One of the challenges in cooking global cuisines is that you’ll likely encounter new ingredients – maybe ones you’ve never used before, and others that aren’t available at every grocery store. This guide will show you where to find some of these unusual ingredients and substitution options. Since I live in NYC, this is written from the point of view of an American and most of the stores listed will be local. If you want to know more about an ingredient and you don’t see it on the list, message me so I can add it!
Where to Find Rare Ingredients
Bangkok Center Grocery (104 Mosco Street, New York, NY10013) Situated on a nondescript sidestreet, this hole-in-the wall is a hidden gem of New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood. They carry a variety of foods that are difficult to find outside of Thailand: kaffir lime leaves (frozen and sometimes fresh), Thai eggplant, Thai basil, palm sugar, and much more. The prices were really competitive even for easy-to-find foods like coconut milk, so I’d recommend buying all Thai products here.
Essex Street Market (115 Delancey Street, New York, NY 10002) This newly renovated public market brings together vendors of produce, meats, pastries, and more. Specializes in Latin American food. Great place to get produce that can be hard to find in a traditional grocery store.
Food Bazaar: This enormous multicultural grocery chain has locations throughout NYC and the tri-state area. Great for rare Latin American products and has a substantial Asian section as well.
Hong Kong Supermarket (157 Hester St, New York, NY 10013) A huge multi-floor supermarket specializing in Chinese groceries at affordable prices, located in Chinatown.
Kalustyan’s (123 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10016) Food heaven. This humble store has loads of international spices, grains, and legumes. If it’s grown and packaged somewhere in the world, it’s likely that you’ll find it here. I’ve found loads of rare spices and grains.
Katagiri Japanese Grocery: The first Japanese grocery store in the US (1907), Katagiri has two locations in New York (224 E. 59th Street, New York, NY 10022 / 370 Lexington Avenue Ste#107, New York, NY 10017). You can find a great selection of Asian and Japanese ingredients and equipment to make dishes like sushi and ramen, and the prices are good.
Amazon: This probably doesn’t need to be said, but when in doubt you can order almost any food product from Amazon. Some rare items won’t qualify for Prime and will take longer to ship. And if the item you are looking for is fresh produce, you’ll have to look locally.
Achiote: A deep red spice that comes from the seeds of a the achiote shrub, native to tropical regions in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Though only slightly earthy in taste, it’s common in Latin American cuisine for adding color to food and is prominent in popular spice blends. Many grocery stores carry it, but check a Latin market if you have trouble finding it. You may also see it under the name annatto. Substitute: ground turmeric + sweet paprika Used in: Costa Rican Portobello Mushroom Burger
Ajwain: Also goes by the names carom seed, lovage seed, or Bishop’s weed, it smells like thyme but is more aromatic and less subtle. Used in Ethiopian and South Asian cooking. Available at Kalustyan’s or specialty spice shops, particularly those focusing on African, Middle East, or Indian cuisine. Substitute: Caraway seeds. Used in: DIY Berbere Spice Mix
Anise seeds: A seed that can be ground or used whole that adds a licorice flavor to your dishes. Anise is often used in baked goods and is featured in many cuisines around the world. Easy to find at your local grocery store or a specialty spice shop. Used in: Chipa; Savory Paraguayan Pancake (Mbejú)
Berbere: A spice mix central to Ethiopian cooking. Check your local grocery store or African/Middle Eastern/Indian stores, or make your own. Used in: Ethiopian Shiro Wat, Ethiopian Lentil Stew (Misir Wat)
