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9 exotic ingredients to transform cooking

elly food 1

When I mention my recent ten-week trip to Asia to people in conversation, many ask, ‘Oh, so was it a food research trip? Or just travelling?’

I find this question rather odd. I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing all travel as a potential food research trip. For me, food and travel are inextricably linked: one of the main reasons I fight through a crippling phobia of flying and empty my bank account on a regular basis is for the joy of tasting another country.

Asia is a particular passion, largely owing to its fantastic street food scene: one can regularly spend an entire day grazing, eschewing proper meals in favour of hopping from one stall to the next, grabbing something appetising that catches your eye and wolfing it down greedily on the spot - even if that means burning your fingers eating a fluffy peanut pancake scorching hot from the pan in a grubby doorway while sheltering from a monsoon in Yangon.

Importantly, though, I don’t allow the fun to stop there. I inevitably come back from such trips laden not only with multiple souvenirs, many of them edible, but also buzzing with inspiration that permeates my cooking and writing for years to come.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience a wealth of countries and culinary traditions on recent adventures, and have discovered a variety of exciting new ingredients and ways to use them that have given new life and joy to my recipes and my cooking. Many of these can be easily obtained in the UK; some may need tracking down online, but all of them will hopefully inspire and excite the creative cook and bring a little exotic flair to your everyday cooking.

Coconut sugar

Produced from the sap of the cut flower buds of the coconut palm tree, this gorgeous, sticky brown sugar can be used in a similar way to palm sugar in Asian curries and desserts. It’s dense and syrupy, best scooped up with a spoon and used to bring a slightly fragrant, coconutty sweetness to your cooking. It’s also largely unprocessed, so some people prefer to use it as an alternative to refined white sugar. Use in curries, but it’s also fantastic in pancakes and tropical desserts – try it in recipes that also use desiccated coconut for a double, caramelly coconut hit - macaroons, for example, or Lamingtons. I use it in the famous Thai dessert of mango with sweet coconut sticky rice, and also in the filling for these Indonesian coconut and banana pancakes. Available in some supermarkets and whole food shops, or online.

Kaffir lime leaves

Once only available in dried form, curled up sadly in jars and smelling of tired potpourri, fresh kaffir lime leaves are now emerging onto the mainstream food scene (Sainsbury’s and M&S now stock them), and thank goodness. A fresh kaffir lime leaf is so far removed from its dried counterpart that they barely merit the same name. The fresh leaves are glossy, thick, bright green, with an incredible zesty fragrance. They are a staple in south east Asian curries, but can also be incorporated into western recipes with great success. Nigel Slater has an excellent recipe for lime and lime leaf marmalade, where the leaf imparts an exotic aroma to the sweet, golden preserve. They also make a fantastic ice cream – infuse the milk with a few torn fresh leaves before turning into custard and freezing. Try simmering a few leaves into a sugar syrup to drizzle over sponge cakes (a lime leaf drizzle cake is an incredible thing) or fruit salad (particularly if you use exotic fruits like papaya, lychees and mango). If you can’t find fresh leaves, you can buy boxes of frozen leaves cheaply in Asian supermarkets, and these are just as good. Always tear or finely shred them before using to release the fragrance. Incidentally, kaffir lime plants can be grown very successfully on a sunny windowsill or in a conservatory in the UK – my three-year-old plant now provides me with all the fresh leaves I could desire (and I desire a lot).

Amchur (dried mango powder)

Also spelled ‘amchoor’, this is a powder that has been made from dried green mangoes. It is used in a lot of Indian recipes, where it lends a distinctive sour-sharpness to sauces, marinades and curries. It’s often used in a marinade for tandoori food; my favourite is paneer tikka, where cubes of bouncy white cheese are immersed in yoghurt and spices before being grilled. Don’t stop there, though – amchur works well in stews involving pulses, where it adds a fresh sharpness to the earthy flavour of lentils, chickpeas, rice, et cetera. I love it in this flavoursome chickpea, spinach and mango curry – a great hearty vegetarian dish. Also try adding it to barbecue marinades, dhals, and even a pinch or two to salad dressings for an extra hit of flavour. Available in Indian supermarkets or online.

