What are your favourite 'unexpected' or 'unusual' uses for spices?
March 31, 2024 7:02 PM   Subscribe

I would love to expand my knowledge of spices and experience tastes that might be new to me as a middle-aged Anglo-Canadian with a fairly adventurous palate. A bonus if you can recommend a place online to buy new spices that has reasonable shipping to Canada!

My spices cabinet has ~50 spices and spice blends, so it's safe to assume I know the 'standard' combos for most spices (cinnamon and chocolate, oregano and cheese, how to make a classic 'italian spice' blend, rosemary and roasted meat). I love spicy watermelon, mexican chocolate, fennel candies, and dill in everything, and I have tried and enjoyed cuisines from Afghani to Yemenese (we couldn't find Zambian food in Ottawa) so I'm probably a bit more cosmopolitan than the average Canadian. But I just recently learned about the difference between dill weed and dill pollen, so clearly I still have a lot to learn about the wide world of spices!

I'd love to hear about unexpected uses of more familiar spices or specific ways to try more unusual spices.
posted by deadtrouble to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I cribbed this from the Noma fermentation book, and as far as I know, this cannot be purchased, but fairly easily made if you have the right tools. If you lacto-ferment (ripe) tomatoes, and dehydrate the skin and pulp, and then turn the solids into a powder, you have something that i use as a spice. I’ve made about 100g last year as an experiment to see if I’d use it, and ended up burning through all of it in like a month or two. I’ve used it in place of amchoor in curries, add it to dishes that use paprika for way more complexity, used it to “tomato” flavor oil for pasta, and it makes canned tomatoes taste WAY nicer, more like fresh tomatoes.

It’s weird, but very good.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:38 PM on March 31 [16 favorites]

A way to expand your experience with what you already have on hand may be to mix dried herbs with freshly-cut ones and let them rest before using them. E.g., cut up fresh Parsley, mix in dried Oregano or Rosemary and let them sit for 30 minutes. Juices from the fresh herbs seem to revive the dried ones.
posted by dws at 8:34 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]

This place is Alberta based and has a nice selection - they ship Canada wide
posted by piyushnz at 10:10 PM on March 31

This is a fantastic spice shop in Quebec with unusual spices and imaginative blends https://epicesdecru.com/
A friend brings me stuff from it and it’s always amazing.
posted by tardigrade at 11:00 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]

Tea as an umami base! Black tea combines well with beef stock, it's great for chili with a bit of cocoa in it. Chai works well as a glaze for chicken drumsticks.
posted by lloquat at 11:03 PM on March 31 [5 favorites]

Asafoetida/hing is what makes Indian food taste Indian. You just need a tiny pinch. (Link is to saag paneer recipe)
posted by mumimor at 1:03 AM on April 1 [3 favorites]

Carrot tops are an excellent herb, especially smaller spring time carrot greens. You can treat them like parsley but they have more of a warming flavor, less assertively green but a little more bitter. They hold up better to heat than parsley too. Try a salad with minced carrot tops, fennel fronds, and celery leaves, tossed with a fruity dressing like a lemon or pomegranate balsamic, and toasted walnuts. Roast the actual carrots, fennel, and celery and do thick slabs of them with the salad in between on toasty bread, supreme vegetarian sandwich territory, or do a roast chicken with aforementioned veg and you go super classic, but the herb salad punches it all up.

Nutmeg goes nicely in a lot of things that you wouldn’t think to put nutmeg in - it used to be an incredibly popular spice but it fell somewhat out of favor and now we all associate it with thanksgiving and Christmas. But! A small amount of it goes a long way. Try nutmeg and black pepper with summer stone fruits like peaches or plums. Whenever you make anything with braised greens, add some nutmeg (classically it’s in creamed spinach but I have enjoyed it without the dairy component in things like collards with tomato, turnip greens with ginger, buttered cabbage and so-on. The right amount is just enough that you can tell there is complexity to the flavor of the dish but not so much that you can fully identify it as a punch in the face of nutmeg.

I like cardamom on my cappuccinos, or in my hot chocolate. The best is when I bother to steep whole green cardamom pods in the milk before making my drink. But there is a whole rainbow of cardamom out there if you like it in general. Some people find it kind of soapy and I wonder if it has overlap with cilantro? But anyway, green cardamom is easiest to get probably, and you can use it similarly to cinnamon as a slightly spiced garnish on sweet things if you get it ground. I also love it on salmon because it’s a bit lemony, try lime and green cardamom brown butter. But there is also black cardamom, which has a much more intense and smoky flavor, and that’s great in stews and works in things you might think to toss a few cloves into (and it plays well with cloves imo), and is a key component to a lot of Indian spice blends I do not have the experience to talk about. There’s also yellow cardamom which, iirc, is fully ripened green, and has a deeper flavor that’s a bit more piney? And red cardamom which isn’t actually related and is instead related to ginger and it’s used in Chinese cooking in wonderfully aromatic braises. And white cardamom is bleached green cardamom, a super specialty baking ingredient you can safely ignore. Oh! And also if you like Swedish baking try cardamom buns or any of their related dishes.

