Favorite Unusual Spice

I just got back from a vacation in Chile and brought back with me a bag of merken, the favorite local spice. It is smoky and woodsy, made with dried and smoked goat's horn chilies. I'm in love with it and already mourning the fact that I only bought the small bag.

Makes me curious about what other unusual spices people have stumbled on over the years. Anyone else have a favorite unusual spice?



Rachna's K. November 24, 2016
I usually make pulao (rice) with aniseed and black cardamom. If you are not familiar with these spices look at this http://www.rachnas-kitchen.com/peas-pulao-recipe/
AntoniaJames November 24, 2016
Must try that, Rachna! So glad to see this thread again, too. ;o)
Smaug September 5, 2015
It's an herb, not a spice, but I'm very fond of a Mexican plant called Pipicha- It has a strong flavor reminiscent of cilantro, and must be used cautiously. A plant can perfume a large area on a warm day. Unfortunately, it is very tender and i have so far failed to collect seeds from it. There's a lot of neat stuff from Mexico; the one you're most likely to run into is Mexican oregano (Lippia Graveolens) which has a flavor similar to true oregano, but with sort of pineappley overtones; also pretty tender, though not as much as pipicha.
Leith D. September 1, 2015
I love using Provence epices (4 spices) made of pepper, cloves, ginger and nutmeg and in use since the middle ages. I also bought some Piment de'Espelette, which is a red pepper grown only in the Pyrénées mountains. It's not as spicy as regular red pepper.
I also love to use sumac, ras-el-hanout, and za'atar in my cooking. The spices add flavors I could never find anywhere else.
AntoniaJames September 1, 2015
Kala jeera. Not sure why more US cooks don't use it. I get it from Penzeys in large bags and love it! ;o)

P.S. If buying from a bulk source such as an Indian grocery, get just a tiny bit and try it out with a small portion of dal. I've gotten bulk kala jeera that was not nearly as fresh and tasty as the Penzeys.

I have a recipe here on Food52 that uses it, if anyone is interested.

Incidentally, I asked Food52 columnist Brown Table for suggestions on other ways to use it, but he did not respond.
Nancy September 1, 2015
I use kala jeera in bread, north India spice mixture and rice. for ex:
AntoniaJames September 3, 2015
Wow, thank you so much, Nancy. How helpful. Exactly the kind of information I was hoping to see. ;o)
Maedl August 31, 2015
It might not be as interesting as a trip to Chile, but you can buy merquen on Amazon. Urfa biber is not difficult to find, but I ordered it from Spice Station in Hollywood, CA. It arrived in no time (to the other side of the US) and the service was excellent.
Maedl August 31, 2015
Sorry, the earlier answers about Amazon didn't show up on my screen before I answered this. I suspect it is the balky internet access that caused it.

Greenstuff August 28, 2015
Here's a really interesting write-up on merken and the other wonders that region of Chile--it's responsible for out potatoes and garden strawberries! http://eccentricculinary.com/merken-the-mapuche-spice/
cookbookchick August 28, 2015
Not to deny you another trip to Chile, but merken (or merquen) is available from Zingermans.com.
cookbookchick August 28, 2015
Oops! I misspoke. It is not available from Zingerman's, though I did get Marash pepper flakes from them. I do, however, have Merken (as it is spelled on the little bottle) and I have never been to South America. I can't remember where I bought it, but Amazon has it. Appropriately enough.
Susan W. August 28, 2015
Yes, Amazon has it. I just ordered some. Couldn't help myself after this convo.
dinner A. August 30, 2015
Unfortunately for my preference, all of the items available via Amazon and other online retailers seem to be a blend with cumin and or/coriander and salt. The kind I have is just the chile pepper, although I think it is sold both alone and in blends in Chile.
Stephanie August 27, 2015
Grains of Paradise - more floral, aromatic flavor than peppercorns but with (essentially) the same uses. I find myself adding a smidge here and there, in both sweet and savory dishes.

Voted the Best Reply!