Thai sticky rice

OK, so this isn’t a new discovery – it’s widely available in supermarkets – but do you know how to cook it properly? The packet instructions will lie to you. Sticky rice should never come into contact with boiling water. The proper way to cook it, as I learned in Thailand, is this: soak the rice in a large bowl of cold water overnight, or for at least 8 hours. Line a steamer with a piece of muslin, drain the rice and place in an even layer on the muslin in the steamer (in Thailand they use a special bamboo basket, but I’m adapting for western kitchen equipment). Steam over boiling water for 30 minutes, then serve. It looks nice if you spoon it into little bowls and then upend it over the plate, so you end up with a mound of rice à la fancy Thai restaurants. This method keeps the rice slightly al dente and retains the delicious stickiness; boiling it in water results in a starchy, overly gummy mess. Once you have your perfect sticky rice, you can serve it with any curry or stir-fry you desire, but it’s particularly good with chicken/pork stir-fried with holy basil or cashew nuts. You can also use it in desserts – try the mango sticky rice above, or mix with coconut sugar and desiccated coconut to form small cakes that can be chilled and enjoyed as a snack.

Coconut syrup

Like coconut sugar, this is also produced from the sap of coconut palms, but instead of being solid it’s runny like maple syrup. Like maple syrup it has a wonderful caramel complexity of flavour, and a beautiful dark gold colour. It’s excellent poured over pancakes, particularly that backpacker favourite, banana pancakes, and porridge, as well as exotic fruit salads. I also like using it instead of sugar in fiery dressings for Thai salads, like this Ottolenghi coconut salad. Available online or in wholefood shops.


So much more than ‘a large grapefruit’, as you will often hear it described. The pomelo has a very thick skin, but it’s worth hacking through it with your nails or a sharp knife to get to the treasure underneath. The flesh is much firmer than that of a grapefruit – you can actually peel and pull the segments apart with your fingers, without juice gushing everywhere. The flavour is more understated and much sweeter. I can easily munch through a whole pomelo in a single sitting if I’m not careful. They are great on their own, but they truly shine in Asian salads, coupled with rich ingredients like prawns, crab or smoked chicken. Ottolenghi has a fantastic pomelo salad recipe that should be used as a blueprint – try coupling it with marinated spicy roast chicken thighs, seafood or, for vegetarians, fried tofu or pumpkin cooked in coconut milk, Thai-style. I also like it in a crunchy noodle salad with toasted peanuts and prawns. Basically, add peanuts, a zingy dressing and some form of protein, and you have the perfect pomelo meal. Pomelo are sometimes available in major supermarkets, and in Asian grocers when in season.

Candle nuts

These are quite niche, but available online. Known as candle nuts because their oil content is so high they will burn like a candle, they add depth of flavour and richness to Malaysian curry pastes and Indonesian sambal sauces. The closest comparison is a macadamia nut; candle nuts are larger but have the same shape and creamy, crunchy texture. I love them in this intensely rich and delicious chicken and pineapple Malaysian curry, and they can also be ground and used to thicken soups, stews and curries. If you’ve never tried Malaysian cooking before, get yourself some candle nuts and you’ll be hooked on the fragrant, rich, indulgent flavours.

Black sesame

The poppy seed of the Asian dessert world, black sesame has an utterly addictive sweet-savoury taste that will haunt you forever once you have tried it. Often ground, mixed with sugar and used to stuff rice flour dumplings or steamed buns, black sesame has an irresistibly nutty, almost buttery flavour and a moreish crunchy, creamy texture. Try it in an unusual ice cream to make the most of its unique flavour. The seeds can also just be toasted and sprinkled over noodle or rice dishes and stir-fries for an earthy savoury crunch - I like them on Japanese-style rice bowls and sushi. Available from Asian supermarkets.


I am obsessed with this unassuming green plant, with elegant tapered leaves possessing an earthy fragrance somewhere between the smell of cooking rice and vanilla; it’s sometimes known as ‘Asian vanilla’. You can grow it as a house plant in the UK, if you can find it, but otherwise you can buy the fresh leaves at some Asian supermarkets, or the bottled essence which is not quite as good but still satisfactory. Pandan is responsible for the unnerving green colour of many south-east Asian desserts, particularly in Thailand and Indonesia. It works well in some Malaysian and Indonesian curries, but its subtle flavour is best in desserts: add it to a pancake batter or to cakes.

Elly McCausland is a food writer and blogger at Nutmegs, Seven. She has a passion for travel and all things gastronomic, with a particular emphasis on fruit, breakfast and proper British puddings. When not concocting recipes or planning her next cultural odyssey, she is an English literature academic, specialising in children’s literature.


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