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, 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.
Hong Kong Supermarket: A huge multi-floor supermarket specializing in Chinese groceries at affordable prices, located in Chinatown.
Kalustyan’s: 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.
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 but difficult to find elsewhere. Substitute: Caraway seeds. Used in: DIY Berbere Spice Mix
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 and not to be confused with its Thai cousin, this dried spice will add unique flavor to your dishes but it can be difficult to find. Try African, Middle Eastern, or Indian grocery stores.
Cassava flour: A finely ground, gluten-free flour made from cassava root (also known as yucca or manioc). You can likely find it in health food stores with flours or gluten-free food. I’ve found it at Whole Foods too. There is no good substitute, as cassava flour lends a unique flavor to food.
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.
Furikake: Japanese seasoning used on rice, vegetables, and fish. There are different varieties available. H Mart and Katagiri Grocery Store have many varieties of furikake available. Substitutes: Make your own.
Glutinous rice flour: Processed glutinous rice, used to make mochi. Mochiko is a common brand. Asian and Japanese markets are most likely to have this.
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. Find at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Asian grocery stores.
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.
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.
Kosseret: A lemony herb native to Ethiopia and used often in its cooking. Difficult to find, but check Middle Eastern, Indian, or African grocery stores.
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.
Nigella seeds: Also known as black cumin seed, nigella seeds are used often in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Polish cuisine. Alternative name is kalonji. Available at Indian, Middle Eastern, or African grocery stores. Substitute: cumin seeds.
Niter kibbeh: Ethiopian spiced clarified butter, an essential staple in Ethiopian cooking. Make your own. Subtitute: Ghee.
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.
Queso Paraguayo: A unique homemade cheese common in Paraguayan cooking. Substitute: Muenster cheese.
Salsa Lizano: A condiment used commonly in Costa Rica, particularly to make gallo pinto. I haven’t found it in a supermarket in NYC yet, but you can order it online. Substitute: Worcestershire sauce.
Spring Roll Pastry Sheets: Used to wrap spring rolls. Check in the freezer section of your grocery store or Asian grocery stores.
Sushi Rice: A white, short-grained rice ideal for making sushi. Most grocery stores will carry it, or check an Asian grocery store.
Teff flour: A gluten-free flour made from the teff grain. 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.
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. H Mart and Bangkok Center Grocery carry it year round. Substitute: Regular basil.
Thai eggplant: Small, green, and round, this variety looks quite different from the globe and Italian eggplants we’re accustomed to in the US. Look for it at Asian grocery stores, especially Bangkok Center Grocery. Substitute: Any eggplant variety sold locally.
Wild rice: Edible grass grown in the Great Lakes region of the United States. Many groceries stores will carry this in the rice section.