The Unusual Suspects


What, no nigella in your kitchen? No ajwain? No fenugreek? You’re missing out on some exciting seasonings.

We’re not suggesting you throw out old reliables like pepper and garlic salt. And you don’t have to scrap meat loaf and stew for new, exotic cuisines, either. After all, these spices season everyday food in the countries where they are popular. There’s no reason they can’t cross over into everyday cooking here.

The problem is that most of us just don’t know about them. So along with history and lore, we include tips on how to incorporate them into dishes. For recipes, we turn to cooks who have grown up with spicy cuisines for an expert’s approach.



Once you learn about ajwain’s powers, you’ll rank it with salt and pepper as a kitchen staple. People in India believe that a pinch added to foods such as beans, lentils and cabbage acts as a digestive, a sort of natural Beano.

And it tastes good too. The flavor is akin to cumin and thyme, which are in the same family, so that it goes well with a great variety of savory dishes.

Drop a little into a pot of chili. Add some to multi-grain bread dough. Simmer a pinch with Brussels sprouts. Add a dash to black beans to achieve the same effect as epazote, a traditional black bean calmative in Mexico. But don’t stop there. Sprinkle a few seeds into your next batch of butter cookies, following the example of a bakery in New Delhi. The seeds add a lively taste, reminiscent of northern European caraway cookies.

Ajwain is a prominent spice in Ethiopia--it’s sold in Ethiopian markets here as “bishop’s weed"--and has been used in India since ancient times. But it is largely unknown in America.


Setting out to change that is Indian cookbook author Julie Sahni. In her latest book, “Savoring Spices and Herbs” (William Morrow, 1996; $25), Sahni adds it to marinades for pork chops and fish, and she mixes some into cracker dough.

Ajwain contains the same essential oil as thyme, Sahni says. “It’s a little bit stronger, more pungent,” she cautions. “You have to use it in moderation.”

In the western Indian state of Gujarat, the whole plant is used, not just the seeds. The greens are dipped in chickpea batter and fried as fritters. So how do you get ajwain greens? Find an Indian grocery, buy a package of ajwain seeds, then plant some. In warm weather, they’ll sprout in a couple of weeks.



If you like hot colors, you’ll love annatto. The product of a tree native to tropical America, the orange-red seed has little flavor but yields a natural food color if soaked in water or fried in oil. It contributes vibrant hue to everything from Yucatecan cochinita pibil (suckling pig steamed in an underground oven) to margarine and Cheddar cheese.

In the Philippines, cooks make liberal use of atsuwete water (atsuwete, also achuete, is the local Filipino name for annatto). It warms the color of stewed meats, tints the batter for fried shrimp, imparts a rosy shade to a sauce for noodles. To make this handy coloring, soak 1 part annatto seeds in 2 parts water until a strong orange-red hue is extracted, then strain out the seeds.

In Mexico’s Yucatan region and in Puerto Rico, annatto goes under the name achiote. In these places, the seeds are fried in lard or oil until the lard is deeply colored. The seeds are then strained out, and the lard added to a variety of dishes. In Puerto Rico, it goes into soups, meat dishes and rice concoctions such as arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) or the soupy rice dish called asopao.


Cooks in the Yucatan enrich the color of tamale dough with achiote lard. They use the seeds in a variety of recados (spice blends) that season cochinita pibil, stuffed turkey and other dishes. For suckling pig, the seasoning blend includes achiote seeds, black pepper, cumin, cloves, cinnamon stick, oregano and garlic.

Cookbooks published in Yucatan give recado formulas for home cooks, but it’s easier to go to markets there and select from the huge mounds of colorful pastes on display. In the United States, blocks of seasoned achiote paste are sold in small packages in Mexican markets.


Brown Cardamom

This large brown pod has nothing in common with ordinary cardamom, the kind that gives a lovely aroma to Scandinavian baked goods and Indian sweets. The pod is larger and deep brown in color and contains seeds with a strong, smoky camphor taste. Brown cardamoms are often added whole to rice dishes called biryanis and to various curries. The ground seeds might be mixed into the all-purpose seasoning blend garam masala or into minced meat for kebabs or curry.

In India, this type of cardamom is called bara elaichi, elaichi motto or moto--"elaichi” meaning cardamom, “motto” and “bara” big. Brown cardamom is readily available at Indian markets, and books on north Indian cookery can provide plenty of recipes.

