An A to Z of Exotic Ingredients

From spices to ancient grains, fiery condiments to hybrid fruits, our pantries are filling with a mind-boggling array of ingredients from around the world. There’s a whole new culinary alphabet to learn…

A is for amaranth

This tiny seed, which has a slight peppery flavor, is showing up in breads, cereals, and muffins. It also comes in the form of flour, which can replace some of the white flour in your favorite baking recipes. Originally from South America, where you will find it in many street food stalls, popped like popcorn.

B is for barberries

Barberries are small, dried sweet and sour berries, popular in Persian cooking (where they are called zereshk). Scatter these little ruby-like jewels over casseroles, stirr into rice and cous cous, or make into marinades and stuffing for meat.










C is for cherimoya

Mark Twain once referred to the cherimoya as “the most delicious fruit known to men”; perhaps you’ll agree after trying its creamy, custardy pineapple-banana–flavored flesh. Others say the taste reminds them of bubblegum. Simply slice in half and scoop out the soft flesh with a spoon – avoiding the seeds – or blend into smoothies and sorbets.

D is for daikon

A large Asian radish with crunchy flesh and a mild peppery flavor, the flesh can vary from white to bright pink. It’s widely eaten in the Far East in salads, curries or as a pickle.

E is for epazote

Central American herb Epazote has a distinctive herbal, pine flavor, reminiscent of oregano and fennel. Mexican recipes often pair it with beans, since it can reduce their tendency to cause flatulence.

F is for freekeh

Freekeh is young green wheat that has been toasted and cracked. One of many ancient grains that is enjoying a resurgence in modern-day healthy eating, freekeh is high in fiber and essential nutrients such as selenium, potassium and magnesium.

G is for gochujang 

If you’re a fan of spicy food, this pungent, sticky red chili paste is for you. It is sensational in marinades for meat dishes like Korean bulgogi.

H is for harissa

Another hot, aromatic paste made from chili, this time with an assortment of other spices and herbs, and originating from North African and Middle Eastern cuisines. Use it to flavor stews, soups or couscous, or simply in a pool of olive oil as a dip for bread, as they do in North Africa.

I is for ikan bilis

These little dried anchovies pack quite a flavor punch. A core ingredient in south-east Asian cooking, particularly in Malaysian food, where you’ll find it used to make stock, fried and dusted with chili powder as a snack, or cooked with chili paste and served with coconut rice.

J is for juniper

Casseroles, marinades, stuffing and even fruitcake all benefit from the addition of the aromatic, dark berries of the juniper tree – fresh or dried, crushed or whole. They also provide the main flavoring for gin.

K is for Ketjap manis

Thick, rich and syrupy, this is the Indonesian equivalent of soy sauce, albeit rather sweeter thanks to the addition of palm sugar.

L is for labneh

You might think it looks just like Greek yogurt, but sit down to try a bowl of labneh the classic way – drizzled with olive oil, dusted with za’atar spice and served with warm, grilled pita – and you’ll be blown away by this Lebanese specialty. It is far richer, tangier, thicker than traditional yogurt, thanks to the extra straining process it goes through. Surprisingly easy to make at home.

M is for moringa

Moringa has been hailed as the latest ‘superfood’, thanks to its powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and tissue-protective properties. Many people are popping it in pill form, in fact, or stirring the powder into hot drinks and smoothies, but the leaves make a great garnish to soups, salads and vegetable dishes. The taste profile is similar to matcha green tea.


N is for nduja

A particularly spicy, spreadable pork salami from southern Italy, nduja (pronounce it in-doo-yah) has recently been embraced by trendy restaurant menus across the U.K. and U.S. It’s made mainly from offal, ground up and mixed with Calabrian chili and salt.

O is for orange blossom water

The blossoms of the orange tree naturally make a delightfully fragrant, floral extract for bakes, fruit dishes and creams. Just a couple of drops go a long way. It also doubles up as a natural skin toner or soother to apply to sunburn and rashes

P is for pomegranate molasses

Make this sticky, tangy syrup a base for bold salad dressings and marinades, or drizzle on top of roasted vegetables. An amazing mix of sweetness and tartness, imagine balsamic vinegar and then some. Celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi says he would pick this ingredient as his desert island luxury.

Q is for quark

Swathes of central Europe and Scandinavia lap up this creamy, smooth curd cheese, made from heated soured milk. The texture is something like fromage frais, only quark is higher in protein, lower in fat and lower in sugar. Try it in dips or sandwich fillings, desserts such as cheesecake, or as an accompaniment to fruit – basically as a healthy substitute whenever you would ordinarily use cream cheese or crème fraiche.

R is for Ras-el-hanout

This spice mix plays a similar role in North African cuisine as garam masala does in Indian food. The flavor is pungent and warm rather than red-hot, combining cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to add sweet accents. Perfect for marinades, rubs, stews and tajines.

S is for sambal

Again, we have south-east Asia to thank for this spicy, aromatic sauce. Fresh red chilis are ground in a pestle and mortar with garlic, shallot, tomato and shrimp paste, making an all-purpose condiment to add heat and flavor to noodles, soups, meat, rice and even eggs.

T is for teff

It may be one of the smallest grains in the world, but teff delivers plenty of iron, protein and calcium. In Ethiopia, people use it to make flatbreads, imparting a sweet, malt-like flavor, and now many endurance athletes start their day with a teff porridge to provide slow release energy. A gluten-free option for baked goods, too.

U is for ugli fruit

The ugli fruit is a citrus hybrid fruit – a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine. Remove the thick, soft peel to enjoy the juicy orange flesh inside.

V is for vine leaves

A mainstay of Greek cooking since ancient times, especially for making those delicious dolmades (stuffed grape leaves). A vine leaves wrapped around baked feta cheese or crisped up and shredded into a salad are other tasty options. You’ll usually see the leaves sold in large jars in oil or brine.

W is for wakame

This sea vegetable, or edible seaweed, has a subtly sweet flavor and packs in a vast number of nutrients. Many attribute it to the extremely long lives You will probably have tried it in sushi restaurants, in the seaweed side salad and miso soup. It makes an interesting alternative for spinach, cabbage or lettuce in many dishes, while the dried-out version can replace crisps as a super-healthy snack.

X is for xanthan gum 

Yogurt, sour cream, salad and gravies – all sorts of foodstuffs (not to mention cosmetics and medicines) contain xanthan gum to stabilize and emulsify them, even if you’ve never heard of the stuff. Derived from fermented corn sugar, debates continue about whether it helps or hinders our health. But its popularity is growing, especially as a thickener for gluten-free products.

Y is for yuzu

A sour Japanese citrus fruit that offers both a delicious juice and aromatic rind. About the size of a tangerine, its flavor is often described as a cross between grapefruit and lime.

Z is for Za’atar

This mixture of sumac, sesame seeds and herbs (normally thyme) is sprinkled into a variety of dishes across the Middle East and Mediterranean. Whether mixed with olive oil and spread on bread, or as a seasoning in meatballs or falafel, we can’t get enough of the stuff.