The spice trade


The names are as romantically enticing as the places they come from - tamarind and tellicherry pepper from India, saffron from Spain - but today's new spices and flavorings are as close as the corner restaurant, as familiar as your grocery shelves.

People are traveling more, immigrants are arriving from places such as the Far East and Eastern Europe, and global communications have improved - meaning ordinary Americans are being exposed to - and subsequently craving - new flavors.

"The American palate seems to be demanding big, bold, in-your-face flavors," said Marianne Gillette, director of marketing for McCormick Flavors of Hunt Valley. "Maybe it has to do with the fact that we're aging, or maybe it has to do with entertaining, getting a more dramatic taste in your mouth. But it runs across all menus."

Between 1976 and 1995, Gillette said, McCormick's sale of red pepper rose 125 percent. Sales of mustard and black and white pepper are up 58 percent.

And it's not just the hot stuff.

Sixteen years ago, when she and a pal started Vann's Spices, said owner Ann Wilder, few people in the United States had ever heard of herbes de Provence.

Today the blend of thyme, rosemary, basil and lavender is Vann's top seller.

Now, as in the past, almost all spices are grown in places within 10 to 20 degrees of the equator all around the world, Wilder said. But new demand and global-marketing changes mean some spices are coming to the United States from such nontraditional sources as Turkey, Northern Africa and the Far East.

The spices and flavorings on this page are some of the latest seasoning their way into the mainstream. The best way to get to know them is to sample them, in small quantities, on familiar foods. If you like the flavor, you can branch out to less familiar recipes.

In general, the aromatic spices - such as lemon grass, saffron and cardamom - work best in lighter preparations, while the flavorful spices - such as cumin, chipotle peppers and tamarind - work better in heartier dishes.


Cardamom is the seed of a wild bush that flowers at random on jungle hillsides in India, and flavors Indian dishes such as rice and biryani (spiced meat with rice). Since the randomness makes it hard to harvest, cardamom is somewhat expensive. It may be whole or ground. A traditional use is in sweet baked goods (try it in waffle batter), but cardamom also gives sweet piquancy to pilafs, soups, stews and chili. And it adds a fresh note to fish.

Chinese five-spice

This blend of spices includes allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and sometimes Sichuan pepper (which isn't a pepper at all, but the flower of an ash tree). It's delicious on roasted vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, and blends well with chicken and pork. Interestingly, the four base spices - allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves - show up as blends in other cuisines. In England, it's pudding spice; in France, quatre-epis. With some additions, it's raz el-hanout in North Africa.

Chipotle peppers

Chipotles are the smoked and dried version of the familiar jalapenos, but with a smoky, grilled taste. "They're not real hot, and that allows the flavor to come through," said Marianne Gillette of McCormick. They are used in Mexican dishes, in soups and stews, and in what Gillette called "nueva Latina" dishes - traditional flavors put together in a modern way - such as a papaya-chipotle chutney.


Cumin is the seed of a small plant indigenous to Egypt, but now grown in the Middle East, Far East and Europe. It's used in Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese dishes, but it was also common in medieval gardens. It has a warm, aromatic flavor that works well in chili, soups and stews, bean and rice dishes, and with lamb, beef and chicken. It adds a nice touch to yogurt dips and yogurt dressings. "It has a wonderful affinity for pork, and I find it incredible in scrambled eggs," said Wilder of Vann's Spices.


Fenugreek is a tiny, squarish seed that's been grown in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean for thousands of years as a fodder for animals, as a spice and as medicine. It's most often used as an ingredient in curry, a spice blend used in India, but it also adds a slight peppery flavor to pickles, chutney and vegetarian dishes.

Herbes de Provence

Thyme, rosemary and basil are the base ingredients in this blend of spices from the south of France, but it is lavender that gives it its distinctive aroma and taste. In France, it's used to season mustard and pate, but it gives subtle aroma and an array of bright tastes to soups and stews, roast chicken, fish and lamb. It also works well in salads and salad dressings and on roasted vegetables.

Lemon grass

Lemon grass scented its way into American consciousness through Vietnamese, Thai and other Pacific Rim cuisines. It grows in water along streams in the Far East. It has a mild lemon flavor, Wilder said, but "It has this sensational aroma." It's used in ice cream, soups and stews, and it gives an "incredibly blissful" flavor to chicken soup.


Saffron is the stamen of a fall-blooming crocus. It must be hand-picked, and since it takes 70,000 to 80,000 to make a pound, it is expensive. Saffron used to come from the Middle East, where it was used extensively in stews and rice dishes, but these days most of it comes from Spain. The distinctive, sharp, earthy aroma and bright yellow-orange color are more striking than the mild flavor. Saffron is used in soups and rice, in Mediterranean fish stews and with lamb. It's essential in paella, and "It's great with string beans," Wilder said.


Sesame comes in three forms: seed, oil and paste. It's the seed of a type of grass and is grown in Mexico, China, India and, these days, Texas. Used as a coating for fried foods in China and the Far East, it gives a nutty, savory taste to breads or salads, especially toasted on fruit salads. Or, substitute its oil for part of the vegetable oil in salad dressing for a striking flavor.


Tamarind is the fruit of a tall shade tree. The flat, bean-like pods have a tart, raisin-like flavor that's familiar in Indian chutneys. (It's also familiar to most people as one of the ingredients in Worcestershire sauce.) It most often appears in the form of a paste, and is used in vegetable, bean, and fish dishes as well as in condiments.

Tellicherry pepper

Most pepper in the United States comes from Brazil, but this pepper, which comes from the west coast of India, is considered to be superior to other types. It grows on vines in clusters like grapes, and is allowed to stay on the vine about two weeks longer than normal, to developcomplex sugars that give it "flavor beyond heat," Wilder said. Any robustly flavored dish, from pepper steak to pizza, could benefit from a dash of tellicherry. Wilder uses it, freshly ground, both in cooking and on the table.


Wasabi is a member of the mustard family, a perennial native to Japan and Sakhalin Island north of Japan. It's most familiar as an accompaniment to sushi. It has a sharp, fiery, pungent flavor somewhat like horseradish (which is cheaper and sometimes substituted for it). It can be used powdered in cooking (try a pinch on steamed cauliflower), and it also goes well with fish and pork.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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