24 Jun2008

Thank you for responding to the recent poll posted on marketmanila.com regarding the most expensive ingredients in the world, and over 1,000 votes were received for the multiple choice question that included saffron, caviar, vanillin, truffles, bird’s nest and foie gras. The correct answer is…

…not so clear at all. However, read on for a range of prices that would apply to top quality versions of each ingredient. This may shock some of you:

Based on your votes, 48% of you felt that saffron was the most expensive ingredient out of that list, and you would be correct that it is the most expensive herb or spice, but probably not the most expensive ingredient overall. The stigmas of a crocus plant, it takes several tens (or hundreds) of thousands of individual pieces to make up a kilo of the stuff. The best saffron comes from Iran, Spain and parts thereabouts and retails for some USD6,000 per kilo, or $6 per gram. I suspect a huge part of that cost is labor driven to collect the darned things. But here is the good news – just 1 gram of saffron is more than enough to flavor a paella or risotto or other dish good for four diners, therefore, just USD1.50 per person doesn’t seem too extravagant after all. Any substitutes for good saffron? None. Yeah, yeah, I have heard of turkish saffron, kasubha, etc. – they are not substitutes, period.

Over 270 votes or 27% of readers voted for truffles as the most expensive ingredient. Frankly, this would probably win based on internet searches on the price of some of the most unusual (read large and white) truffles from Alba, Italy. Even if you ignored charity auctions where generous (or is it crazy?) donors paid up to USD330,000 for a 1.5 kilo white truffle, the average price of good white truffles from Italy last year (prices skyrocketed due to a poor harvest and high demand) was roughly USD40-50 per gram, or $40,000-50,000 per kilo!!! Black truffles and lesser quality other truffles can be had for as little as USD3-5 per gram… and a few grams or so are needed over some perfectly scrambled eggs to give you that hint of funky and pungent truffle flavor, so each serving could run USD10-20, a lot more than saffron. Oh, and look up truffle oils if you are a fan, because so many of them don’t really have any real truffle in them.

Only 12% of you voted for bird’s nest as the most expensive ingredient, hmmm, weren’t you paying attention to a post I did last year on bird’s nests from Northern Palawan? :) While you can buy the bird’s nest of the finest quality (white, not greyish) in Palawan and Manila for say $4,000 a kilo, it can command up to US$8-10,000 at the retail level in Hong Kong and elsewhere. And there is some suggestion that red bird’s nest can cost even more. So at USD8-10 per gram, bird’s nest definitely costs more than saffron per gram, though 4x more folks felt the other way around. I don’t eat bird’s nests as I have a problem robbing cradles and while the texture is unique, I have enough problems with my own saliva to contend with the dried saliva of swiftlets.

Caviar is one of those ingredients that has a very wide price range, so it can confuse. But surprisingly, only 5% of voters felt this might be the most expensive ingredient among those listed. The finest beluga caviar at retail can run USD8,000-10,000 per kilo or USD8-10 per gram, about the same price as bird’s nest and definitely more than saffron. Stay tuned for a post on Iranian caviar in the weeks ahead.

Some very informed souls out there (or lucky guessers) picked vanillin (4% of votes) and yes, it is truly costly, at up to $7-8,000 per kilo or USD7-8 per gram of vanillin or just the seeds of the finest pods from Tahiti or Madagascar. And here i would have to agree, I cannot do without this ingredient. Fine vanilla is world’s apart from fake or synthetic vanilla. And just a smidgen or fraction of a gram is enough to make a creme brulee sing. Or a gram or so would make vanilla ice cream as it should be made. Totally worth it. No real substitutes.

Roughly 3% of you voted for foie gras, and well, that’s just NOT the most expensive ingredient on the list. Very “cheap,” in fact, when compared to the others above, at say 5-10 cents per gram or so. But I like it, so it is definitely something I consume, despite the force-feeding issues associated with the product. After all, if you knew all the bizarre things they do to your chickens in the West, you would re-think some of the foods you consume on a regular basis.

So, in conclusion, based on recent data, truffles is by far the most expensive ingredient (Italy, France). Then it isn’t really clear whether caviar (Iran, Russia, etc.) or bird’s nest (Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.) follows at 2 and 3. Then vanillin (Madagascar, Tahiti, etc.) at 4. Saffron (Iran, Spain, Greece, etc.) at 5. And foie gras (France, China) bringing up the rear at 6. Surprised?



  1. linda says:

    I voted for truffles.Actually today, I just bought a little tiny bit of black truffle the size of a 5 cent coin and it cost $40.00.I’ll be slicing it thinly over my pasta tonight.

    Jun 24, 2008 | 3:47 pm


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  3. Monsters Inc. says:

    I’m a bit surprised that Vanillin is that expensive. oh well, it’s good naman. But I love saffron, truffles and foie gras. I always make sure I have stocks at home.

    Btw marketman and MM fans, i heard there’s gonna be a Cardinal Ceramics outlet sale in Market! Market! starting June 30. I think it’ll run for one week. I’m excited.
    It’s time to buy new tableware for my daily use. :-)

    Jun 24, 2008 | 3:50 pm

  4. beth says:

    Surprised indeed,I voted for saffron.Interesting statistics you have there MM!Thanks!

