Spices make excellent souvenirs for many trips – for yourself or your friends. They’re light, reasonably priced and literally import the exotic flavors of your trip. Of course, it helps if you know how to use them, but even if you don’t, you’ll find but even if you don’t, you probably know someone who does, and spices make a great gift.
There’re rarely any problems with customs. The main hassles are raw food items like unroasted coffee beans (ie, only buy roasted coffee beans) or many air dried meat products like prosciutto. Educate yourself before your trip;
learn what the common spices look like in various forms. During the trip, ask the waiter about the flavors in dishes you particularly enjoy. You may even be invited by the chef to explore the kitchen.
Spices can be found in many tourist souvenir shops, but avoid these prepackaged bits, often 5 or 6 spices on a foldout card . They tend to be both old and expensive. Instead, find a local market, where business is more frequent. In Istanbul, the Egyptian Market on the Golden Horn waterfront is the exemplar. Some bargaining is expected, with minimal changes of 10% or so are common. Do ask for prices before buying though. Some spices, like sumak or cardamon are several times more expensive than more common ones. Familiarize yourself with the metric equivalents if you’re used to ounces. 50- 100g should be enough for most purposes (about 2-4 oz).
- My favorite spices from Turkey are its many peppers — everything from mild paprika, to hot red peppers. Usually powdered, they’re also found in paste form, and if well packaged, these travel and keep well.
- Saffron is available in several forms. It’s not as good as Iranian orMoroccan, but much cheaper, and for simple rice dishes, or soups, you just use a bit more. Watch out for ‘Indian Saffron’ — it’s just turmeric.
- And there are now many different forms of Turkish Viagra — from powdered ginger to walnut stuffed figs.
India was the source of the original spice trade, making the fortunes of many successful voyagers.
Today anyone can bring back a Prince’s ransom in delectable spices.
- Cardamom is the fruit of Elettaria cardamomum, a member of the ginger family, which grows in the moist, tropical regions of Southern Asia
- Vanilla beans
- Cocoa pods
- Nutmeg & Mace are derived from the apricot-like fruit of the evergreen tree Myristica fragrans. When the fruit is ripe, it splits in half revealing a deep red, net-like membrane that covers a brittle shell. The membrane is mace, the shell nutmeg.
- Turmeric is a rhizome of the tropical herb Curcuma longa. It’s used in powdered form.
- Ginger is a light-brown rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale
- Cayenne is made from the dried red skins of chili peppers
- Cinnamon is the dried bark of an evergreen tree of the laurel family, Cinnamomum
zeylanicum is native to India and Sri Lanka.
- Asafoetida is the sap from the roots and stem of a giant fennel-like plant which grows wild in Central Asia. The sap dries into a hard, smelly resin and is usually used ground
Cumin is the national condiment, found with salt & pepper on tables everywhere. Use either the seeds of this small
annual herb from the parsley family Cuminum cyminum, or the ground powder form. Popular in tagines.
Saffron – various qualities of saffron are widely available, prices vary accordingly.
Dried peppers of all sorts are cheaply available everywhere. There’s no problem in bringing them back to the US, even with their seeds. In Mexico, both fresh and dried peppers are abundant, and the names change when a pepper is dried — anchos are just the dried form of poblanos. Chipotles are the smoky, dried form of jalapenos.
In many markets you can find moles – mixtures of up to 20 or more spices. These are excellent bases for sauces, soup flavorings, or marinades and I always buy several kilos – they’ll keep for months in the refrigerator.
Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn ears, producing big, swollen, deformed kernels, black inside with a silvery gray skin. It’s easily compared to truffles, with a delicious, inky mushroomy flavor, but it’s rarely available commercially. Sometimes you can find it in restaurants as Huitlacoche para Quesadilla.
- Saffron Absurdly priced in the US, saffron is affordable in many countries. You do need to know a little about the differences. True saffron is made from the are the stigma (female organ) of the autumn
crocus, or Crocus sativus, but other ‘saffrons’ are made from different flowers, sometimes even leaves. Mexican saffron is one of these, it’s very cheap, but gives a completely different flavor (though quite good). Turkish saffron is very good, but you need to use a loose teaspoon of threads where a recipe calls for a few threads of Spanish saffron. In Morocco, several grades of saffron are available, in both thread and powdered form. All are good value and reasonably priced. Iranian saffron is some of the best I’ve found, but priced accordingly. In Turkey, you’ll also find ‘Indian Saffron’, but this is really Turmeric, a different spice entirely
Sumak Mostly unknown in the US, this is a common spice in the Mideast. Use it to flavor grilled chicken or fish, or just sprinkle lightly on a salad of tomatoes and sliced onions.PepperDozens of choices, so try tasting them and choosing what you like best. In Turkey, commonly red pepper, with some browns.
Pepper pastes (moles) also widely available. In Mexico, both fresh and dried peppers are abundant, and the names change when a pepper is dried — anchos are just the dried form of poblanos. Chipotles are the dried form of jalapenos.
Paprika Good paprikas are widely available, with tastes varying from sweet to moderately spicy.
Cumin–The national spice of Morocco — found on most tables withthe salt and pepper. Used in many dishes here and in India, Mexico, and the Middle East. Available in both powdered and seed form. Roast the seeds to get a wonderful flavor
Coriander The powdered form (made from the dried seeds) very different from the fresh leaves and stems (also known as cilantro). Used in cultures throughout the world. Use the fresh form in
dishes that call for parsley!
Turmeric— The ‘poor man’s saffron’, this spice is basic to many dishes in the Indian subcontinent, up through China. It provides a beautiful saffron color, and a distinctive taste. In the US it’s most
commonly found as a coloring agent in chicken soup.
- Cardamom Another expensive spice in the US. You can find green or black forms, or seeds.
Discover recipes using these spices
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