Articles in Spices

A platter of

Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.

For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.

Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.

While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:

  • Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
  • Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
  • Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
  • Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
  • Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.

Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.

Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck

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Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Emily Grosvenor

Mandy Aftel was well on her way to becoming America’s most highly regarded natural perfumer when she started using essential oils in cooking. She had a book out, “Essence and Alchemy,” and a line of beloved natural perfumes she made by hand in her studio. But while on book tour, she was encountering a troubling problem. She noticed that so many of the people she met said they hated perfume.

“As a perfumer, I wanted to be around people who cared about ingredients, and I found them in the food world,” she said. “For me it’s all about how stunning these aromas are and what you can do with them when you know how they work.”

Aftel, who lives directly behind Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, was no stranger to chefs obsessed with using only the finest quality whole ingredients. But what she needed was a chef who cared very much about aroma, and how it shapes how the mouth experiences food. She found that partner in Daniel Patterson, who has since become famous in his own right as a chef, food writer and primary proponent of California cuisine. Aftel took her traveling perfume organ — a suitcase of sorts in which she carries samples of the essential oils she uses in her studio — and shared them with him.

“He was knocked out, especially with the black pepper essence,” Aftel said.

Soon, Patterson began incorporating essential oils in his dishes. The two later collaborated on their first shared cookbook, “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.” Since then, Aftel has worked with all manner of people in the food industry to develop aromas for food products based on real, natural essential oils and has become a steady proponent of their use in the home kitchen. More recently, she has developed her own line of essential oil sprays — edible essential oils in an alcohol spray mist — for use in restaurants and home cuisine.

The American food scene has welcomed her approach as a next step in the country’s move back to a more natural relationship with food. A long history exists of using essential oils with cooking. But as with perfume, at the beginning of the 20th century, consumers became enamored of the synthetics because they were cheaper. In the past, people were took active plant material and infused or they were using the essential oils directly. In her new book, “Fragrant,” Aftel has resurrected a number of recipes for staples such as ketchup, which relied heavily on essential oils, and has made the relationship between perfuming and food even more tangible.

“Daniel and I were real trailblazers, because the history had been lost,” Aftel said. “I think it’s so exciting, deeply exciting to have the essence of the plant. It offers insanely creative possibilities and can provide flavor that you really can’t arrive at any other way.”

Aftel discussed how one might go about using essential oils in the kitchen:

What essential oils are safe to ingest?

It’s pretty simple. You should always trust who is providing the oils themselves, but you can eat all of the oils listed on the FDA’s GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe).

Can you give me some examples of situations where the essential oil is preferable to the spice?

There’s really no heat in black pepper oil, for example, it’s all in the peppercorn itself. If you used a lot of black pepper to get that black pepper essence it would be way too hot. But if you use a drop of the oil it’s an amazing flavor unto itself. In the middle of winter you might want the flavor of basil, but you don’t want the texture of basil leaves and the ones in winter aren’t really that good anyway. So you use the oil, and just a drop. When you use these oils it’s like being the master of the universe to use just one drop and have the result be so aromatic and lovely.

Where does one begin? What’s a good way to start?

A very good dark chocolate, say 65% dark at least, and vanilla ice cream can be a great place to start. Here’s the pink pepper. The sprays are really idiot proof — they are drops within alcohol and very easy to use. Drops themselves are just so strong, so you might want to use the drops when you are cooking them into something. But if you’re just doing a finishing then I recommend the sprays. Things like rose essence, cinnamon and vanilla, violet, sarsaparilla, all go great with a good vanilla ice cream. Yellow mandarin, cardamom, great with chocolate. Pear and chocolate. Anything that is creamy and rich is a nice base upon which to start because they have their own vibrant character, but they can blend in. The naturals, for better or worse, don’t last. But then again, people are used to the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s. If you can isolate the aroma and use it in something or another. I like to keep things as simple and beautiful as possible.

Do you think people really think that much about the quality of their spices?

People are very familiar with some spices, but when they became easy to get, the thing that made them so powerful and amazing became less appreciated. People will buy a giant container of cinnamon and then let it languish in their cupboard for years, not understanding that the thing about the cinnamon is slowly going away, its nature is gone. With oils, you can create your own flavor and retain what is so powerful about the natural ingredient. I think it’s a very creative process.

How do you use essential oils in your home cooking?

I love roasted Brussels sprouts. One of the things I’ve found about beef is it’s great with chocolate. It adds a richness to it, a new flavor. I also love roasted red and green peppers with basil oil. The licorice/anise aspect of it really gets out. Or Foster, my husband, will get a tomato soup and I’ll add a little cinnamon, kind of a Mediterranean mix. I love the experience of changing things just a smidge, it makes all of my food experiences very aromatic.

What about drinks?

Drinks are the bridges from perfume to food. I’m thinking a lot about this for my new book with Daniel Paterson. Coffee, tea, wine, alcohol, these are very aromatic experiences. Citrus rinds. When someone has a drink, they are also smelling it. It’s no fluke that the experience people most associate with drink is very aromatic and very convivial. I think the aromatic aspects of it are what make it so wonderful. People take a lot of liberty with experimenting with drinks, in a way they don’t always necessarily do with food. It’s a wonderful bridge toward learning.

Are the oils better than the spices?

The oils, when they are done well, allow you to appreciate the real identity of the spice. A lot of the oils don’t have the sharpness of the spices. When you use the essential oil, you are actually harnessing the best version of the spice and holding on to it. There’s this awful thing that happens when you have access to things because of our global world. They stop being prized. I don’t think luxury should be attached to status. I like to retool the relationships between things that being available and things being prized. I like to prize that experience and have it drop by drop.