One to consult is Camellia Panjabi’s “The Great Curries of India” (Simon & Schuster, 1995). Panjabi provides an assortment of recipes with brown cardamom, including a kebab curry, an unusual lamb and turnip dish and a Mughlai roghan josh (mutton curry). To stretch your spice horizons, try it in any strongly flavored stew or chili. To make an easy rice pullao, add 1 or 2 brown cardamoms along with saffron, cloves, a cinnamon stick and a bay leaf to a pot of well-washed basmati rice. Add salted water (two parts water to one of rice) and simmer, covered, until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender.

Brown cardamoms are not typically used in sweets, but we sprinkled the ground seeds over a rice pudding. The taste was subtle and delicately smoky, giving a novel edge to a dish that is usually seasoned with conventional cardamom.



Coriander Seeds

Native to the Mediterranean, coriander has found a place in many cuisines, from India to Thailand to China, Europe, Mexico, Morocco and the Arab world. By the late 17th century, the plant was cultivated in North America, but its origins are ancient. Coriander was mentioned in an Egyptian medical document written in Thebes almost 3,500 years ago. It was known in Mesopotamia before that. The Romans were cooking with it three centuries before Christ. Every part of the plant is used: seeds, leaves (cilantro) and root, which Thais pound with garlic and pepper for a basic seasoning.

Often, you’re eating coriander seed without knowing it. It’s a component of gin, some liqueurs and sausages (including frankfurters) and goes into seasoning blends such as mixed pickling spice and curry powder.

The leading suppliers of coriander seed today are Morocco and Romania, according to the American Spice Trade Assn. Moroccan seeds are larger than Romanian and tinged with purple, whereas Romanian seeds are brown. India, Egypt and China are other providers. Coriander is also easy to grow at home.

The flavor of coriander is lightly aromatic with a lemony component and can cross over from savory to sweet. The flavor is congenial to spice cakes, cookies, gingerbread and lemon quick breads.

Its flavor is also appropriate for meatloaf, chili and dry spice rubs for baked and barbecued meats. If you blend your own curry seasonings, coriander is essential. A bottle of ground coriander may be convenient, but freshly ground seeds will give better flavor. Dry roast the seeds in a heavy skillet about 3 minutes to enhance their flavor, then pulverize them in a spice mill or coffee grinder.


Brown Mustard Seeds

There’s nothing unusual about mustard seeds unless they’re brown. Although most seeds stocked in supermarket spice sections are yellow (actually, a sort of pale beige) and typically used for pickles and relishes, in India, smaller brown or black mustard seeds are preferred.

The tradition there is to start with whole seeds, then grind them. In Bengal, where mustard is used heavily, the age-old way is to pulverize the seeds on a stone, adding water to produce a paste. Ground mustard has little or no flavor; it takes water to activate the enzyme that releases the bite. If you don’t have a grinding stone and lots of muscle power, soak the seeds for a couple of hours, then grind them in the blender.

In south India, the preparation of many dishes starts with sauteing the seeds until they splutter. Once the seeds start to pop, they fly out of the pan. If you’re not careful, you’ll find mustard seeds all over the range and underfoot instead of in the food.

Brown mustard (brassica juncea) is probably the most common dark mustard; very little black mustard (brassica nigra) is grown. Oriental mustard (also called brassica juncea) is a small, dark golden seed that looks much like brown mustard and has similar volatile oil content but a different flavor profile. With brown mustard, you get more bite initially. With Oriental mustard, the bite zings in a few seconds later.

When buying darker mustard seeds, just select whatever is stocked in an Indian grocery. But don’t reserve your purchase only for Indian cookery. Fry the seeds until they pop, then add them to potato salad, coleslaw, ham salad, cabbage and other dishes that harmonize with mustard. The dark speckles give a nice look too.



This glowing spice is India’s answer to just about every need. It’s a food preservative, a food coloring agent, a cosmetic, a medicine, an antiseptic. It’s a textile dye as well, so be careful when handling turmeric, unless you like your clothes splotched with yellow.

India produces most of the turmeric that we buy in the United States. There, it contributes rich yellow color to curried dishes. Here, it’s a component of curry powder, brightens mustard and was used as a commercial dye until the 1930s. Dried, powdered turmeric is its most common form.

A native of southern Asia, turmeric comes from a plant belonging to the ginger family. Fresh turmeric is used in some Southeast Asian cuisines such as that of southern Thailand.

Asian markets in Los Angeles occasionally carry the fresh root. In shape, it’s similar to ginger root, except that the finger-like branches of turmeric are smaller. Slice off the skin, and you’ll see orange flesh, unlike the pale yellow-beige of ginger. When turmeric is dried, it loses 80% of its moisture, thus concentrating its color.

