SparkPeople Blogs  •  spices  •  foods

15 Spices You've Probably Never Tried (But Totally Should)

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist
If you were to peek at random inside a few people's spice cabinets, you'd probably find the lineup of usual suspects: Salt, pepper, basil, paprika, garlic powder, ground mustard, cayenne pepper, oregano and dozens of other common flavors.
 
In addition to the usual suspects, did you know there's another whole subculture of taste enhancers just waiting to be discovered? Hundreds of spices are resting idly on your grocer's shelves waiting to add layers of complex flavor to your dishes. However, since we can’t cover them all in one blog, here are our top 15 picks for spices you should try ASAP.*  
  1. Achiote: Also referred to as annatto, this spice comes from the seeds of a plant called the Bixa orellana. Natives of the Caribbean have long been using achiote to flavor their dishes. You'll need a large amount to get the peppery, slightly bitter taste. When blended with other herbs and spices, it can form a flavorful marinade for meats, fish and poultry. Achiote also functions as a natural dye, providing the color for cheese, butter, margarine and other foods. You can purchase achiote as whole seeds, ground powder, paste or cooking oil/lard. Try it with Achiote Grilled Shrimp.
  2. Anardana: Although it's extracted from dried pomegranate seeds, anardana has a rich molasses flavor. A staple of Persian and Indian cuisine, it's a great topper for veggies, fruits and nuts, and also works well in relishes, sauces and meat rubs. You can buy anardana in whole seed format, partially or finely ground.
  3. Avocado Leaves: Grown on the Mexican avocado plant, avocado leaves are often added to soups, stews, beans, sauces and other Latin dishes. Dried or fresh, the leaves are typically toasted to release their licorice-like flavor.
  4. Black Sesame Seeds: These heart-shaped sesame seeds add a nutty flavor while also enhancing the visual presentation of recipes. They are often used in Chinese and Japanese dishes, such as tofu, salads, dips, pastries and desserts. The Japanese combine dry-roasted seeds with salt to create a condiment called sesame salt. Try it with Roasted Salmon with Black Sesame Seeds.
  5. Epazote: This strong herb has its roots in Mexican cuisine. For thousands of years, epazote has been used to add zesty flavor to soups, salads, beans, quesadillas and other Latin dishes. The leaves acquire a stronger flavor as they age.
  6. Galangal: Most often found in Indonesia, Malaysian and Thai recipes, galangal is derived from a plant root that looks very similar to ginger. The spice has a sharp citrus scent, and adds a mixture of citrus and earthy flavors to foods. Try it with Galangal Fried Chicken.
  7. Grains of Paradise: This pepper lookalike offers the spiciness you'd expect, along with some surprising floral and fruity essences. Originally from West Africa, Grains of Paradise can be substituted for pepper in any recipe that calls for spice with a twist.  
  8. Holy Basil: Although it's most commonly used to make herbal beverages, dried or fresh holy basil leaves can also add flavor to seafood, meats, salads, soups and desserts. Most popular in Thai cuisine, it often makes an appearance in stir-fry dishes and serves as a cooling complement to spicy foods. Try it with Pad Krapow Moo (Spicy Pork with Holy Basil).
  9. Juniper Berries: Grown on its namesake tree or shrub, the juniper berry has a sweet, zesty flavor that's released when ground. The berry has a long history, and was used by the Native Americans to season wild buffalo. Here in the United States, the spice is often used in sauces, marinades and brines, and pairs well with beef, pork and poultry.
  10. Lavender Sugar: A mix of pure sugar and dried culinary lavender, this beautiful floral spice can be mixed into cake batter, cookie or bread dough, or sprinkled on top of your favorite fruit. Need a creative chef's gift? Pour some lavender sugar into Mason jars and tie with ribbons. Try it with Grapefruit Lavender Sugar Cookies.
  11. Mastic: Produced by their namesake trees throughout the Mediterranean, mastic was originally used in chewing gum and toothpaste, but also has culinary applications. It's been an ingredient in Greek and Turkish liqueurs, as well as bread, pastries and desserts. The seasoning is prepared by pounding the mastic and mixing it with sugar and rose or orange blossom water.
  12. Saffron: It takes more than 75,000 purple crocus flowers to produce one pound of saffron, which explains why the spice is so expensive. Luckily, a little goes a long way. Saffron adds a distinctive sweetness to dishes, liqueurs and desserts, and is commonly used in Turkish, Arab, Persian, Indian and European cuisines. Beware of low-priced, diluted imitations that may look like golden saffron, but don't offer the same rich flavor. Try it with Fish Soup with Saffron and Cream.
  13. Smoked Salts: Looking for an edgier alternative to sea salt? The versatile smoked version is great for grilling meat, fish or poultry, and can also be added to vegetables, desserts, sauces and even as a drink garnish.  
  14. Sumac: No, not the poisonous kind. The sumac bush produces bright red berries that are ground into a spice that has a zesty, lemony flavor and deep red coloring. Sumac is most often used to enhance both the taste and appearance of Middle Eastern dishes. Try it with Sumac and Lime Crushed Salmon.
  15. Za'atar: This term collectively refers to several Middle Eastern herbs, but is also the name for a condiment prepared from those herbs along with sumac, sesame seeds and other spices. The herb and the spice mixture are both commonly used in Arabic recipes. Try sprinkling za'atar in olive oil and serve with bread, or swirl it into your favorite yogurt for an added kick. 
Check out our guide to cooking with herbs and spices, and discover the surprising benefits of heating up your meals with hot spices.

* Always check with your doctor if you are preganant, nursing or have small children before using these spices. 
 
Have you tried any of these spices? Are there any unconventional flavorings you'd add to this list?

