Mariel Norton   02 February 2018

What exotic ingredients make the perfect home-cooked meal? Picture: Rene Schwietzke. CC BY 2.0.

You’ve recently moved abroad but feeling a little homesick, so you’ve decided to prepare one of your favourite dishes from back home. Except there’s a problem – there’s a key ingredient that isn’t available, so what do you do?

Luckily we’ve come to the rescue: check out our selection of affordable alternatives for exotic foods:

1. Berbere. A central ingredient to many Ethiopian dishes, berbere is a hot spice blend that works best when sprinkled over barbecued meats. Used primarily to season slow-cooked wats (stews), it is known as the key condiment to one of the most famous dishes in African cuisine, Ethiopian Doro Wat, a spicy chicken stew. An easy and affordable way to replicate berbere is to use cayenne pepper.

2. Achiote paste. This traditional Mexican paste has a tangy and somewhat bittersweet taste, found commonly in Central American and Mexican food. What’s interesting is the fact that achiote paste contains an essential ingredient which is pretty hard to find – and that’s annatto seeds. They can usually be bought in Chinese food shops, but if you want to substitute achiote paste then simply mix together 1 ½ tablespoons of paprika, ¼ teaspoon of ground cumin, ¾ teaspoon of dried oregano, one tablespoon of white vinegar and one minced garlic clove.

For a smoky flavour, just add achiote paste. Picture: Leslie Seaton. CC BY 2.0.

3. Gochujang. Considered to be one of the most important ingredients in Korean cuisine, gochujang is a red chilli paste that’s thick and sticky with a very strong flavour. As it’s got such a thick texture, many people tend to thin it with a liquid. If you’re after a substitute for this tasty Korean spice, just combine red chilli pepper flakes in soy sauce with a dash of sugar (but remember, if your paste contains sugar then be careful as grilling meats marinated in this paste are likely to burn easily)

4. Hearts of palm. This exotic delicacy is found in Brazil, as part of the inner core and growing bud of the palm tree. Mild in flavour, they’re great for adding some extra texture to dishes, but if you can’t find them then a common alternative is canned or marinated artichoke hearts – or if that’s not your thing, you can always use green or white cooked asparagus.  

Hearts of palm are easily available in supermarkets in the UK. Picture: Joel Kramer. CC BY 2.0.

5. Epazote. This Central American herb offers an extremely pungent flavour, and is prepared by washing the leaves in cold water. It’s traditionally added to black bean recipes to help with digestion (reducing gas that it often produces). If you’re unable to find epazote, then you can substitute with dried bay leaves.

Epazote adds fantastic flavour to dishes such as beans and quesadillas. Picture: Amy Stephenson. CC BY 2.0.

6. Kuzu. Also known as kudzu or kuzuko, this is used as a natural thickening agent in Japan  – and also helps produce a shiny gloss to soups. Use it if you want a smoother texture for sauces or added flavour in noodle broths. You can also dust vegetables and fish with kuzu powder and deep fry them to enjoy a light and crispy coating. A great substitute for kuzu is corn flour.

7. Chayote. A native Mexican plant that’s a member of the gourd family, a good substitute of this "vegetable pear" is courgette. When preparing chayote, make sure you wear gloves because a sticky substance tends to ooze from the fruit when peeling it. Next, cut it into small sections until it’s manageable enough to remove the large seeds from them.

Chayote – also known as chow-chow, chuchu, vegetable pear and pear squash. Picture: Leslie Seaton. CC BY 2.0.

8. Lemon myrtle leaves. A versatile and fragrant herb from Australia, it can be used to add flavour to a dish or even used as tea – but if this herb is unavailable, then kaffir lime leaves make a fantastic substitute.

9. Pitomba. This is a delicacy found on either of two kinds of fruit tree: Talisia esculenta, a South American tree, and Eugenia luschnathiana, an evergreen shrub of Brazil. The orange-yellow fruit contains a juicy flesh which is slightly acidic in flavour, with a good substitute being apricots. 

The more orange the colour, the more flavourful the pitomba. Picture: Barbara Dieu. CC BY 2.0.

10. Sukuma wiki. Enjoyed in many parts of east Africa, collard greens are more commonly known in Swahili as sukuma wiki, which translates as "to stretch the week". Sukuma wiki is often served with ugali, a dish made from maize, millet or sorghum flour cooked in water until it reaches a thick consistency that’s common across the continent under different names – for example posho, pap or corn fufu. You can substitute sukuma wiki with kale instead.     

Do you have any alternatives for these foods? What substitutes do you use for other exotic ingredients? Share your suggestions today – we’d love to know your tips!

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