Your guide to the food and culture of the tropics


Spice of Life: Bring exotic flavors to your kitchen with these lesser-known spices

The ingredients of a dish can reveal a lot about a place, from its cultural history to its present day traditions. In the Tropics, spices form an important part of the cuisine, indicating the climate of a destination, its penchant for particular flavors, and the make up of its national dishes. Hot sauces and sprinkles of flavored powder provide a kick to local dishes, whilst dried chilies and colorful concoctions come together to give destinations like Thailand, Ethiopia, and Mexico distinct, flavorful recipes.

All over the Tropics, spice recipes bring dishes to life by using local ingredients that have grown for thousands of years in the warmer climates. Of course, visiting these destinations and discovering the local dishes firsthand is the ideal way to experience the unique flavors of these spices. Not just because the spices are grown locally and fresh, but because the locals have a special flair in working with the spices.  

Fortunately, even if you can’t travel to these locales to try the spices firsthand, you can still bring their fresh flavors into your home by preparing these lovely dishes.

Mexico: Adobo Sauce

Chicken Stew (Photo "Menudo in Houston TX 2013" by EricEnfermero - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Chicken Stew (Photo “Menudo in Houston TX 2013” by EricEnfermero – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –


Adobo sauce is a favorite in Mexico for marinating meats and adding an extra kick to stews and rice dishes. Made using a mixture of dried ancho, chillis, fresh ginger, and cumin, it’s most commonly used as a way to preserve chipotle, a spice made from dried jalapenos.

The sauce is regularly used in chicken stew, a local favorite because it’s easy to whip up and makes for a hearty, shareable dinner. You can try your hand at recreating this at home:

Mexican Chicken Stew
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp Adobo Sauce
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 3 chopped garlic cloves
  • ½ tsp dark brown sugar
  • 1 can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tsp chipotle paste
  • 4 boneless chicken breasts
  • 1 red onion sliced into rings
  • Coriander leaves
  • Tortillas or rice to serve with
  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onion.
  2. Cook for 5 mins before adding the garlic, sugar, chipotle paste, adobo sauce and tomatoes. Stir.
  3. Add chicken to the pan and smother with the sauce.
  4. Simmer for 20 mins until chicken is cooked.
  5. Remove the chicken and shred before adding it once more to the sauce.
  6. Sprinkle red onion and coriander over the top before serving with tortillas or rice.

Brazil: Annatto Seed

Annatto Seeds (Photo: "Bixa orellana fruit open" by Leonardo Ré-Jorge - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons -

Annatto Seeds (Photo: “Bixa orellana fruit open” by Leonardo Ré-Jorge – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons –

In present day the Annatto Seed pops up all over the world, because of the heavy exportation practices that scattered it across the Tropics. The seed’s life actually began in Brazil where it is still regularly used to dye and flavor foods like butter and smoked fish. Bright red in color and shaped like little triangles, Annatto seeds are often ground into a peppery paste that’s sweet with a mild kick.
Annatto Seeds are used in traditional Brazilian fish stew to add a peppery flavor to the simple ingredients. Make your own fish stew with this recipe:

Brazilian Fish Stew
  • ½ tsp Annatto seeds
  • 60ml Canola oil
  • 3 chopped garlic cloves
  • 3 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tsp salt (preferably sea salt flakes)
  • 1 kg Blue cod steak (or other white fish)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 yellow pepper
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 8 drops of Tabasco sauce
  • 2 spring onions
  • 2 tbsp fresh coriander
  • 400ml coconut milk
  1. Start by making the annatto oil by combining the seeds and oil in a pan. Cook on a medium heat for 10 mins until the sauce turns orange. Remove from heat and strain out the seeds.
  2. Mix together garlic, lime juice and salt in a large bowl and cut the fish into chunks.
  3. Add fish to the bowl and marinade in the garlic and lime sauce.
  4. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat.
  5. Sauté the onion and peppers for 2-3 mins.
  6. Add in the tomatoes and Tabasco sauce and cook for a further 3-4 mins.
  7. Place fish in a layer on top of the pan mixture.
  8. Sprinkle the spring onions and coriander on and pour the annatto oil and coconut milk over the top.
  9. Cover pan and cook on a low heat for 20 mins.
  10. Serve when ready.

Thailand: Siamese Ginger

Fish Stew (Photo: Flickr THOR)

Fish Stew (Photo: Flickr THOR)

Siamese Ginger is a regional take on common ginger with much larger roots. It’s often used in tropical Thai recipes to make curry pastes and to add a zingy flavor to soups.

Chicken and coconut soup is a light meal perfect for the humid temperatures in Thailand, and the added Siamese ginger gives it an extra kick. Cook your own chicken coconut soup for a refreshing treat on warm days:

Chicken Coconut Soup with Siamese Ginger and Lemongrass
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 8 slices of unpeeled Siamese Ginger and 5 ½ ounces of common ginger
  • 1 large stalk of lemongrass cut into 2 inch pieces
  • 12 kaffir lime leaves
  • 2 cans unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 pound boneless chicken breasts cut into pieces
  • 2 tbsp Chilli Tamarind Paste
  • ⅓ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 ½ tbsp coconut palm sugar (or brown sugar)
  • 2 ½ tbsp Thai fish sauce
  • ½ pound mushrooms
  • 5 small Thai chilies
  1. Add stock, ginger and lemongrass to a pot. Add Kaffir lime leaves.
  2. Bring stock to boil over a medium heat and boil for 1 min.
  3. Stir in coconut oil and return to the boil.
  4. Stir in the chicken and return to the boil.
  5. Add the Chili Tamarind Paste, lemon juice, sugar and fish sauce and stir until the paste and sugar have dissolved.
  6. Add the mushrooms and simmer for 1 min.
  7. Float chilies on top, turn off the heat and serve.


Ethiopia: Mitto Shiro

Mitto Shiro (Photo: Flickr David Stanley)

Mitto Shiro (Photo: Flickr David Stanley)


Made using ground chickpeas, Mitto Shiro is a vibrant orange spice with a thick and creamy flavor. A firm culinary favorite, it’s regularly used in tropical Ethiopian recipes including stews and rice dishes.
Ethiopian Shiro is the country’s most popular dish, which combines Mitto Shiro with Berbere, a blend of whole spices, including coriander and cumin seeds, green cardamom, dried red chili peppers, cloves, and black peppercorns. Try out this recipe to create your own hearty Shiro:

Spice of Life: Bring exotic flavors to your kitchen with these lesser-known spices
  • 2 onions
  • 1 tomato
  • ½ cup oil
  • ½ cup Shiro powder
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • Berbere
  1. Puree the onions in a blender and add to a hot dry skillet. Stir until water evaporates and onions start getting brown.
  2. Add ½ cup oil and about ¼ cup of berbere and cook for 1-2 mins.
  3. Puree one tomato and add to the skillet. Cook for 1-2 mins.
  4. Add Shiro powder gradually, stirring with a wooden spoon as you go.
  5. Once Shiro is mixed into the oil, add the water and stir well.
  6. Turn heat down as mixture thickens and cook for about 5 mins.
  7. When finished, it should be the consistency of thick gravy. Serve with rice, rolls, or bread.





Written by

Lizzie is a freelance travel writer who spends her time between sunny Spain and not-so-sunny England. When she’s not exploring new cities or wandering through art galleries you can find her chatting about the freelancing life on Twitter (, Facebook (, and on her blog, Wanderful World ( Give her a cup of tea and a good view and she’ll be happy for hours.