8 Exotic Spices You’ve Never Heard Of

Spices are essential to elevating the taste of the food you cook. Your local grocery store can help you find some of these spices, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list. Here are eight exotic spices you’ve never heard of to take your cooking to the next level.

Black Cardamom

Pile of black cardamom pods on a gray marble surface
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Black cardamom is a dark brown or black pod that’s native to central Asia. More than half of the world’s supply is grown in India. It’s best to buy black cardamom as whole beans, then remove the skin and use a coffee grinder to make the seeds into a powder, as the spice loses its potency shortly after opening and grinding.

This spice is a favorite in Indian cooking and provides a unique, smoky flavor. It also has a slightly minty aroma that might remind some people of menthol. There’s also a green cardamom that’s used in sweet dishes. They have very different flavors, so it’s important not to mix up the two.

Cassia Buds

Pile of cassia buds spilling out of mason jar on a blue table surface
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While you might not be familiar with the name cassia buds, you are definitely familiar with the plant. Cassia buds are the unopened flowers of the cassia tree, otherwise known as cinnamon. Most people enjoy the bark of the cassia tree when it’s rolled up and put into tea or cider.

Cassia buds have the same sweet cinnamon flavor, but they’re milder and more delicate. When you don’t want your dish or dessert to be completely overwhelmed, try using cassia buds. They can also be used for pickling.

Asafetida

Ground up asafetida sprinkled into a white bowl with whole spices on table
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Asafetida is another spice used in Indian cooking. While it probably can’t be found in your local chain grocery store, it’s usually sold in most Indian grocers. Most people are afraid to use Asafetida because of its potent, boiled egg-like smell; but once it’s in the dish, many people can’t live without it.

Indian cooks use Asafetida as commonly as American cooks use salt. Its primary use is as a flavor enhancer. The only way to describe the taste is to say that it makes Indian food taste more Indian.

Grains of Paradise

Deep pile of grains of paradise seeds, showing close detail on black pods
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Grains of paradise is a relative of ginger and cardamom that’s grown in western Africa. It tastes like pepper but with more floral notes. Previously, when black pepper became expensive, grains of paradise gained popularity.

Today, with the affordability of black pepper, grains of paradise has fallen back under the radar for most. If you want to add some floral touches to your dishes, try using grains of paradise instead of black pepper or even adding some to your pepper grinder.

Mahlab

Green St. Lucy sour cherry plant, the base for  mahlab spices
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Mahlab is a spice made by grinding up the pit of a St. Lucy sour cherry. It’s used commonly in Greek and Middle Eastern cooking. The St. Lucy cherries are smaller than typical sour cherries. The pits are about the size of a small peanut.

Mahlab has a sweet-bitter flavor similar to that of an almond. Its primary use is in baking, specifically sweetbreads and desserts. It can also be used as a sweet rub for meats.

Sumac

Up close view of ground up red sumac placed on a wooden spoon
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While it might be related to the itch-causing backyard plant, sumac the spice is a red powder with a unique sour flavor. The sumac bush produces red berries that are dried and ground up to form a powder. It was commonly used in central Europe and the Middle East until lemons were introduced.

Not only will sumac contribute its beautiful red color to any dish, it also brings a tart flavor that’s more balanced and less intense than lemon juice. It tastes great on chicken, fish, and vegetables.

Wattleseed

Brown wattleseed pods hanging from tree branch outside
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Wattleseed has been a staple in Australian diets for over 40,000 years. The Aborigines would collect the wattleseed pods, grind them up, and bake them into their breads. Today, the ground spice is still used as a baking ingredient and thickening agent but can also be used to add flavor to any dish. It’s one of the most versatile spices in any Australian kitchen.

It has a sweet flavor with hints of raisins and chocolate. Any time you use it, your kitchen will be filled with an aroma similar to roasted coffee.

Sweet Flag

Up close view of green calamus plant from which sweet flag is derived
Credit: IvanaStevanoski/ Shutterstock

Sweet flag is the common name for the calamus root, a plant native to the Middle East. The roots were harvested and used for many different purposes including perfumery and wig-making. The health benefits made it popular as a medicine, and it was even used as an early form of chewing gum. Sweet flag was so popular during the 17th century that the plant was almost harvested into extinction.

The sweet flag leaves can be used similarly to vanilla or cinnamon to add a sweet flavor to desserts, and the powdered root can provide a more robust flavor for sweet dishes and drinks. Sweet flag root is one of the main ingredients for the original recipe of Dr. Pepper.

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