguing and stimulating to its fans. Asafetida is used as a savory substitute for onion and garlic in the Jain religion.
For strongest flavor, buy asafetida resin.
For milder flavor in an easier to use form, buy powdered asafetida called hing from Indian groceries.
Yellow asafetida is milder than the gray powder.
Australian lemon myrtle
Lemon Myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) has dark green, highly aromatic, lemon-scented leaves resembling bay leaves with a fragrance and flavor that combines lemon verbena, lemongrass, wild lime and a hint of eucalyptus. It grows in the subtropical and tropical coastal rainforest areas of Australia.
Lemon myrtle leaves are used fresh or dried and have the ability to hold their flavor and aroma considerably longer than other lemon-flavored herbs.
Steep powdered lemon myrtle in liquid and then strain to remove the coarse powder. Lemon myrtle leaf is sold whole or powered.
Stored in a cool, dark place, the coarse, pale green powder maintains all the character of the green leaf.
Purchase whole or ground lemon myrtle from Herbie’s Spices (www.herbies.com.au).
Black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) is the seed of a cardamom relative, which grows in the eastern Himalayas. The seeds are enclosed in large, oblong, dark brown pods that have wavy ribs along the edges (the ribs are sometimes called wings).
Black cardamom is much stronger than green cardamom, with a bold, resinous, and smoky flavor.
Much of the crop is smoked-dried and the seeds are rich in penetrating aromatics. Black cardamom is used in India in spicy and rustic dishes and in western Asia in savory dishes.
Purchase whole black cardamom because the seeds lose their flavor quickly when ground.
Even whole, cardamom loses about 40 percent of its essential oil per year.
Purchase black cardamom from Indian markets.
Black cumin (kala jeera or shahi jeera)
Black cumin (Bunium persicum) is a rare dark variety of cumin that grows wild in Iran and the Northern Indian region of Kashmir and called royal cumin in India.
The small, dark brown, curved seeds of black cumin are highly aromatic with a sweet, yet resinous and astringent flavor. It is preferred for Northern Indian kormas and in many savory dishes of Northern India, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Look for whole black cumin seeds in Indian groceries and expect to pay a high price.
Cinnamon, cassia, cassia buds
Cinnamon (Cinamomum zeylanicum), AKA softstick or true cinnamon (canela in Mexico), is the sweetly scented inner bark of the cinnamon tree related to the bay laurel.
Cassia (C. aromaticum), or Chinese cinnamon, is similar but bolder in flavor to true cinnamon bark, though thicker and tougher with a dark brown, rough outer surface.
Vietnamese cinnamon or cassia (C. loureirii) resembles Chinese cassia, but it is smaller and thinner.
Cassia buds are the dried unripe fruits of the cassia tree.
Indonesian cinnamon (C. burmannii) is much thicker than and not as breakable as Vietnamese cinnamon.
Cinnamon bark is hand rolled into friable light reddish-brown quills that have a warm, spicy yet sweet and delicate flavor. Cassia bark chunks are thick and strong but brittle, and are often sold in small irregular shapes.
Reddish brown when powdered, cassia has a pronounced, slightly bitter aroma.
Prized in China and Japan, Vietnamese cinnamon is highest in essential oil and has a sweet, rich pungent flavor.
Indonesian cinnamon quills are reddish-brown outside, but the inner side of the bark is much darker gray-brown.
Much of the “cinnamon” used in the United States is actually Indonesian cassia.
Paler true cinnamon is of better quality, because it comes from young cultivated shoots.
Ground cinnamon quickly loses its subtle nuances of aroma. True cinnamon is easy to crush and grind at home and will yield the most complex and subtle flavor.
For cassia, look for whole reddish brown rather than dark brown quills. Unlike in the U.S., in Europe, cassia may not be sold as cinnamon.
Purchase true cinnamon (called canela) at Mexican groceries or from specialty spice merchants.
Purchase cassia buds, Ceylon “True” Cinnamon, prized China Tung Hing cassia, Indonesian ground and whole cinnamon, and Vietnamese cinnamon from The Spice House (www.thespicehouse.com).
These resemble black peppercorns with small stalks protruding from one end almost like a tiny “bomb”
Cubeb pepper has a peppery, juniper berry-like aroma and hot, pungent flavor. Native to Java, Cubeb pepper was valued by the Romans; today it is used mostly in India and North Africa.
Buy whole cubeb pepper from specialty spice purveyors.