Besobela: Also known as Ethiopian sacred basil, this dried spice will add unique flavor to Ethiopian dishes but it can be difficult to find. Try African, Middle Eastern, or Indian grocery stores. Used in: Ethiopian-Spiced Clarified Butter (Niter Kibbeh)
Cassava flour: A finely ground, gluten-free flour made from cassava root (also known as yucca or manioc). Cassava plays a role in many cuisines, and on this blog it’s used often in South American cooking. You can likely find it in health food stores with flours or in the gluten-free section of your grocery store. There is no good substitute, as cassava flour lends a unique flavor to food. Used in: Savory Paraguayan Pancake (Mbeju); Chipa
Chipotles in Adobo: Chipotle peppers, or smoked and dried jalapeños, that have been left to soak in a tangy sauce. Used in Mexican cuisine, these peppers are sold in cans in most grocery stores. Used in: Spicy Jackfruit Tacos
Dulce de Leche: Similar to caramel, dulce de leche is what you get if you heat sugar and milk until caramelized. It is sweet, creamy, and spreadable and used widely in Latin American desserts. Look for it in a Latin American grocery store, online, or make your own at home (methods here and here). Caramel could be used as a substitute, though the taste will be different. Used in: Alfajores (Dulce de Leche Cookie Sandwich)
Fenugreek seeds: Native to India and Southern Europe, fenugreek seeds are frequently used in the preparation of pickles, curry powders, and pastes. Also called methi. Available at Middle Eastern/Indian grocery stores. Substitution depends on the recipe but can include mustard seeds, fennel seeds, or curry powder. Used in: DIY Berbere Spice Mix; Ethiopian-Spiced Clarified Butter (Niter Kibbeh)
Furikake: Japanese seasoning used on rice, vegetables, and fish. There are different varieties available including vegetarian and those with fish flakes. Asian grocery stores such as H Mart, Hong Kong Supermarket, and Katagiri Grocery Store have many varieties of furikake available. Substitutes: Make your own. Used in: Tofu “Spam” Musubi; A Healthier Loco Moco (Hawaiian Plate Lunch); Homemade Vegetable “Sushi” Bowl
Glutinous rice flour: Processed glutinous rice ground into a flour, this is used in Japanese, Hawaiian, and other Asian cuisines for desserts or breading. Used to make mochi and in recipes calling for glutinous rice flour, Mochiko is a common brand. Asian and Japanese markets are most likely to have this. As this flour is needed to get a certain texture, there are no substitutes. Used in: Raspberry Butter Mochi Cake; Pumpkin Pie Mochi Bites
Jackfruit: A fruit native to South and Southeast Asia that is used as a substitute for meat, especially pulled pork, in vegetarian and vegan recipes. For meat substitute, use fresh or canned in a salty brine. There is also a sweet variety that is canned in syrup and can be used for smoothies or desserts. Find at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Asian grocery stores. Used in: Spicy Jackfruit Tacos
Kaffir lime leaves: These leaves from a lime variety native to Southeast Asia are used in Thai and other regional cuisines. They can be fresh or frozen. They are generally difficult to find in the US, but they are sold at Bangkok Center Grocery. Substitute: 4 leaves = 1 teaspoon of lime zest. Used in: Thai Green Curry
Korarima: This seed is native to the horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, and known as “false cardamom” because it looks like cardamom, but isn’t. Check Middle Eastern and African grocery stores, but this one is tough to find. Subtitute: 1 teaspoon korarima = 6 green cardamom pods OR 3 black cardamom pods. Used in: DIY Berbere Spice Mix; Ethiopian-Spiced Clarified Butter (Niter Kibbeh)
Kosseret: A lemony herb native to Ethiopia and used often in its cooking to make spice mixes, rubs for meat, or even as tea. Difficult to find, but check Middle Eastern, Indian, or African grocery stores. Used in: Ethiopian-Spiced Clarified Butter (Niter Kibbeh)
