They say spices can make or break your dish and that a little goes a long way. But they should also say that certain spices can make or break the bank. With humble spices such as the chili powders or the garam masalas barely costing anything, some of their luxe cousins on the other side of the spectrum can cost as much as a pretty USD $5,000 per pound! With a price tag like that, you would be right for assuming that they are uber-exclusive and rare, to say the least. But no. These spices can be used on almost a daily basis, and there is more than a good chance that these little kitchen helpers are already a part of your pantry.
Move over caviar and truffles. Did you know that saffron is by far, the most expensive food on Earth, costing USD $5,000 per pound? Native to Central Asia, this Indian / Middle Eastern spice is actually the mere stigma of the Crocus Sativus flower. Large quantities of these flowers are required to be harvested in order to yield a viable supply of saffron threads, since each flower only has three stigmas (it takes 50,000- 75,000 flowers to produce one pound of dried saffron threads, equivalent to approximately 20 hours of labor), making the harvesting an extremely labor intensive and time consuming process. Today, saffron is grown mainly in Spain, Italy, Greece, India and Iran, with the best quality saffron originating from Kashmir. These extremely valuable threads of this red gold (or King of spices as it is also called) have been used for more than 40 centuries by the Persians, Greeks and Romans, and was deemed to be worth its weight in gold. Their use for the saffron threads included using it for its color and to spice food, using saffron water to perfume baths, houses and temples, and even using saffron extract as a medicinal narcotic.Today, saffron is still undeniably considered a culinary treasure and used in cooking, cosmetics, staining, medicines (believed to be the cure for almost 100 diseases and illnesses in the Middle East and Asia), and is also used to create signature perfumes thanks to its soft and intimate odor profile. While several different varieties and brands of this vibrant spice exist, if you come across saffron that is not expensive, then it’s not pure saffron.
Considered the second most expensive spice in the world, commanding a handsome price of up to USD $200 per pound of vanilla beans, this ‘little pod’ (what vanilla means), is everywhere! Cookies, ice cream, desserts and the majority of sweet treats. And we’re not talking about artificial vanilla or vanilla extracts either, but natural vanilla from Mexico and Madagascar which produce the best quality vanilla pods possible. Why so expensive? Because the flowers have to be artificially hand-pollinated and then once ripened, the fruits also have to be hand-picked. This is a labor intensive process that requires daily harvesting. Pure vanilla extract costs approximately USD $2-$3 per fluid ounce in international markets.
When is the last time you considered what was in your cuppa spiced chai? Earning a hefty price tag of up to USD $30 per pound due to their labor-intensive harvesting process, these small seed pods are not to be taken lightly. Native to Southwestern India, Guatemala is said to be the world’s largest exporter and producer of this spice, followed closely by India. Black cardamoms are larger and tend to have a smoky aroma, used for heavily spiced dishes such as curries and briyanis; while its lighter and more common cousin, the green cardamom is pricier by weight and is used to spice the sweet dishes and add flavor to coffees, teas and baked goods. Green cardamoms also have medicinal value and are used to treat digestive disorders, gum and teeth infections, pulmonary tuberculosis and eyelid inflammation.
Native to Maluku Islands of Indonesia, cloves are also grown in Zanzibar, India, Madagascar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka for several different purposes, including being an excellent ant repellant. Used since the middle ages for trading, cloves are now considered the 4th most expensive spice in the world, costing up to USD $10 per pound in the international market. Apart from them having medicinal anti-oxidant properties and reducing blood sugar levels, Indonesians also smoke cigarettes made from cloves (‘kretek’). Clove cigarettes have been smoked throughout Europe and Asia for years (since 2009, clove cigarettes in the USA have been classified as cigars).The intense aroma of cloves are used for flavoring most Indian, African and Middle Eastern dishes, lending its spicy flavor to meats, curries, marinades, hot beverages, spiced cookies and pies using fruits such as apples, pears and rhubarb. Clove essence is also an important part of many perfumes because of its warm, sweet and aromatic taste. Finally, clove oil is a natural antiseptic and analgesic; which explains its wide use in Indian Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine as a dental painkiller, and for aromatherapy to help cure digestive problems.
Cinnamon has been around for a long time, with the ancient Egyptians using it for its healing properties, its flavoring, its medicinal benefits and its versatility as a precious embalming agent. Obtained from the inner bark of trees from Cinnamomum, cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka (best quality cinnamon originates form here), but is also grown in India and Indonesia. Mostly used in cooking (powder form) for both sweet and savory dishes, a pound of cinnamon can fetch up to USD $6. True cinnamon is known as Cinnamomum verum, but several species of cinnamon exist, with the most common type being ‘Cassia’ (or Chinese cinnamon). In ancient times, cinnamon was used to cure the common cold, freckles, snakebites and kidney troubles. Nowdays, it is used as a condiment and fragrant spice to add its sweet aroma and flavor to anything from hearty desserts such as doughnuts, chocolate and cinnamon buns, to drinks such as coffee and hot cocoa. Whole cinnamon sticks have been used for flavoring teas and curries in India and the Middle East for centuries. Cinnamon oil (made by steam distilling the leaves of the cinnamon tree or cinnamon bark) is used in food processing, fine perfumes, aromatherapy, Asian medication and disinfectants.
Often mistaken for being as simple as salt, black pepper is actually the most traded and most used spice in the world. Known for its intense spiciness, a pound of black pepper can fetch up to USD $3 in the market. Native to South India, it is extensively cultivated there and elsewhere in tropical regions, with Vietnam being the world's largest producer and exporter of pepper. Dried ground pepper has been used since early times for both flavor and as a traditional medicine, while peppercorns were a much-prized trade good, often referred to as ‘black gold’, used as a form of commodity money.
A member of the ginger family, the humble turmeric is native to Southwest India, and is most commonly used as a spice in Bangladeshi, Indian, Middle Eastern and Pakistani cuisines, but also for dyeing (due to its vibrant yellow hue), cosmetics and for its antiseptic properties. Like black pepper, turmeric can also cost up to USD $3 per pound in the international market.