When Asian cooks call for saffron in a recipe, they may really mean turmeric. It provides saffron-like color, but there’s no comparison in flavor. Saffron is strong and aromatic, almost medicinal. Turmeric is mild but not flavorless. Use too much and you will experience an unpleasant dusty taste.

This versatile spice deserves a place in everyday cooking. Mix a dash with broth or water when cooking rice to produce a pleasant golden color. Stir some in thawed frozen peas into the rice for contrast. And here’s a neat trick: Add a tiny dash when stir-frying green vegetables. You won’t taste or see the turmeric, but it will enhance the color of the vegetables, making them appear absolutely brilliant.


* Spice Mix

A culinary profile of novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of “The Mistress of Spices,” H6

Plus, Bengali Pineapple Chutney, left, and other recipes for cooking in the spice kitchen. H7

* The Kitchen Table

Real Cooks profiles South African-born Indian cook Logam Naidoo Penry. Spices are her passion. H8


2 pounds (4 to 6 3/4-inch-thick) center loin cut, boneless pork chops

1/2 teaspoon ajwain seeds

2 teaspoons black peppercorns, cracked

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 cup milk

Olive oil cooking spray

This recipe, from Julie Sahni’s “Savoring Spices and Herbs” (William Morrow, 1996), can also be used with lamb chops. Ajwain “lends a sweet flavor and cures the meat, making it eminently suitable for picnics and buffets,” Sahni writes.

Trim excess fat from chops. Place in shallow dish and rub with ajwain, black pepper and garlic. Pour milk over chops and toss to coat evenly. Marinate in refrigerator at least 4 hours or overnight.

When ready to cook, remove chops from marinade and spray with cooking spray. Reserve marinade.

Place on barbecue grill or in broiler pan about 5 inches from heat source. Grill or broil, turning and basting with reserved milk marinade, until fully cooked, about 15 minutes. Serve thinly sliced, warm or at room temperature.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings:

387 calories; 87 mg sodium; 97 mg cholesterol; 30 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 26 grams protein; 0.04 gram fiber.


If the pudding becomes too thick as it cooks or cools, stir in additional milk or, for a richer taste, whipping cream. The recipe is from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of “The Mistress of Spices” (Anchor Books, 1997).

6 cups milk

1 cup rice

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 to 1/3 cup raisins

1/8 teaspoon cloves, optional

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon, optional

4 large brown cardamom pods

Combine milk, rice, sugar and raisins in large saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 30 to 40 minutes. Stir in cloves and cinnamon. Turn into serving dish and cool.

Shell brown cardamom pods, remove seeds and grind to fine powder. Sprinkle over top of pudding. Serve warm or cool.

6 servings. Each serving:

303 calories; 123 mg sodium; 18 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 55 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 0.13 gram fiber.


Pradeep Kumar created this dish for his restaurant Pradeep’s on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. It is unusual in that it uses coriander in three forms: seeds, ground and the fresh leaves (cilantro). “Coriander has a very sweet, nutty flavor, especially when in seed form,” he says. “It gives a very nice aroma to the soup.”

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 white onion, sliced

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

3 cups sliced carrots, about 1 1/2 pounds

1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus extra for garnish

1/2 small boiling potato, peeled and diced

8 cups water

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

White pepper

Juice of 1/2 lime

Heat oil in heavy-bottomed pan. Add garlic and onion and saute until onion is translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add ground coriander, coriander seeds and carrots and saute 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in cilantro and potato. Add water, bring to boil, lower heat and simmer, covered, 25 to 30 minutes. Puree soup in batches in blender until texture is velvety. Strain soup and return to pan. Heat to serving temperature, add salt, pepper to taste and lime juice. Garnish with additional chopped cilantro. Serve with toasted pappadums.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings:

61 calories; 753 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.75 gram fiber.


Manjari De of Pasadena, originally from Calcutta, makes this sweet chutney. It contains no chiles so won’t overwhelm the tender-tongued. Try it as an accompaniment to baked ham, chicken or grilled pork chops.

1 (1 1/4-pound) can crushed pineapple

2 teaspoons oil

1/2 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Drain pineapple. Heat oil in nonstick skillet or saucepan. Add mustard seeds and cook until seeds pop. Add pineapple, bay leaf, sugar and salt and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and cook 1 minute longer. Cool to room temperature before serving. Store in refrigerator.