East Indian bottle Masala
A complex mixture of spices with recipes closely held family secrets, handed down from mother to daughter within the East Indian community.
Based on toasted ground deep red Kashmiri chiles bottle Masala has a full, rounded flavor combining star anise, black cumin, fenugreek, fennel seed and sweet Indian bay leaf. In India, bottle Masala is made before monsoon season every year. Bottle Masala is not available commercially to my knowledge.
Epazote (Chenopodium ambroisioides) is a strong-tasting resinous herb related to beets and spinach with large, matte, spiky, dark green leaves and a turpentine-like smell that is off-putting at first, but intriguing and stimulating to the appetite with familiarity.
Epazote is native to Mexico and the tropical regions of Central and South America, where it is commonly found wild. It is also widely naturalized in the U.S., especially California. In Mexican cooking, epazote is added to the pot when cooking black beans for its natural carminative (gas-preventing) properties and to cut the heaviness of beans.
Epazote is commonly available fresh in supermarkets in Texas and other parts of the Southwest, but is more often found dried in Mexican markets.
Fresh epazote dries easily and will keep quite well. Dry in a low (200°F) oven for several hours, or until brittle, then store in a glass jar or tin in a cool dark place.
Wild fennel pollen
Fennel pollen (Foeniculum vulgare) is an expensive spice with a potent yet ethereal fennel scent much used in Italy.
Fennel pollen should be sprinkled on to foods like vegetables, beans, salads, tomato sauces, poultry, fish and seafood just before serving.
Fennel pollen is in season in the late summer after the flowers open. Purchase fennel pollen from specialty producers in Italy.
Grains of paradise
The small reddish-brown seeds of grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) have a flavor like spicy, nutty black pepper, cardamom, and lemon with woody and evergreen notes, a numbing quality and a lingering camphor flavor.
The seeds are about the size and shape of cardamom and both are in the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family. Most grains of paradise are imported from Ghana where the seeds are chewed on cold days to warm the body. The spice is well-known in North Africa and appears in the Moroccan spice mixture ras el hanout
Buy whole grains of paradise from specialty spice merchants. Add to the poaching liquid for fruits.
Sumac (Rhus coriaria) is a dried burgundy-red fruit that is quite tart with resinous, woody, and citrus notes. Small sumac berries have a thin outer skin and flesh surrounding an extremely hard seed and grow in large elongated clumps.
The best sumac will have deep brick-red to burgundy color and coarse uniform texture with a high ratio of flesh to pulverized stem and seed.
Sumac is a popular condiment in Turkey and Iran, where it is liberally sprinkled on kebabs and rice or mixed with onions and parsley as a salad.
Sumac trees grow wild in the Mediterranean and are found in much of the Middle East. Dried sumac is usually sold ground into a coarse textured deep purplish-red powder that is and moist with a fruity, tangy aroma and a salty aftertaste from the salt added as a preservative.
Purchase dried ground sumac from Middle Eastern markets and from Whole Spice (www.wholespice.com).
The stones of St. Lucy’s cherries (Prunus mahaleb) contain small beige kernels called mahlab, which are about the size of a large oval peppercorn. Native to southern Europe, the small tree grows wild in the Mediterranean region.
Mahlab has an aroma reminiscent of cherry, almond flowers, and rosewater with a nutty yet surprisingly bitter aftertaste.
In Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean cooking, mahlab lends its flavor to sweet pastries, confectionery, and cheese.
Iran is the most important grower of mahlab, followed by Turkey and Syria. Purchase mahlab seeds from a Middle Eastern grocery.
Grind just before using as mahlab quickly loses its aroma.
Mastic is a resin hand-harvested from Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia, a wild pistachio tree also known as the lentisk that grows on Chios, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Although it grows elsewhere, the immeasurably ancient mastic tree only gives off its resin on Chios.
When tapped or “hurt,” as the process is called, the trunk yields a clear resin that hardens into brittle, crystalline pieces referred to as tears.
If broken, the tears have a shiny quartz-like surface with a faint piney aroma and a bitter mineral-like flavor. After a few minutes of chewing, mastic takes on the texture of chewing gum and a beige color.
Mastic production on Chios occurs between June and September and is finished in December. The crystals may be purchased any time of year and are sold by size, the largest, clearest crystals costing the most. I find powdered mastic to be overly bitter.
To guarantee purity, purchase mastic crystals produced by the Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association at Mastica Shop New York, (www.masticashopny.com). Mastic may also be found at Greek groceries.
