12 Most Expensive Spices in the World
Looking for a sure-fire way to add some new and exciting twists to your dishes? The quickest and easiest way to spice up your recipes is to add just a pinch, or even a few pollen grains of these spectacular seasonings to your regular culinary repertoire.
In this article, we’ve selected 12 of the world’s most expensive spices, by weight. To help you experiment, you’ll find choices to add interest to all types of cuisines, and which you can use to create delectable desserts as well as mouth-watering mains.
Saffron is highly-prized for its delicate flavor and the beautiful golden hue it gives to traditional Indian, Middle Eastern, North African, and European dishes. But what makes it by far the world’s most expensive spice and justifies the incredible price tag of between $1,000 and $5,000 per pound (454 grams)?
The delicate saffron stigma (strands) need to be carefully extracted from the flower of the crocus sativus, which only blooms twice per year.
In addition, each plant only produces three stigma, so this process is incredibly time-consuming. Around 250,000 flowers are required to produce just a single kilo, and gathering them takes up to 600 hours of manual labor.
Given saffron’s eye-watering cost, it’s tempting to use turmeric (aka curcumin) to color rice and other dishes, but that won’t give the subtle flavor and rich color of pure gold that will elevate your dishes.
Luckily, only a couple of saffron stigma are required to transform the look, aroma, and taste of a recipe, so use sparingly and use this precious ingredient to add an elegant twist to your culinary creations.
2. Fennel Pollen
Every part of the fennel plant is used in cuisines around the globe. The bulb, with its delicate aniseed flavor is most commonly used, either raw or cooked. However, the minuscule flowers, aka ‘pollen’, are most highly-prized for the intense flavor they add to a range of dishes.
The elevated price tag of around $30 per ounce is justified due to the rarity of the flowers and the labor-intensive harvesting process. However, as with saffron, you’ll only need a tiny pinch to add an unexpected, complex flavor that will take even mundane dishes to the next level.
3. Vanilla Beans
Synthetic vanilla is one of the world’s most common food flavorings. It’s found everywhere – in desserts, cookies, and ice creams. But this mass-produced seasoning bears no resemblance to the gorgeous rich aroma and taste of genuine vanilla bean seeds and pods.
On its native island of Madagascar, recent harvests have been hit by cyclones, resulting in scarcity and steep price rises. Vanilla is now also produced in Mexico and Tahiti, but genuine, hand-picked Madagascan beans remain the most highly prized.
Natural vanilla can cost over $20 per ounce or 6 – 8 pods. Still, suppose you want the gorgeous aroma and unmistakable flavor of the real thing. In that case, it’s a price worth paying to create ice creams and desserts that are in a different league from pale, synthetic imitations.
Mahleb (aka “mahlab” and “mahalepi”) is a complex, fragrant spice with a mix of sweet and bitter notes that’s used to add interest and originality to a wide range of dishes.
Although not widely known or used in the West, Mahleb has been a staple of European and Arabian spice traders for millennia.
It’s made from the crushed pits of the Prunus mahaleb tree, a cherry mainly cultivated in central and southern Europe, the near East, and some regions of Asia. It’s sometimes referred to as the St. Lucie cherry.
Mahleb is made by extracting pits from the cherries, drying them, then grinding them into a fine powder. Clearly, this is an intricate and time-consuming process, which is why you should expect to pay as much as $5-6 per ounce.
However, as with most spices, a little goes a long way, and it will deteriorate over time, so if you come across Mahlab, buy the smallest quantity possible.
5. Long Pepper
Long pepper is the more exclusive cousin of the humble black pepper we all have in our kitchen. Think of it as a substitute for chilies. However, it’s considered far more complex and sophisticated in flavor, with notes of anise, cinnamon, and nutmeg, with a subtle muskiness and bite.
Long pepper was traditionally only grown in India and Indonesia, although it’s gaining popularity far beyond those shores, and Nepal has also begun to produce significant quantities. If you find the aromatic woody pods in specialty food stores, expect to pay around $5 per ounce.
6. Black Cumin Seed
A relative of the common cumin (Cuminum cyminum) we’re more familiar with, black cumin (Bunium persicum) is sweeter, with a citrusy aftertaste.
If you can obtain them, try adding black cumin seed to your meat dishes to impart a wonderful, complex spiciness. At $3 per ounce, it’s well worth experimenting.