    Jun 24, 2008 | 4:14 pm

  5. inked_chef says:

    Hi MM.. saw your older posts regarding Rome and Florence. Any restaurant suggestions? Ill be going towards the end of the year during the truffle season and hopefully i get to score some white truffles to bring home.

    The vanilla pods that were available in the market about 2 years ago were only from madagascar or tahiti or indonesia… But about a year ago a lady from davao now grows them and sells them in manila…Its definitely worth using real vanilla pods for baking. You can save the pods that have been scrapped in making vanilla sugar.

    Jun 24, 2008 | 4:15 pm

  6. kate says:

    wow very interesting! i voted for saffron because it is listed in my guinness world’s records book (for kids) as the most expensive food/spice (am not very sure abt the category but will look it up later). thanks for sharing this! :)

    Jun 24, 2008 | 4:18 pm

  7. Kathang Isip says:

    This is the sort of info people use to wow their friends at dinner parties…hahaha. Salamat sa bala MarketMan!

    But before I go around parading this new tidbit of info, what the heck is foie gras???

    Sorry for my ignorance…

    Jun 24, 2008 | 4:38 pm

  8. erbie says:

    @ kathang isip : Foie gras (pronounced /fwɑːˈgrɑː/ (fwah grah)in English; French for “fat liver”) is “the liver of a duck or a goose that has been specially fattened by gavage” (as defined by French law).

    Foie gras is one of the most popular and well-known delicacies in French cuisine and its flavour is described as rich, buttery, and delicate, unlike that of a regular duck or goose liver. Foie gras can be sold whole, or prepared into mousse, parfait, or pâté (the lowest quality), and is typically served as an accompaniment to another food item, such as toast or steak.

    The technique of gavage dates as far back as 2500 BCE, when the ancient Egyptians began keeping birds for food and deliberately fattened the birds through force-feeding.[2] Today, France is by far the largest producer and consumer of foie gras, though it is produced and consumed worldwide, particularly in other European nations, the United States, and China.

    hope that helps. i would be happy over a simple liver pate. kakain lang ako ng foie gras pag libre.:D

    Jun 24, 2008 | 7:13 pm

  9. connieC says:

    MM, you are specially gifted with such discriminating olfactory and gustatory senses or you wouldn’t be telling us what good cooking is all about.

    Us mortals aren’t as lucky . Cook’s Illustrated .com conducted a blind testing of vanillin, the natural product as opposed to the synthetic. The tasters could not make the distinction. So for most of us, and if pinching pennies is an issue, artificial vanilla would do.

    Jun 24, 2008 | 7:18 pm

  10. zena says:

    Darn. I had second thoughts about truffles and went for saffron as i knew it to be the most expensive spice. I have settled for truffle oil as it is all i can afford. And I, only I, can use it. Not a fan of foie gras nor caviar. Only when free. =) But I will pay for vanilla beans.

    Jun 24, 2008 | 7:23 pm

  11. connieC says:

    BTW, a caveat for foie gras lovers.

    Beware of posterior emissions associated with partaking of this delight. Better be close to a door or window or your cocktail friends may not talk to you ever again. Of course, you can always blame it on the most beautiful socialite beside you as you make a hasty exit post emission, he, he. Just being facetious.

    Jun 24, 2008 | 7:28 pm

  12. Cumin says:

    I have been wondering the survey results this past week! MM, I got a small pack of vanilla pods from Indonesia but have no idea what to do with these. Not really into baking apart from the occasional cookie. Any suggestions? Or shall I donate it to you?

    Jun 24, 2008 | 8:11 pm

  13. Lex says:

    Interestingly enough the vanilla bean found in most specialty stores found in Manila (Santi’s included, is grown in Bukidnon, Philippines. Unfortunately we cannot buy it directly from the supplier. I guess they have to protect the retailers including Cook’s Exchange.

    Truffles is not being bought by a number of Europeans in China. Though the quality is not supposed to be at par as the European counterparts,it is good enough for most of us. The Chinese were wondering why Europeans have been coming over to buy this black stuff which their pigs have been eating from the forests or wherever they come from.These are now being sold in Europe and many other countries and passed on as the real stuff. So, even truffles is now made in China too.

    Jun 24, 2008 | 8:52 pm

  14. fried-neurons says:

    I’ve had truffles from Italy and France, “truffles” from China, and “truffles” from America. The Chinese and American ones just can’t compare. It’s worlds apart. Kind of like real vanilla versus synthetic. :)

    Anyway, I voted twice. Once for saffron and once for bird’s nest.

    Jun 24, 2008 | 10:25 pm

  15. siopao says:

    @ Cumin
    You can keep your vanilla pods in a jar of plain white sugar… the vanilla will flavor the sugar which would then be absolutely perfect with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.

