While I've always loved to cook, when I was about nineteen or twenty years old, I started getting "serious" about it. I started reading about food science and became totally fascinated with the dogma of traditional French cuisine. During this serious cook phase, I became obsessed with hoarding spices and specialty ingredients; I think I thought of them as trophies or badges of honor that showed everyone how committed to cooking I really was.
I once bought a giant bag of "true" cinnamon because one of my favorite TV chefs recommended it. He made it sound so unlike anything I'd ever tasted before, and I thought it would completely revolutionize everything. After I bought my own stash, I never missed a chance to inform people that the cinnamon they knew and loved wasn't real cinnamon (I might have been a little bit obnoxious).
True cinnamon has a fabulously dreamy flavor that's an important part of many cuisines (try it in horchata!), but it didn't add the right flavor to most of the foods I made that called for cinnamon, and so I hardly ever used it. For me, it was definitely not revolutionary. It travelled from spice cabinet to spice cabinet, in five different apartments in four different states, over the course of a decade, slowly losing flavor and growing sad and dusty.
That's all just to say that I'm no stranger to the lure of specialty ingredients, as well as the ridiculous cost of buying so many of them. There's this naive idea that if we just had all the right ingredients, we could unlock a whole new world of delicious food. I still love learning about different cultures and unfamiliar ingredients, but to really do this in a meaningful way, it takes so much more than just buying something.
But, more practically speaking, there are some specialty ingredients that you're going to get more use out of than others, and sometimes buying something is a good start. So, while I suggest substitutions as often as possible, occasionally you've just got to track the ingredient down (or find another recipe). This is one of those times, because if you want to start cooking a lot of Middle Eastern food, pomegranate molasses is a good thing to have in your pantry. But even if you only occasionally cook Middle Eastern food, part of the beauty of pomegranate molasses is that you'll start wanting to put it on absolutely everything. It just makes food so tangy and sweet, with that wonderful tannin pomegranate flavor.
How to use it
If you buy a bottle, be sure to check out Yasmin Khan's list of ways to use pomegranate molasses. My favorite uses from her list are salad dressings, marinades, roasts, and cocktails. It's also wonderful as a glaze, with braised meats, and as an ice cream topping. Or check out the following pomegranate molasses recipes:
Where to find it
You can find pomegranate molasses online, in most Middle Eastern markets, some Indian markets, some larger upscale grocery stores (I've found it pretty regularly in Treasure Island and Whole Foods, for example), and in the ethnic aisles of some grocery stores (it's tricky because most grocery stores are usually missing big chunks of the world in their ethnic aisles, but you should look for pomegranate molasses in the Indian, Israeli, and Greek sections).