You sound like you would appreciate Peruvian cuisine, which uses a lot of wonderful herb blends and particular peppers. There were three Peruvian restaurants in my town when I grew up, near D.C. but I don’t know if the craze made its way up north or if that was just a thing unique to my immigrant-friendly neighborhood, and our universal love for chicken. Anyway last time I was at the fancy spice shop at the suburban mall nearest PNW wine country there was a whole display of Peruvian spice blends and cookbooks and classes, so maybe it’s trending again.
posted by Mizu at 3:11 AM on April 1 [10 favorites]

Furikake is good in lots of non-traditional places. I like it on my bagels with cream cheese or lox.
Going the other way, I've seen "everything seasoning" of the type used on bagels jokingly referred to as "white people furikake". And sure enough, it can work well on just about anything you'd use furikake on.

I like savory oatmeal and other porridges, eg. adding good quality olive oil and egg, or furikake and sesame oil, or chili crisp and soy sauce.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:50 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]

Adding onto what Mizu said about nutmeg: it's wonderful when added to sharp cheddar.

Dunno how "unusual" this is for you, OP, but adobo is a staple of hispanic cuisine. I found a great recipe for homemade adobo awhile back which I use regularly.

From the Jamaican side of my own family, jerk seasoning is a classic, combining allspice, black pepper, thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg, and more. There are several ready-made seasoning blends available, or you can make your own sauce.

Finally, I highly recommend The Flavor Bible for taste experiments. It's one of my most-used books in the kitchen that isn't a cookbook.
posted by May Kasahara at 8:14 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]

popcorn is a blank canvas for spices.

spices and spice blends mixed into yoghurt or mayo are quick/easy/delicious dipping sauces that are more interesting than ketchup/bbq/etc.
posted by mmascolino at 9:18 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]

I will put just about any spice or dried herb I like on popcorn. One of the more unusual things I do with that is make "Thanksgiving stuffing" popcorn by tossing hot, lightly buttered popcorn with homemade poultry seasoning and the tiniest bit of turkey or chicken bouillon powder (just a tiny bit because the bouillon powder is VERY salty).

Schichimi togarashi (possibly most familiar as the little bottle of red & black pepper etc. you find on the table in many ramen shops) comes in many varieties and is fantastic on just about any meat (and yes also popcorn).

You can buy pre-made ranch dressing/dip mixes, but it's also very easy to make your own mix from dried herbs so it's ready to stir into your preferred liquid ingredients whenever you want. I do this for both ranch (parsley, chives, dill, garlic powder) and Italian (oregano, basil, onion powder or minced dried onlons) dressings in the winter, when I'm not going to have access to the fresh herbs I prefer to use.

Spice mixes in general are something a lot of people don't make at home, and I get it, but making your own taco seasoning and chili powder etc. a fun way to learn more about what goes together well, and also allows you to customize to your preferences.

Black lime was a recent-ish discovery for me, and it's great for beverages, either mixing in directly or using as part of rim garnish. I linked a ground version (from a spice shop I highly recommend!) but you can also get whole dried black limes and grind them yourself.

Plum powder is something else I recently learned about, and it's deliciously sour and great on fruit.
posted by rhiannonstone at 2:31 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]

Merkén (or merquén) is a spice blend that's become my go-to addition to everything from pizzas to hummus to fish stews. It's a little bit like a smoky cousin of Aleppo pepper or Ras al hanout. The cumin (in some blends) and coriander is a lot subtler in the background and I don't taste them as unique elements.
posted by dr. boludo at 6:58 PM on April 1

Second merquen. It's super tasty and here in Chile, where it's from, it's very common to have it with salt and mashed avocado.

Cayenne pepper with pineapple.

Banana nice cream with pineapple, dash of salt and fresh basil (all blended together).

Marmalade with cheese. Great with cheddar or a harder cheese.

Haloummi cheese with watermelon.
Feta cheese with watermelon.

Toasted and ground coriander and cumin seeds as a spice blend with salt and pepper.

Toast with honey and ground black pepper.

Nutmeg, cinammon, and high quality dark chocolate for chilis.

Miso in anything that needs depth and umami and/or gochujang

Miso denganku sauce is delicious.

When adding sweetness, use pomegranate molasses for a more complex flavour (this is my secret ingredient in my hummus)

I make lots of random dressings and sauces using something salty, sweet, umami, and something sharp. Play around with porportions until you like it.
tahini with lime juice, pomegranate molasses, garlic, miso, salt
Or swap out/add a more complex vinegar such as Chinese black vinegar
Or: soft tofu with lots and lots of fresh herbs, harissa paste, garlic, rice vinegar, salt, pepper, olive oil and something sweet. Blend it all together and add water until you get the consistency you want.

These miso brownies are the best.

Adding flaky salt as a last step when baking something sweet to cut through the sweetness and bring all the flavours together.
posted by mkdirusername at 7:14 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]

A tip I got from Alton Brown; use grains of paradise instead of cinnamon in apple pie.

What about running freeze-dried fruit through a food processor and using the powder as a spice? I’ve used “strawberry dust” in many a baking application.
posted by Eikonaut at 8:19 AM on April 5

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