    You can also cut the vanilla pods up into small pieces and whizz them up in a blender or food processor along with the sugar for a more intense flavor
    (be sure to pass the mixture through a sieve before using

    Jun 24, 2008 | 10:29 pm

  16. eej says:

    Here’s my personal take on savor for each ingredients:

    Truffles — Aesthetically appetizing (looks like chocolate shavings)and yet, tastes like mud. Nothing to close your eyes about and moan with utter delight. Wasted my money on this one.

    Caviar — Quality Russian caviar definitely leads the pack. Its delicate salty taste offers a punch especially when the juice squirts out from its sac.

    Bird’s nest — Thick and warm pasty soup is always good for a weary soul. I’d order it again if I see it on a menu.

    Vanillin — The wonderful world of pastries will not be the same without this marvelous extract. The aroma and taste of natural or pure vanilla alone is enough to make me shell out some dough without thinking twice.

    Saffron — The golden color in paella is attributed to this ingredient. I even add saffron to my arroz caldo to give it a nice hue. I’m not quite sure if paella will taste starkly different without it. Although, I’m quite sure sans coloring it will raise some eyebrows.

    Foie gras — This is melt in your mouth and not in your hands goodness! It’s like eating a piece of flavored, semi melted butter with grainy texture.

    Jun 24, 2008 | 10:45 pm

  17. momsy says:

    Yehey, i voted for truffles :-) without doing research ;_)

    Jun 24, 2008 | 10:49 pm

  18. ditto says:


    Jun 24, 2008 | 11:50 pm

  19. chinachix says:

    what a great topic. was torn between voting for truffles and saffron, but the former won out…

    Jun 24, 2008 | 11:50 pm

  20. mikel says:

    am surprised that truffles is the most expensive. i find saffron more exotic. and you’re quite right about the great truffle oil hoax! it’s ridiculous how much they charge for it too.

    Jun 25, 2008 | 12:11 am

  21. kate says:

    @ eej: i LOVE truffles! and for me it does not taste like mud! but that’s me :)

    Jun 25, 2008 | 2:06 am

  22. openonymous says:

    Hey you guys forgot kobe beef ($24000 – 30000 per carcass) and matsuke mushrooms ($2000/kg)?

    Jun 25, 2008 | 2:18 am

  23. fried-neurons says:

    Malayo ang kobe beef price-wise. I can get Japanese kobe strip steaks for $160 a pound, or about $72 per kilo. Compared to the items mentioned in the original post, Japanese kobe sounds like the ultimate bargain. :)

    Jun 25, 2008 | 5:23 am

  24. Ted says:

    You can also put the vanilla pod into a small jar and add vodka, screw the cap and tighten, wait a couple of weeks and you have vanila extract.

    Jun 25, 2008 | 7:36 am

  25. Mila says:

    Ted, make sure to split the bean in half first, otherwise it will take a bit longer for the essence to infuse the vodka. I put 6 beans in a bottle of Absolut for 6 months.

    Jun 25, 2008 | 8:01 am

  26. Marketman says:

    Ted, you are right, homemae extract is good, but try several pods in a skinny bottle to ad vanilla to the alcohol content/volume… make it more intense… fried neurons, put in those terms, one would run out and buy a whole side of kobe…hahaha. openonymous, ah matsutake mushrooms… yum. eej, you must have had an unclean truffle perhaps? It doesn’t taste like mud… and the fragrance, divine! Lex, yes, I have purchased many local vanilla beans, I did a post on it too, in the archives. They are good, but not as plump as some others… Cumin, I read you don’t like to bake, but if you muster up the courage to do a creme brulee using the pods in the warmed milk, it is one of the best ways to appreciate good fresh vanilla beans… ConnieC, I too wonder if I could distinguish the taste of a baked good with real vs. fake vanilla blinfolded… and who knows, maybe I can’t. But if you put a real vs fake vanilla bottle to me blindfolded, I hope I could tell the difference! :) And in baked goods, custards and ice cream, you actually can see the tiny flecks of vanilla seeds… kathang Isip, fattened duck or goose livers. erbie, thanks for that. inked chef, I have a few posts on our meals in Florence… there were at least 3-4 restaurants I named that were all good. But also eat at the MARKET in Florence, excellent food. In Rome, we ate mostly with family, so we didn’t get to too many restaurants. linda, YUM!

    Jun 25, 2008 | 8:03 am

  27. Cumin says:

    Maraming salamat to siopao, Ted, Mila, and MM for tips on using vanilla. Will give these a try!

    Jun 25, 2008 | 9:49 am

  28. MarketFan says:

    I voted for truffles after remembering that scene in the movie “No Reservations” or its German version “Mostly Martha”.

    Jun 25, 2008 | 3:30 pm

  29. annette says:

    just got back from a trip to florence and catching up. i discovered and started my love affair with truffles there upon discovering the world of difference truffle oil and a few shavings brings to a dish. brought precious cargo back home, only to be told it’s “amoy gaas”. but i still love it and will savor every bit and remember florence with each bite.

    Jul 1, 2008 | 1:02 pm

  30. emsy says:

    is truffle oil expensive ba? i have never bought a bottle of my own. Although I am already aware that the taste is a synthetic concoction (still does taste like truffles though) I don’t really know how much a bottle costs.

    Dec 7, 2009 | 9:26 am


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