Melting pot of American cuisine has been spiced with exotic flavors from faraway places


August 30, 1992|By Steven Raichlen | Steven Raichlen,Contributing Writer

You have seen them at ethnic markets: strange seeds, mysterious leaves, bizarre roots, fragrant snippets of plants you thought grew only in the tropics. Perhaps you tasted them while on vacationb in Asia or Latin America: the perfumed scent of Indian caradamom, the licorice-like tang of Chinese star anise, the perky citrus flavor of Southeast Asian lemon grass. You have wondered what they were, these exotic herbs and spices, how to use them and where to buy them.

Here's a guide to some of the spices that are being added to America's melting pot and are revolutionizing the way we think about cooking.


Native to Central America and the Caribbean, annatto is the small, triangular, red-orange seed of a tree called Bixa orellana. Since pre-Columbian times, this rust-colored spice has been a cornerstone of Caribbean cooking. In Spanish is called achiote, while in the French and Dutch Antilles it is known as roncou. Annatto has also been called poor man's saffron, as it imparts a rich golden hue to any dish to which it is added. Its flavor is delicate but distinctive, hinting of paprika, flowers and herbs.

In the Spanish Caribbean, especially in Puerto Rico, annatto is cooked in oil or lard to make a golden condiment used in rice dishes, stews, and sofrito. In the Yucatan, it is pureed with garlic, onions and orange juice to make a marinade for grilled meats.

Annatto can be found at most Hispanic and Latin American food markets and in the Hispanic food section in many supermarkets. Buy it at a place with high turnover, avoiding dust-covered bottles.


It is said in Arab countries that a poor man would rather forgo his rice than his cardamom. Hyperbole, perhaps, but it demonstrates the high regard in which much of the world holds (( this perfumed spice from India. Cardamom comes from a tropical shrub in the ginger family; the edible part of the plant is the seed pod, which contains 15 to 20 small, angular, black seeds.

There are two varieties of cardamom: green and black.

Green cardamom is sold in pod form, seed form, and ground, and can be found in most supermarket spice racks. For the best flavor, buy the seeds and grind them yourself in a spice mill. Black cardamom comes only in pod form and is available at Indian markets.

Green cardamom is a popular flavoring for dessert, especially in Scandinavia. Known as hal in the Middle East, it's an essential ingredient in Arabic coffee. Black cardamom is generally used in Indian dishes, such as rice biryani and the famous Indian spice mixture, garam masala.


Fenugreek means "Greek hay," literally. This small annual herb was popular among the Greeks and Romans as a seasoning, medicinal herb and even animal fodder. Today, it is essential to Indian cooking and it is used extensively in Africa and the Middle East.

Native to India, fenugreek is a member of the bean family: The small flat seeds resemble steam-rollered mung beans. Fenugreek has a mild, agreeably bitter flavor, which has been likened to that of burnt sugar.

Fenugreek is available in Indian and Middle Eastern markets. The seeds are used in India for pickling and curries; fenugreek is a primary flavoring in a southern Indian vegetable stew called sambaar.


Enthusiasts of Thai cooking will be familiar with an aromatic soup called tom yum. The dish owes its peppery pungency to a distinctive root called galangal. Native to Southeast Asia, galangal is a mainstay of Thai cooking (where it all but takes the place of ginger); it is also used extensively in Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos.

Greater galangal is always used sparingly as a flavoring, while lesser galangal, which is milder in taste, can be used as a vegetable as well as a spice.

To the casual observer, greater galangal may look like fresh ginger. Its taste is biting, bitter and peppery -- a medicinal version of ginger that's twice as hot and not nearly as sweet. Galangal is an essential component of the classical Thai curry pastes and it is added to a variety of soups, stews, and stir-fries.

Galangal is available fresh at markets that cater to Southeast Asians. Galangal is also available dried, both in slices and powder.

Lemon grass

I first tasted lemon grass at a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris. Its ,, haunting herbal aroma and delicate citrus taste made it love at first bite. Lemon grass has the floral fragrance and flavor of lemon without its mouth-puckering tartness. It is equally at home in delicate soups and tongue blistering curries, in appetizers and desserts.

The virtues of this fragrant stalk aren't lost on Thais or Vietnamese, for whom it is a culinary mainstay. Native to Southeast Asia, lemon grass figures prominently in the Thai soup tom yum and in the Vietnamese breakfast dish bo kho (beef soup), not to mention in a multitude of herbal teas in the West.

Lemon grass comes in long, slender stalks that are slightly bulbous at the root end, tapering to sharply pointed leaves. The overall appearance is that of an elongated scallion.

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