Orange blossom water
Fragrant orange blossom water is distilled from the flowers of the bitter orange tree, Citrus aurantium, also known as Seville orange, sour orange, or Bigarade orange.
Orange blossom water is lighter and less intensely perfumed than rosewater, although that varies greatly by brands and country of origin. Some are sweeter, others more floral.
The A. Monteux orange flower water from France has a very floral perfume-like fragrance.
Middle Eastern orange flower water is from Lebanon and has a more orange and citrusy nose with an earthy character and no sweetness to the palate. Cortas is the most commonly found brand of orange blossom water (and rosewater) in the United States.
Classically, rosewater is made using the many-petaled, fragrant damask rose, Rosa damascena, first grown in Persia and Bulgaria, but now also found in Spain, Italy, and France. Because of the perfume industry’s immense demand for rose oil, rosewater, a byproduct, is inexpensive. Rosewater was first produced by chemists in medieval times in Persia. Today, the Middle East is the largest producer of rosewater, because of demand and the availability of damask roses. In the south of France and North Africa, rose oil is obtained from Rosa centifolia.
In the famed Bulgarian Rose Valley, also known as the Kazanluk Valley, rosewater is distilled from damask roses cultivated in the region for over 300 years and producing blossoms with an extraordinarily high percentage of essential oil.
Indian rose essence is extracted from small doubled-petaled deep-red roses grown specifically for their inimitable fragrance.
Rosewater has a distinctive flavor and is used heavily in South Asian, West Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine—especially in sweets. For the uninitiated, especially in America, the first reaction is usually “it tastes like soap,” because that is our association in the West.
In the Middle East, Indian, Turkey, and North Africa, rose is as common a culinary flavoring as is vanilla and cinnamon. My absolute favorite rosewater comes from Dubai and is available from Kalustyans (www.kalustyans.com).
Turkish Urfa pepper
Urfa biber (also known as Isot pepper) is a dried Turkish pepper, a variety of Capsicum annum cultivated in the Urfa region of Eastern Turkey. It is often described as having a smoky, raisiny taste. Urfa peppers ripen to a dark maroon on the plant but after curing turn deep purple to dark, purplish black.
Traditionally used in Turkey in meat and savory foods, because of its fruity overtones, American chefs are now incorporating Urfa into sweet dishes as well.
For curing, the peppers are sun-dried during the day and wrapped tightly at night. The night process is called ‘sweating’, and works to infuse the dried flesh with the remaining moisture of the pepper.
Urfa biber is less spicy than many other chile peppers, but provides a more lasting build of heat.
Buy high-quality freshly ground Urfa Pepper from Whole Spice in California. (www.wholespice.com).
Wattleseed (Acacia victoriae and A. murrayana) comes from several of the more than seven hundred species of Acacia–most of which are poisonous–that grow over much of central Australia.
Wattleseed is relatively expensive because it is mostly gathered from the wild and requires time-consuming processing. Buy small amounts of whole wattleseed. It is best used within 2 years; ground wattleseed is more perishable.
Wattleseed’s flavor combines roasted coffee, chocolate, and hazelnut.
The tiny brown seeds are in high demand in Australia for their deep, complex flavor, and they appear in pastries, breads, and desserts as well as in a coffee-like beverage.
Wattleseed is roasted in a process similar to roasting coffee and then ground to a dark brown, grainy powder that resembles coffee grounds.
Purchase whole or ground wattleseed from Herbie’s Spices (www.herbies.com.au) from Australia. Service is fast though shipping is pricy.
The curry-like spice mixture, Hawaij, is essential to the cuisine of Yemen and is also very popular in Israel, due to its large Yemenite community.
Hawaij is used liberally as a rub for grilled meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables and may also be sprinkled into soups, stews, sauces, and rice.
There is also a version of hawaij used to spice coffee (also tea and desserts) made from ginger, cinnamon, clove, and cardamom similar to the idea of Indian tea Masala.
Purchase Hawaij from Whole Spice (www.wholespice.com) or from kosher markets that carry Pereg spices from Israel.
To make your own hawaij, in a dry skillet, combine 6 tablespoons black peppercorns, 4 tablespoons cumin seed, 2 tablespoons coriander seed, 1 tablespoon green cardamom pods, and 1 teaspoon whole cloves. Toast over medium heat, shaking often, until fragrant.
Cool and then grind. Stir in 3 tablespoons ground turmeric. Makes about 1 cup.