We hope you love these product a much as we do! SparkPeople may collect a small percentage of revenue from links on this page.

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints

Comments

INGMARIE 7/31/2019
zaatar



Berbere from Ethiopia. Zaatar, Raz el hanout ,all spice blends works great as rubs for meats.
Report
KOALA_BEAR 7/25/2019
I'm unfamiliar w/ many of these & would want to try them first in a dish when eating out. I dislike licorice, nutmeg, & mace but enjoy many south American dishes & foods from the middle east, Mediterranean & Asia. I recall some Scandinavian flavors being quite different so it is about flavor & knowing how to use it. For some reason I seem to prefer spices from seeds more than herbs from leaves & twigs. Recently bought caramom for the hubby's health so I need to find a use for it. Report
TAZANGEL36 5/31/2019
I have za'atar and sumac in my spice cupboard, I use them in making shakshuka, shawarma, and other flavorful dishes. I haven't heard of a lot of these, but I'm always up for trying new things! Thanks to @skyspirit464, @thegoktor, @lookshylily and @onionflower for alerting us to some possible contraindications! Report
SUSANBEAMON 12/28/2018
I'm happy with the spices I use, and there aren't very many of those. My spice cabinet is mostly empty and I'm fine with that. Report
CECELW 12/25/2018
I've never even heard of most of these. That's why I really enjoy some of the articles on SP Report
SHOAPIE 12/24/2018
Many are new to me. Report
LIDDY09 12/24/2018
Thanks for sharing. Report
JAH1264 12/24/2018
This just morexof a reason to go to Patel Bros market in either Naperville or in Chicago. Been dying to spend a Saturday there and just been too busy to do so. Also need to make a trip to H market in Naperville. Although there is a smaller one in the Loop. I also need to make a trip to Chinatown for tea. I love finding meals from other cultures to incorporate into my repotoire. Shopping at markets that cater to Asian cultures are wonderful sources. One of the many things I love about the Chicago area. Report
MSROZZIE 12/23/2018
Thanks, very good article about new spices to try. Good need-to-know information! Report
CHERIRIDDELL 12/23/2018
I was fascinated,I am adventurous and you still managed to find some unfamiliar to me Thank you! Report
I have never heard of some of these and I know my store doesn't carry them. They might be interesting to try if they don't cost too much Report
KHALIA2
A very informative article! Thanks! Report
SCIENCEFAN7
I had not heard of a few of these. I may have to find #2 and #6 and try them. Thanks! Report
Interesting list, Thanks. Report
Some I have heard of but wouldn't know what to do with them. Others I have never heard of. Report
good points Report
Try adding za'atar to a salad of bulghur wheat or quinoa. It is great. Report
ATHENADRUID, may we please respect others' opinions, even if they do not agree with yours or don't rise to your high standard of proof? What research do you suggest these two ladies provide?

From WedMD (in support of SKYSPIRIT464): Grains of Paradise might be safe for most adults. However, they can cause irritation of the stomach, intestine, and urinary system.

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Not enough is known about the use of grains of paradise during pregnancy and breast-feeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid use.

Also from WebMD regarding Juniper Berries: It’s UNSAFE to use juniper if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Juniper’s effects on the uterus might interfere with fertility or cause a miscarriage. (This supports OnionFlower's post.) It’s also best to avoid using juniper if you are breast-feeding. Not enough is known about how juniper might affect a nursing infant.

Is this research up to your standards? Do you have data to share to show these two members' posts contain false information?

Report
ONIONFLOWER
The top of the article says there are 8 comments, I was just looking at them and now they are gone.
My comment is: this article is insulting ("you've probably never heard of these spices" indeed!) and irresponsible in that it omits to mention risks of some of these spices (juniper berries have been used to produce abortions,eg), and ignorant itself in that it also omits to mention benefits of any of the spices.

I hope never to see another article by this writer again. I have no confidence in what she tells me. After reading this article my trust in advice from SparkPeople is less than it was.

Report
LOOKSHYLILY
I love using juniper berries when I brew at home. They pair very nicely with the sweetness of mead. Honestly, because I have so many friends from all over the world who share recipes with me, the only thing stopping me is finances and availability for some of these.

Of course, you should always do your research before adding new spices to the mix. You may be allergic, or there may be counterindications (much like some people can't have grapefruit with certain medications) that may mean you shouldn't eat them. :) Report
KAREN2LOSE55
Cool list. Thank you! Report
I have used sumac, saffron, and za'atar. Interesting flavors! Sumac & za'atar were used in Middle Eastern dishes, and I use saffron in paella or other Spanish dishes. Report
I have tried the juniper berries! We have an amazing spice shop close to here, that sells a bunch of these, although I wasn't sure how to use even close to all of them. The juniper berries though are *amazing* to spice up hamburgers. Helps me cut down a bit on sodium too, because I was using seasoning salt to add flavor to hamburgers before that. Report
LCERTUCHE
I was surprised to see so many I've never tried before and some I've never even heard of. Report
nice list list not sure if I will ever use any Report
Indians come from India, not the Americas, surely?! I thought it was considered bad form to call Native Americans, 'Indians'?

Apart from that, nice list.

I agree with Skyspirit, particularly about the juniper (gin - made from juniper berries - was used to induce miscarriage in days gone by); perhaps you could edit this article to add a disclaimer or warning. Report
Be aware that the Grains of Paradise are not to be used when feeding pregnant women and young children. Do your research on all your herbs and spices before using them. And then there is the Juniper Berry-- Documented adverse effects include allergenic, catharsis in large doses, diuretic, and increases uterine tone (ie, possible anti-implantation, abortive, and emmenagogue/stimulating menstrual flow effects). Nursing women and women planning pregnancy should avoid use. Juniper should not be ingested by pregnant women. Report