Mirin: Used frequently in Japanese cooking, mirin is a sweet rice wine for making sauces, marinades, and broths. Asian supermarkets will almost definitely carry it, but it’s likely that your neighborhood grocery store will too. Substitute: 1/2 cup mirin = 1 tablespoon sugar + 1/2 cup white wine or sherry. Used in: Homemade Vegetable “Sushi” Bowl; Tofu “Spam” Musubi
Nigella seeds: Also known as black cumin seed, nigella seeds are used often in Indian, Middle Eastern, African, and Polish cuisines. Alternative name is kalonji or black cumin. Available at Indian, Middle Eastern, or African grocery stores. Substitute: cumin seeds. Used in: DIY Berbere Spice Mix
Niter kibbeh: Ethiopian spiced clarified butter, an essential staple in Ethiopian cooking. I haven’t looked for it in a store but it’s not too hard too make your own. Subtitute: Ghee. Used in: Ethiopian Shiro Wat, Ethiopian Lentil Stew (Misir Wat)
Nori: Dried sheets of edible seaweed most commonly used to wrap sushi. Can also be used as a garnish on top of soups or salad. With the rise in popularity in sushi, nori can be found in many grocery stores but will definitely be available in Asian markets. No substitute. Used in: Homemade Vegetable “Sushi” Bowl; Tofu “Spam” Musubi
Peri Peri: Both the name of a very hot chili pepper and a tangy, spicy sauce that features it, this flavor comes from Mozambique and has ties to South Africa and Portugal. Peri peri sauce is sold in grocery stores around the world (my Whole Foods does stock Nando’s, one of the most popular brands) or you can order it online. If you want the ground spice, Kalusytan’s is a good bet. Look for the spice under the name peri peri, piri piri, pili pili, or African bird’s eye chili. Substitute: ground cayenne. Used in: Homemade Nando’s Peri Peri Sauce
Queso Paraguayo: A unique homemade cheese common in Paraguayan cooking. Substitute: Muenster cheese OR 1/1 mixture of Parmesean and mozzarella cheese. Used in: Chipa; Savory Paraguayan Pancake (Mbeju)
Salsa Lizano: A condiment used commonly in Costa Rica, particularly to make gallo pinto, breakfast rice and beans. Food Bazaar is the only supermarket in NYC to date where I have found it, or you can order it onling. Substitute: Worcestershire sauce. Used in: Costa Rican Rice & Beans (Gallo Pinto); Costa Rican Portabello Burger
Spring Roll Pastry Sheets: Thin pastry sheets used to wrap spring rolls. Commonly used in Asian cuisines. Check in the freezer section of your grocery store or Asian grocery stores. Used in: Thai Spring Rolls
Sushi Rice: A white, short-grained rice ideal for making sushi. Commonly used in Japanese and Asian cuisines. Most grocery stores will carry it, or check an Asian grocery store. It is typically labeled as sushi rice and Nigiri is a popular brand. Used in: Tofu “Spam” Musubi; Homemade Vegetable “Sushi” Bowl; A Healthier Loco Moco (Hawaiian Plate Lunch)
Teff flour: A gluten-free flour made from the grain of the teff plant. Teff is widely used in Ethiopian cuisine. It’s rising in popularity as an alternative to glutinous flours and can sometimes be found in your local grocery store (check the Bob’s Red Mill section). Health food stores are also likely to have it and you can definitely find it at Kalustyan’s. Used in: Recipe Fails
Thai basil: A basil variety grown in Southeast Asia and used widely in Thai cooking. I have spotted it in chain supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Fairway, with a higher likelihood of success in the summer when basil is in season. Asain groceries such as H Mart, Hong Kong Superkmarket, Food Bazaar, or Bangkok Center Grocery carry it year round. Substitute: Regular basil. Used in: Thai Green Curry
Thai eggplant: Small, green, and round, this variety looks quite different from the large purple globe and Italian eggplants we’re accustomed to in the US. The Thai eggplant is used often in Thai cuisine. Look for it at Asian grocery stores, especially Bangkok Center Grocery. Substitute: Any eggplant variety sold locally. Used in: Thai Green Curry
Wild rice: Edible grass native to the Great Lakes region of the United States. Many groceries stores will carry this in the rice section, though it is technically a grass and not a rice. Used in: Cornucopia Americana Salad Bowl