8 unusual spices you've never heard of

Everyone is familiar with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, but spices such as asafetida, mahlab, sumac, or acacia seeds are unlikely to tell you anything.

According to legend, the Pharisees paid their tithes with cumin seeds. When King Alaric of the Visigoths besieged Rome in the 5th century, the ransom paid was 1,360 pounds of peppercorns. In 14th century Germany, 45 kg of nutmeg could be exchanged for seven fat oxen.

Spices have played a huge role in human history. Michael Crondle, in his book A Taste of Conquest, writes: “Empires have won and lost in the spice trade. European expansion and its eventual conquest of a large part of the world did not take place without the participation of small vessels with aromatic contents. Globalization launched the spice trade at sea.

Today we no longer think that a walk to the store is a substitute for a trip to Tahiti for vanilla or to Indonesia for nutmeg. But while the shelves are filled with all kinds of condiments, there are hundreds more that many of us have never heard of.


Asafetida powder is at the heart of Indian vegetarian cooking, but you’re unlikely to accidentally see it somewhere between basil or anise on the grocery store counter. Derived from the roots and stems of the giant fennel variety, asafetida is also known as hinge, food of the gods, giant fennel, stinky gum or Devil’s dung. The last two names point to the distinctive feature of this spice: its intense unpleasant odor. Fortunately, during the cooking process, the stench is replaced by a mild aroma reminiscent of something between garlic, onions, and leeks.

Cassia buds

Although it looks like cloves, the spice is the unopened flowers of the cinnamon tree. Their aroma is similar to that of cinnamon, but more multifaceted. Cassia buds are used in pickles, chutneys, and spice blends.

Ghost pepper powder

In 2007, the ghost pepper (bhut jolokia) made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the spiciest chili and held its position until 2012, when it was displaced by the Trinidad Scorpio pepper. But despite losing the champion title, it’s still pretty darn sharp. On the Scoville scale, which is used to measure chili spiciness, the ghost pepper scored 1 million points – by comparison, jalapenos have a range of 2,500 to 8,000 points. Ghost pepper powder is sometimes smoked, which only increases the pungency.

unusual seasonings

Grains of Paradise

The spice is similar to black pepper, but its taste is much richer – spicy, with a fruity and floral aftertaste with a touch of coriander and cardamom. Unlike pepper, grains of paradise are seeds, not berries, and their homeland is West Africa. They have been used for centuries as an affordable substitute for the expensive black pepper of those times. Today the opposite is true: grains of paradise cost a bit more.


The burning spice, derived from the pit of a sour cherry, has been used for centuries in the Middle East and the Mediterranean in the preparation of bread, cakes and cookies. Mahlab tastes like cherries with an aftertaste of rose, almond and vanilla. It is often sold in powder form.

Black cumin

These small black seeds are used in India and the Middle East in vegetable or bean dishes, salads and breads. They are also an ingredient in Bengali spice mixes. Black cumin can be consumed ground or unground and is usually sold roasted.


The bright red berries of sumac (a non-poisonous species) are dried and crushed. The spice is widely used in the Middle East to make fatouche salads, tabbouleh, marinades, sauces, rice dishes, dressings, and seasoning mixtures. Incredibly spicy and bright in taste, sumac is often used as a substitute for lemon, if citrus acidity in a dish is inappropriate.

Acacia seeds

This versatile spice is native to Australia. Acacia seeds are roasted, crushed only slightly to enhance the flavor reminiscent of coffee, chocolate and hazelnuts, and used to flavor ice cream, whipped cream, meringues, cheesecakes and other desserts. Stock seeds can also be used in main dishes.