7. Kaffir Lime Leaves
Widely used in Southeast Asia, Kaffir lime leaves are especially popular in Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian cuisine. They are used to add a sweet citrusy zestiness to various dishes, including curries and stir-fries, rice dishes, and soups.
It’s not easy to harvest these leaves, which have to be hand-picked from tangled branches covered with vicious spikes. It’s this time-consuming and painful process, combined with the unique and complex tang they contribute, that accounts for the price of around $35 per pound ($2.30 per ounce).
8. Grains of Paradise
Grains of Paradise (a.k.a. alligator, Roman, or melegueta pepper) is a complex and mouthwatering spice described as a mix of black pepper, ginger, and cardamom.
Originating in West Africa, it’s now used in many cuisines, including North African and Middle Eastern. For example, it’s an indispensable ingredient of the iconic Moroccan spice mix, ras el hanout.
Additionally, these seeds have long been prized in Africa for their medicinal properties. People use them to treat many ailments, from low sex drive to indigestion.
Expect to pay around $32 per pound, or $2 per ounce, for grains of paradise seeds, which you’ll mainly find in speciality and ethnic food stores.
9. Green Cardamom
If you’re a lover of curries, you’re probably familiar with finding cardamom seeds in your dishes, whole or as one of the key ingredients of garam masala, the famous Indian spice blend.
Green cardamom seeds have found followers far from Asia, though. Scandinavians use them for the warmth and aroma they add to holiday treats such as julekake in Sweden, Finland, or Norway. Not to mention the wonderful flavor green cardamom imparts to the chai lattes now served in coffee shops worldwide.
Green cardamom seed pods are now available everywhere, often in those little glass jars on supermarket spice racks. However, if you can find the fresh produce for sale, buy just a tiny quantity, at around $2 per ounce (or $30 per pound), and top up as you need, you’ll find it far more aromatic but still affordable.
10. Pasilla de Oaxaca Chile
The Mexican native Pasilla de Oaxaca Chile gets its name from the remote mountain region where it grows. This fertile region, high in the Sierra Madre mountains, is famous for its incredible chili peppers. The Pasilla de Oaxaca, with medium heat and a distinctive smoky flavor, is among the most prized.
You can use Pasilla de Oaxaca chilies in salsas, sauces, soups, and stews; they’re especially useful in vegetarian dishes as they add body and warmth without including meat.
Pasilla de Oaxaca chilies are not easy to find, so if you come across some, expect to pay over $30 per pound. However, considering how well they can liven up even mundane weekday suppers, you’ll agree that they’re a worthwhile culinary investment.
11. Black Cardamom
Black cardamom (Amomum subulatum), often called ‘the Queen of Spices’ is native to the Himalayas in India and Nepal. It’s often compared to green cardamom. However, it has a far more intense, smoky flavor. Because of this, the whole pods are removed from the cooking pot before the dish is served.
Like many spices, black cardamom is believed to have medicinal uses. In traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine, it’s prescribed for a range of digestive ailments and also to balance blood pressure.
Expect to pay around $28 per pound – but of course, buy in the smallest quantity you can and replenish your supply when needed to get maximum flavor and aroma from this versatile spice.
12. Ceylon Cinnamon
Loved by almost everyone, cinnamon is undoubtedly one of the most popular spices worldwide.
There are two types that both come from the bark of the Cinnamomum tree. Cinnamon zeylanicum (commonly known as Ceylon cinnamon) is exclusively produced in Sri Lanka, while cinnamon cassia, the variety you typically find in supermarkets, comes from China and Indonesia.
Ceylon cinnamon is more highly prized than cinnamon cassia as it’s sweeter and less spicy, with a more delicate taste. As a result, it’s also more expensive, costing around $27 per pound instead of the $11 you could expect to pay for cassia cinnamon.
Recent research confirms that Ceylon cinnamon is not only delicious but also has significant health benefits, as it’s anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and can help regulate blood sugar.
Finally, although some might seem eye-wateringly expensive, spices are, luckily, available in small quantities. As they’re easily damaged by UV light, and deteriorate over time, buy from suppliers who seem to have a fast turnover – that way you’ll get maximum flavor and aroma.
Asian food stores are often a treasure trove of spices you won’t find in supermarket chains. Once at home, store these precious ingredients in air tight containers, in the refrigerator.
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