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.
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.
There was a time when lemon grass could only be found dried, but with the recent influx of Southeast Asian immigrants, fresh lemon grass can be found at Asian markets.
Dried lemon grass lacks the character of the fresh, but it has the advantage of being widely available at health and natural food stores.
This fragrant spice is the star-shaped fruit of a small evergreen tree that grows in southwest China and Vietnam. Its smoky, licorice-like flavor is as distinctive as the eight points on its star-shaped pod. Star anise is one of the spices in Chinese five-spice powder; it's often added to stocks and broth. In the West it's used as a flavoring in licorice-flavored cordials, like Anisette.
A member of the magnolia family, star anise owes its flavor to an essential oil called anethole. Star anise is an essential ingredient in red-cooked (braised) dishes in China.
Star anise is available at Asian markets and in the Oriental food section of most supermarkets.
Thai hot and sour soup
Most Asian cuisines have a hot and sour soup. The Thai version is a fiery, aromatic blend of galangal, lemon grass and lime juice. Fish sauce is a salty condiment available in most Oriental markets. Tom yum can be made using chicken in place of seafood.
3-4 stalks fresh lemon grass
8 thin slices galangal
1-3 hot chili peppers (serranos or jalapenos)
1 medium onion
1 ripe tomato
5 ounces fresh straw mushrooms, white mushrooms or oyster mushrooms (1 cup)
1/2 pound shrimp
4 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons fish sauce (or to taste)
1 teaspoon Thai chili paste or hot sauce (or to taste)
2 scallions, cut into 2 inch pieces
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (or to taste)
1/2 cup fresh cilantro for garnish
Cut the roots and top two-thirds off each lemon grass stalk and strip off the outside leaves. Thinly slice the remaining stalks on the diagonal: You should have about 1/4 cup. If using dried lemon grass, soak the pieces in warm water or stock for 20 minutes. Wash and thinly slice the galangal.
Thinly slice the chilies on the diagonal. Thinly slice the onion. Stem the tomato and cut into 8 wedges. Wash and dry the mushrooms, cutting the large ones into quarters, the smaller ones in half. Peel and devein the shrimp and cut in half.
Combine the stock, fish sauce, lemon grass, galangal, chilies and chili paste in a wok or saucepan and bring to a boil. Gently simmer for 5 minutes. Add the sliced onions, tomato, mushrooms, and shrimp and simmer for 1 minute, or until seafood is cooked. Stir in the scallions. The soup can be prepared ahead to this stage.
Just before serving, stir in the lime juice. The soup should be spicy and quite sour. If salt is necessary, add additional fish sauce. If additional hotness is desired, add more chili paste. Just before serving, stir in the cilantro.
Poached chicken with star anise
In this recipe, chicken is poached in a fragrant mixture of soy sauce, rice wine and star anise. If you think it's good this time, wait until you poach your second chicken in the mixture. The flavor improves each time you use it.
1 whole 3 1/2 to 4 pound chicken
4 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 1/4 cups dark soy sauce
1 1/4 cups Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine) or dry sherry
1 cup honey
2 teaspoons salt
6 cups water
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro or scallions
Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Combine the star anise, cinnamon stick, soy sauce, rice wine, honey and salt in a deep pot just large enough to hold the chicken. Bring this mixture to a boil and cook until the salt and sugar are dissolved.
Add the chicken and bring the broth to a boil. Reduce the heat ZTC and gently simmer the chicken for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked, turning from time to time to make sure the bird cooks evenly. The chicken can be served warm, at room temperature, or chilled. Carve it and sprinkle with chopped cilantro before serving.
Note: The broth can be reused. Strain it, let cool to room temperature, then chill in a plastic container. Skim off the fat that congeals on the surface. The broth will keep for 4 to 5 days in the refrigerator or 2 to 3 months in the freezer. To reuse, bring it to a boil and replenish the flavorings and water.
Raised in Baltimore, Steven Raichlen is an award-winning syndicated food columnist, cooking teacher, and author of the new Steven Raichlen's High-Flavor, Low-Fat Cooking (Camden House Publishing, September 1992).