"Exotic" Twists on Traditional Favorites


with Stephanie Bullen
Chief Flavor Advisor
March 7, 2013

I like to experiment in the kitchen. But I have a confession to make. Security sometimes overrides my desire to experiment, to be innovative. Yes, I do return to the same tried and true dishes...again and again and again.

Make no mistake, I enjoy the comfort and memories those favorite recipes bring. At the same time, being just a bit more adventurous has a strong appeal.

So, the million dollar question: how do you make the classics fresh and new while still keeping them familiar and delicious? Two words: exotic spices.

Here's a remarkable secret: many “exotic” spices actually have flavors that are somewhat familiar.

Fennel pollen is also known as “the spice of the angels.” Pollen? Angels? Don’t let that intimidate you. These granules have an intense but slightly sweet flavor, similar to the more familiar fennel seed. My reliable sources tell me that fennel pollen is amazing when lightly dusted over chocolate chip cookies. For a more conventional approach, if you like Italian sausage, try using fennel pollen instead of fennel seed the next time you cook pork tenderloin. If straight fennel pollen is still just a bit too intimidating, try sprinkling our Coastal California Fennel Pollen Rub over seafood or seared scallops for a sweet, pungent seasoning.

Have you heard about Pho? This Vietnamese beef noodle soup is one of the newest food crazes. As a rich soup with meat and veggies, it’s easy to understand why it’s savory taste is so popular. Some may argue this point but I think the broth, which is hearty but light and spicy but balanced, is the star of this dish. The depth in the broth comes from the spices, especially from the star anise. This crazy looking spice is actually the fruit of a tree native to Vietnam and China. The flavor is reminiscent of baking spice and anise. The good news is that you don’t have to make pho to use this exotic spice. Try tossing one pod into your chicken soup for about 15 minutes (much like you would a bay leaf), the richness star anise imparts will become your trade secret.

Ground cherry pits? It almost sounds made up, but Mahlab is no joke. Perhaps best known as an ingredient in Greek Easter bread, this spice is commonly used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. The slightly floral and noticeably nutty flavor is perfect for baking, use sparingly as it doesn’t take much. Next time you are making muffins or a fruit cobbler, try adding just a pinch to your flour. You’ll find that it gives the flour a slight chewiness and adds a great flavor.

Lime. I can hardly imagine that as an exotic ingredient. But Kaffir Lime Leaves? Exotic! We powder these and use them to boost the flavor of our very popular Peruvian Chile Lime Seasoning. This "exotic" flavor is delicious and irresistible. This might sound unbelievable, but these are fantastic for giving just about any dish a great citrusy kick. Our Sweet & Spicy Shortbread Cookies use powdered lime leaves. You absolutely must try these! They are the perfect combination of sweet and savory, with a lime accent.

Who knows, maybe this recipe will inspire you to use an "exotic" ingredient to put a twist on one of your classics! I'm going to try adding a pinch of wasabi to one of my salad dressings, or maybe I’ll grind some galangal and use it to season my steamed veggies this weekend. The possibilities are endless!


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