Written By Chef Peter Martin
As foodies, we are very lucky that we live in today's world. Never in the history of mankind have we had access to so many foods and cuisines. It's not uncommon to eat Chinese food one night, Italian the next, and Mexican the following night. Even in the smallest of towns you can find at least 1 or 2 of these more common ethnic cuisines. In major metropolitan areas, the choices are even vaster, with choices ranging from Thai, Ethiopian and Peruvian to Russian, Japanese, and all manner of European cuisines. Grocery stores have even gotten into the game and most stores at least offer Italian, Mexican, and Chinese foods along with a smattering of Thai and Indian foods, and a few other ethnic foods.
Unfortunately, if you live outside of major cities, or a large ethnic community, local markets still don't have much depth to their ethnic foods. You can't blame them. They are in the business to make money and stocking obscure foods that rarely move is not good use of their shelf space and is costly. Of course, there are always plenty of mail order stores that specialize in ethnic foods, but it takes forethought to make sure you have items on hand when you want to cook. So what are you to do when you want to try your hand at that new Indian dish but you don't have Asafetida at hand (or haven't even heard of it) or you go to make garam masala only to find your spouse used up the last of the cumin for his/her favorite chili? You could just skip the ingredient or you can try to find a substitute for the item in question. Both choices have their advantages and disadvantages. By just skipping the ingredient you could be leaving out an important flavor that helps bring the dish together, but by substituting with other items you could be introducing new flavors that are not in harmony with the rest of the dish. Unfortunately, there is no right answer for every situation. Sometimes you can skip the item, sometimes there are plenty of ways to substitute the item, and sometimes it's just best to not make the dish until you get the proper ingredients. Generally, if the item contributes significantly to the flavor of the dish and you don't have it then I would probably skip the dish until I could purchase the ingredient, but if the item only plays a supporting role then I would either just skip the ingredient or try to substitute it. For example, if I were trying to make a traditional Spanish Paella and didn't have any saffron I would probably skip the dish until I could purchase some saffron since saffron is an important flavor element of the dish, but on the other hand a number of rice dishes from Latin America call for saffron more for the color than for flavor, in which case I might substitute the saffron with another item such as turmeric or annatto. Just remember that a substitution is just that, a substitution, it's not a replacement for the original item. For many items you can come close but it will never taste exactly the same.
Below, I offer up some more commonly used spices and seasonings in a number of ethnic cuisines around the world and what you can use as a substitution. This is by no means an all inclusive list, not even close. It would take volumes to come up with a complete list, but this should answer some of the more common substitution questions. Luckily the internet is a powerful reference tool and if you don't find the answer, you need, here then you probably can find it out there, somewhere.
Since I mentioned saffron earlier let's start with there. There isn't really anything that tastes like saffron so trying to substitute its flavor is pretty much impossible, but if you have a dish that uses saffron as a coloring agent you can try turmeric, though you need to be careful as turmeric has its own distinct flavor and can easily show itself. A better option might by using annatto seed (1 tsp. of seeds steeped in ¼ cup water for 30 minutes). It will provide a nice yellowish orange color to foods. In fact it is often used to color cheese orange.
Galangal is a spice often used in the cuisines of Asia. Though not completely similar, fresh ginger makes a good substitute. Use sparingly as galangal is more subtle.
Asafetida is a resin that is used as a spice in Indian cooking. Its strong sulfurous aroma is mellowed by cooking. To substitute use a mix of onion and garlic that has been slowly cooked in butter.
Cardamom is another flavor that can't really be duplicated, but a mixture of equal parts cinnamon and nutmeg with just a hint of white pepper can approximate the warming sensation that cardamom.
Tamarind adds a tart, citrusy note to the foods of many cuisines. To substitute try using mango powder or lime juice cut ½ and ½ with water.
Sour Orange is a used in a number of Caribbean and Latin cuisines. You rarely see it north of the border but it can easily be approximated using 3 parts orange juice to 1 part lime juice.
Speaking of Latin cuisines, there are so many chile peppers out there, it would take a couple of pages to discuss the best substitutions for each and every chile. While chiles have many nuances and heat levels the most important thing to remember about substituting chiles is always substitute fresh for fresh and dried for dried.
Star Anise is used in Chinese cooking and is an integral part of Chinese 5 Spice Powder. To substitute use Chinese 5 Spice Powder or if you don't have that then try anise seed.
Caraway is probably best known for its use in Eastern European and Scandinavian cuisines but it is used throughout the world. Try substituting with (in order of preference) anise seed, whole cumin seeds, or dill seeds.
Cumin is another one of those spices that really has no good substitute for its flavor. Luckily many of the foods that cumin helps compliment are also complimented by coriander seed so use that. It won't mimic the flavor of cumin but will provide a nice layer of flavor to the dish. Unfortunately, it's not a two way street. Don't try it the other way around as cumin is much more assertive than coriander and might not compliment everything that coriander does.
Many claim that a good substitute for lemon grass is lemon zest (the zest of 1 lemon=2 lemon grass stalks). While it will work I find lemon zest a little too assertive and missing the herbal qualities of lemon grass. Instead try lemon balm or lemon verbena if at all possible.
Fish Sauce is pretty distinctive, but often it is used in a way that much of its flavor is masked. It is one of those flavorings that aren't prominent in a dish but when it's not there you miss it. To come close in flavor replace each tablespoon of fish sauce with a tablespoon of soy sauce mixed with 1 anchovy fillet, mince as finely as possible.
For those not familiar with dashi, it is a stock made up of seaweed and dried shrimp flakes, and is vital many dishes in Japan. While it is hard to capture its true essence you can come close by flavoring a light beef broth with soya, sugar, and a splash of fish sauce
Finally, when it comes to herbs, often fresh is best, but sometimes dried is all that is available. When substituting dried for fresh just remember that dried herbs are 3 times more potent than fresh, so cut the amount by 3. On the other hand if your recipe calls for dried but you'd rather use fresh, then you will need 3 times the amount called for.
Again, the important thing to remember is that these are substitutions and cannot replace the flavors of the original items, but for many items you can come close. Hopefully, you found your answers here, but if not, there is plenty of information out on the web.