Makes about 1 cup. Each tablespoon:

33 calories; 37 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.13 gram fiber.


Make a batch of annatto oil, then use it to add fiery color to rice and other dishes.


1/2 cup oil

3 tablespoons annatto seeds


2 tablespoons Annatto Oil

1 cup rice

1 small onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 small tomato, peeled and chopped

2 cups chicken broth

1 teaspoon salt


Heat oil in small skillet or saucepan. Add annatto seeds and cook until oil is deeply colored, about 5 minutes. Strain oil and discard seeds. Store at room temperature in airtight container.

Makes 1/2 cup. Each tablespoon:

127 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.24 gram fiber.


Heat Annatto Oil in Dutch oven. Add rice and saute gently 5 minutes. Add onion and garlic and saute until onion is translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add tomato and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.

Add chicken broth and salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until broth is absorbed and rice is tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Taste and add more salt if needed.

4 servings. Each serving:

266 calories; 984 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 42 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.59 gram fiber.


What Do You Call Them?


Caribbean: annatto, bija

Mexico: achiote

Botanical name: Bixa orellana


India: ajwain, ajowan, omam

Ethiopia: netch azmud

Botanical name: Carum copticum, Trachyspermum copticum

Brown and black mustard

Europe: various names meaning “black mustard,” such as moutard noire and schwarzer Senf

India: rai, katuku, sasawe

Botanical name: Brassica nigra, B. juncea

Brown cardamom

India: bara elaichi, moto elaichi

Botanical name: Amomum subulatum

Green Cardamom

India: elaichi, elam

Middle East: hel, hal

Botanical name: Elettaria cardamomum. Ethiopian cardamom is Amomum (or Aframomum) korerima.


Spanish-speaking countries: cilantro

Arabic-speaking countries: kuzbara

Iran: gashniz

India: dhania

Botanical name: Coriandrum sativum


India: methi, menti, ventayam

Iran: shambalileh

Arab countries, hilbeh

Botanical name: Trigonella foenum-graecum


Malaysia: lengkuas

Indonesia: laos

Thailand: kha

Botanical name: Alpinia galanga

Long pepper

Middle East: darfilfil

India: pipal

Indonesia: cabe (pronounced chah-beh).

Botanical names: Piper longum or sylvaticum (India) and P. retroflexum (Indonesia)


Arabic-speaking countries: habbeh sauda (“black seed”), habbet baraka (“seed of blessing”)

Iran: shambalileh

Turkey: coreotu

India: kalonji (“black onion seeds”), kala jira (“black cumin”)

Botanical name: Nigella sativa


Arabic-speaking countries: summa^q

Iran: soma^gh

Botanical name: Rhus coriaria (literally, “tanner’s sumac,” because the leaves have been used in tanning leather)


India: haldi, manjal

Iran: zardchubeh (“yellow root”)

Botanical name: Curcuma longa



Most supermarkets carry annatto, green cardamom (usually ground), coriander (whole and ground), ground fenugreek and turmeric.

For other spices, and particularly if you’re buying in quantity, it pays to go to a specialist. Indian markets usually carry all the spices mentioned in this article except annatto, galangal and sumac. For fresh galangal, try a Thai market such as one of the Banglucks. For nigella and particularly for sumac, try a Middle Eastern market such as Bezjian or Miller’s. If you have trouble finding long pepper, try an Ethiopian market.

*Bangluck Market, 5170 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 660-8000; also at 12980 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, (818) 765-1088, and 7235 Reseda Blvd., Reseda, (818) 708-0333.

*Bezjian Grocery, 4725 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles (near Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue), (213) 663-1503.

*Bharat Bazaar, 11510 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 398-6766.

*Bombay Spiceland, 8650 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, (818) 701-9381.

*Grand Central Public Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 624-2378.

*India Spices & Groceries, 5891 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 931-4871.

*India Sweets and Spices, 72011 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 887-0868.

*Merkato Ethiopian Market, 1036 1/2 S. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (213) 935-1175; fax 935-1796. (Note: ajwain is called bishop’s weed here.)

*Miller’s Marketplace, 18248 Sherman Way, Reseda, (818) 345-9222.

*New India Sweets & Spices, 1245-47 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 936-6736.

*Sunshine Groceries, 7530 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Canoga Park, (818) 887-6917.

*Patel Brothers, 18636 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (310) 402-2953.

*The Geetanjali, 2960-F W. Lincoln, Anaheim, (714) 828-2960.

*Kajala Imports, 23 E. Main St., Alhambra, (818) 576-2455.