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7 Of The World’s Most Expensive Spices

Friday, 05/26/2017 13:58
Imagine paying five figures for mere fistfuls of spice.

There are humble spices such as chili powder or garam masalas that barely cost anything, and then there are those worth more than their weight in silver. Yet, there’s a chance that you’ll find both ends of the spectrum in your pantry. Which ones should be used sparingly?

SAFFRON

Price per kg: US$11,000 (S$15,300)

Move over, truffle. Did you know that saffron is among the most expensive food on Earth?

Native to Central Asia, this Indian / Middle Eastern spice is actually extracted from the stigma (female bits) of the Crocus sativus flower. Large harvests are required to yield a sufficient amount of saffron threads; each flower only has three stigmas, so it takes 110,000 - 165,000 flowers to produce one kilogram of dried saffron threads. This makes saffron production 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. Traditional uses for the saffron threads included using it for its color and to spice food, and using saffron water to perfume baths, houses and temples.

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.

VANILLA

Price per kg: US$440 (S$)

Considered the second most expensive spice in the world, vanilla commands a handsome price. The extract of the "little pod" (what the word means) is everywhere: cookies, ice cream, desserts and the majority of sweet treats. Do note that this princely sum doesn't apply to artificial vanilla or vanilla extracts - only to natural vanilla from Mexico and Madagascar, which produce the best quality pods.

Why the high cost? Well, the flowers have to be artificially hand-pollinated. Once ripened, the fruits also have to be hand-picked. This is a labor- intensive process that requires daily harvesting.

CARDAMOM

Price per kg: US$66 (S$92)

When is the last time you spared a thought for the contents your spiced chai? Native to Southwestern India, Guatemala is said to be the world’s largest exporter and producer of this spice, followed closely by India. The hefty price tag is once again due to the high amount of man hours needed to harvest these small seed pods.

Black cardamoms are larger and tend to have a smoky aroma, and are used for heavily spiced dishes such as curries and briyanis. Its lighter and more common cousin, the green cardamom, 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.

CLOVE

Price per kg: Up to US$22 (S$31)

Native to Maluku Islands of Indonesia, cloves are also grown in Zanzibar, India, Madagascar, Pakistan and also the tropical Sri Lanka for several different purposes, including being an excellent ant repellent. Used since the middle ages for trading, cloves are now considered the 4th most expensive spice in the world.

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

Price per kg: US$13 - $14 (S$19)

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 Cinnamomum trees, cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, but is also grown in India and Indonesia. 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 is used in food processing, fine perfumes, aromatherapy, Asia medication and disinfectants.

TURMERIC

Price per kg: US$6-7 (S$9)

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.

Turmeric is also a key constituent of many curry powders, resulting in consistent demand in South Asia and from enclaves around the world.

PEPPER

Price per kg: US$6-7 (S$9)

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, it is native to South India, where it is extensively cultivated. and elsewhere in tropical regions like Vietnam (currently 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 money.

By Priyanka Elhence & Liao Xiangjun/ The Peak Magazine

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