ChefJune August 27, 2015
What's unusual to one may be everyday to another, so not sure what to call "unusual." Love Raz-el-Hanout. I use mace and cardamom so often (especially in baking) that I don't think of either as "unusual" any more.
And I love to play with the various masalas that non-Indians think of as "curry." And not always for Indian food.
Niknud August 27, 2015
It's not all that exotic, but I really like szechuan peppercorns. So tingly and numby on the tongue! Also, I'm seconding the 'smoked cinnamon' suggestion. Try it in some homemade applesauce and use on pork if you want a real new kind of taste. Very cool stuff.
Panfusine August 27, 2015
Thippili / Pippili known as Long pepper. This was an ancient spice that predates the regular black peppercorn.. Its has a fantastic unusual flavor that I can't quite describe.. REcently discovered that there were actually 2 varieties of the same spice.
Jennifer August 26, 2015
I'd say za'atar, but I think it's technically an herb, so I'll go with sumac.
Picholine August 30, 2015
I agree, it's a lemony citrus oregano flavor that actually has sumac and oregano and thyme in it at least my source.
Try putting on a pita bread brushed with olive oil and sprinkle Zaatar on bake till slightly crisp. yum
QueenSashy August 26, 2015
I love mace, it's a skin of nutmeg, but not nutmeg at all. I love to use it in curries and sometimes in the winter when I am baking.
TheFritschKitchen August 27, 2015
I've never used mace before, but I think that's something I should rectify soon. I do love the way it looks, all red and spidery over the nutmeg though.
Jan W. August 26, 2015
I actually use sansho and ichimi togarashi from the Japanese grocer frequently. Sansho is a popular table seasoning for grilled foods in Japan in the summer, supposedly helps prevent fatigue in the summer, and is often on or brought to the table at eel restaurants.

Ichimi togarashi is one of those chilies with a slow, lingering heat that builds but never gets too hot. Sansho has that faint citrusy quality with the numbing tingly effect similar to Sichuan pepper/prickly ash, but I find that it is easier to get relatively fresh(er) sansho than sichuan pepper if you don't live near a Chinese grocer.
TheFritschKitchen August 27, 2015
Ichimi togarashi sounds right up my alley! I never was a huge fan of Sichuan pepper, although I am trying my best to work through the small portion I have. I don't have too many recipes that call for it either.
dinner A. August 26, 2015
Since you love cinnamon, you should try smoked cinnamon:
I've only read about it, but I definitely need to try it.
TheFritschKitchen August 26, 2015
Whhaaaa???? I didn't even know that existed!! I am most definitely going to have to try it. Thanks for the tip!
ChefJune August 27, 2015
Do you use Saigon cinnamon? amazing how different it is from "regular."
Nancy August 26, 2015
Hawadj (also spelled hawaijj) a savory blend from Yemen, including pepper, cardamon and cumin. Love it in stews and soups.
Also cardamon, for use in coffee and in spice cakes.
Last, Aleppo pepper (from the same region as the Urfa pepper already mentioned).
TheFritschKitchen August 26, 2015
That sounds fantastic! I think my favorite spice ever is cumin (although, cinnamon is a close 2nd), so any time I can add more cumin to anything is a definitely bonus.
dinner A. August 26, 2015
I love merquén (the other spelling for merkén and the one I knew). When I use mine up I'll just have to go back to Chile.
Another spice I enjoy that's less common than some is Urfa chile (aka Urfa biber or Isot pepper). It's a sun dried mild chile from Turkey, with a fruity-smoky flavor that's particularly great on roasted vegetables.
TheFritschKitchen August 26, 2015
My bag actually says merquen as well (don't know how to add the accent mark) but every where else looked like merken, so I thought that may be the more common spelling. It would be a good excuse to go back!!!
Angela August 31, 2015
I'm in Chile now, but I haven't bought any merken yet. How do you like to use it?
TheFritschKitchen August 31, 2015
Angela - So far I've mostly used it to sprinkle on top of pisco sours, as well as a dusting on fried eggs. I also used it with a pinch of salt over avocado toast. I think it would be pretty interchangeable with cayenne pepper. May have to try it as a sub in my usual chicken fajita recipe!
scruz August 26, 2015
it's more of an unusual ingredient (?), and many would see it as slightly low class, but i really like cooking with french's yellow mustard. it is so tart and makes a nice base in which to add garlic and other spices/herbs to smear on lamb and chicken. i also like the warmth of cardamom especially on honeyed spiced nuts and recently i got a little jar of dried ground specialty peppers (not too hot) from the farmers market. i still don't like cilantro though (sorry).
PieceOfLayerCake August 26, 2015
Yellow mustard is essential to my BBQ pork mop....so, not low class at all!
Jan W. August 26, 2015
Ditto on the yellow mustard for the BBQ Pork (I use it for Boston butt) - the preferred brand of the yellow stuff where I am currently is Plochman's, which is highly regarded in Chicago and the upper Midwest.
PieceOfLayerCake August 26, 2015
I don't know how unusual it is anymore, but I love using berbere spice on chicken and lamb (especially). Its curry-esque and I LOVE curry.
Recommended by Food52