Cooking School: 9 Supermarket Swaps for Hard-to-Find Specialty Ingredients

There are few things that make you feel as accomplished in the kitchen as really nailing an authentic dish from some faraway land. The only problem is, whether you’re looking to perfect an aromatic Tom Yum Goong soup or try your hand at a comforting bowl of Chicken Tikka Masala, there is usually an item the recipe calls for that your local grocery store has never heard of and definitely doesn’t carry.

But before you let a sad excuse of an international food aisle dash your culinary aspirations, or spend the day running from specialty grocery store to grocery store, check out these go-to substitutions for nine hard-to-find ingredients. These swaps for everything from Kaffir lime leaves to Fenugreek seeds will have your dish tasting just the way it should, even if you had to cheat a little.

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Kaffir Lime Leaves

Substitution: Lime Zest

Kaffir lime leaves are used in a range of South Asian cuisines, lending bright citrus flavor and a uniquely aromatic quality to soups and curries. The same taste can be achieved by substituting lime zest — swap ½ tablespoon of lime zest for every three Kaffir lime leaves and you won’t be able to taste the difference.

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Palm Sugar

Substitution: Brown Sugar

Palm sugar, the crystallized sap of the Arenga Pinnata or Nipa palm, is commonly used throughout Asia and parts of Africa to sweeten and balance citrus or bitter notes in main dishes and desserts. It’s similar in flavor to brown sugar, so feel free to use the two interchangeably without compromising taste.

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Substitution: Maple Syrup, Mustard, or Celery leaf

Used in Indian, Persian, and North African cuisines, Fenugreek is a complex herb with celery flavor in the leaves, mustard flavor in the seeds, and a sweet, maple syrupy flavor when cooked for a long time. Choose which substitution to use based on the preparation or part of the plant that’s called for.

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Piri Piri

Substitution: Hot Sauce

Prevalent in African, Portuguese, and Goan cooking, Piri Piri is a chili oil made from the North African Bird’s Eye pepper, citrus, garlic, and olive oil. It’s used as a seasoning, in traditional marinades, and on it’s own accompanying a meal. Hot sauce can be used as a substitute for Piri Piri, but be sure to pick one that has some serious heat and isn’t overly smoky or vinegary.

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Chinese Sesame Paste

Substitution: Sesame oil mixed with peanut butter

The best substitution for Chinese Szechuan paste is a mixture of peanut butter and sesame seed oil. Mix 4 tablespoons of Peanut butter with ½ teaspoon of sesame oil for the perfect Chinese sesame paste substitute.

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Orange Flower Water

Substitution: Orange oil, zest, or liqueur

Found in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African dishes, orange flower water is a sweet, fragrant water of distilled bitter-orange blossoms. In savory dishes, use orange oil or zest as a substitute. For a sweet dish or dessert, pick an orange liqueur like Triple-sec.

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Mexican Crema

Substitution: Sour cream and heavy cream

Often used in Mexican dishes, this silky cream is drizzled over tacos or over soup. To make the perfect Mexican crema substitution, mix together 1 part sour cream to 2 parts heavy cream.

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Mango Powder

Substitute: Lemon juice

Typically used in Indian cooking, mango powder gives a tangy fruit flavor to any dish. Luckily, the best way to mimic it’s tart taste is with an easy squeeze of lemon juice.

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Substitution: White Vinegar mixed with sugar

From Asian to Caribbean cooking, tamarind can be found in a wide variety of cuisines. To create the sour taste of tamarind, combine 1 tablespoon of white vinegar with ½ teaspoon of sugar for each tablespoon required. While this substitution works well, it should only be used when small amounts of tamarind are required.

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