Main photo: Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright Emily Grosvenor

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Sandesh is an Indian version of cheesecake, can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters or formed into balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:

Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish

1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)

3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands

1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)

For optional garnishes:

Orange sections

Slivered almonds

Chocolate shavings

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac is local lemon for foragers who live in places where there’s no chance of plucking one from a tree. When picked at peak ripeness, but before rain can wash off its tart coating of edible acids, sumac is just as pucker-worthy as any children’s sour candy. That tart flavor of sumac is a valuable part of my wild edible spice rack, and I turn to it often. The other great advantage of sumac is that it stores very well if kept cool and dry.

I was reminded of this as I stood and surveyed my pantry. At mid-winter in the Rockies, a forager can sometimes have a hard time finding enough activities to satisfy the urge to wildcraft. One can only spend so much time looking for tiny leaves of green beneath the leaf duff and snow, and sampling fermented-on-the-tree crab apples.

In the darkest months of the off-season, my larder offers up opportunities to work with the wild foods I adore. I spend much of the summer putting up as many wild foods as I can manage, in all forms – frozen, pickled, canned and dried. Seeing my shelves lined with these gorgeous preserves, I get the same feeling that some must get when gazing upon jewels, or the proverbial kid in a candy store. Recently, it was my tin full of red sumac that beckoned to me.

Though every forager I know, and many people who belonged to outdoor-based clubs as kids, has tried the sumac version of lemonade, sumac is probably best known as being a key component in za’atar spice blend, appearing along with herbs, sesame seeds and salt.

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

I often sprinkle ground sumac into recipes, savory and sweet, to add a little zip of brightness. Standing in my pantry looking at my tin of foraged sumac, I suddenly had a strong memory of a time in my childhood when it seemed every dish was seasoned with lemon pepper, and knew this would be an ideal place to substitute sumac.

I had thought that lemon pepper was a relic of the past, but a quick survey of my friends quickly revealed that many still use it frequently. I wasted no time in blending a batch of sumac pepper. Not only was it pretty to look at, it was seriously tart, without the aid of the citric acid that it used in many commercial lemon pepper blends. After a few days of testing, I found that sumac pepper was good in all the places you’d expect lemon pepper to excel. Sumac pepper can be sprinkled atop fish, meats, vegetables, and even breads and rice. My favorite place to use sumac pepper is atop fresh warm buttered popcorn.

If you would like to pick your own sumac but worried about confusing it with poison sumac, let me reassure you they are very easy to tell apart. Poison sumac has white berries, whereas all of the edible sumacs have red berry clusters. Sumac berries can be hairy or smooth, depending upon the species.

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac grows as a shrub with leaflets that are pinnately compound, which is to say that they are arranged somewhat like a feather, and the berry clusters grow in dense spikes at the end of branches. If you’ve not seen sumac growing before, you might hear the word berry and think of a juicy strawberry. But all the flavor of sumac is on the outside of its small dry berries. This is why the flavor of sumac is greatly diminished after rain or snow.

At peak ripeness, which is usually late summer in my area, I harvest a big basket full of sumac. I simply pack my sumac into a tin, and it keeps quite well. I’m usually able to use it right up through harvest time the following year. Though, one time, it did develop a rancid oil smell after a year.

There is one caution with sumac. It is related to mangoes and cashews, so anyone with strong allergies to those foods should also avoid sumac.

The following recipe calls for ground sumac. Often, the whole berries are ground up and used. I find the central seed of the berry to be unpleasantly hard, even when ground. The seeds can also lend a tannic astringency to recipes. So, I strip my sumac from the branches, and grind the berries in a molcajete. You could also pulse the berries in a spice grinder. Next, shake the ground berries through a sieve. This produces a pink fluff of sumac that is ready to be used in recipes.

Sumac Pepper Blend

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons ground sumac

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon salt (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon granulated onion

Directions

Stir all of the ingredients together, and store the sumac pepper in small jar in a cool dark place.

Main photo: Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Making a favorite summer dish at a friend’s house recently, I used oregano that he’d bought in his local supermarket. The baked chicken I made that day didn’t taste at all like the dish I make at home with the oregano (rigani) I bring back from Crete, or buy tied in large bunches from a Greek deli in London.

My friend had taken care to source a fine chicken and good olive oil, the wine was flowing, and everyone was having a great time. But, as far as I was concerned, the chicken didn’t taste right. I wondered whether everyone who’s enjoyed wonderful, rigani-fragranced foods in Greece has found that their dishes, once they were back home, didn’t taste quite as good. The attractive label of the herb I’d used from my friend’s shelf had declared it “wild oregano,” but was it really oregano?

What is oregano?

The answer, I discovered, is both yes and no. In the world of commercial food-supply (and, sometimes, seed-supply), “oregano” can denote any herb in the Origanum family, which contains a number of subspecies. And this is where the cook’s problem lies: Each of these subspecies has a distinct character, and not all give good results in the kitchen.

True Greek oregano, or rigani, goes by the Latin name of origanum vulgare hirtum (or O. heracleoticum). Because the plant has more oil glands in its highly aromatic, dark-green leaves, rigani has a stronger flavor than common oregano — so strong that, eaten fresh, it can make your tongue tingle. This is the reason dried, not fresh, Greek oregano is used in the kitchen, an uncommon example of a dried herb being a better culinary choice than a fresh one. My friend had bought common oregano (origanum vulgare), a less flavorful subspecies, and the one most frequently found on the supermarket or grocery store shelf.

What’s in a name?

There’s some disagreement as to the origin of the word “oregano”: One source suggests that it’s based on the Greek word for acrid (some subspecies of oregano can taste bitter); another states that its Latin name derives from the Greek oros (mountain) and ganos (joy). If you’ve ever walked in the Greek foothills, you’ll know that this pungent herb truly is a “joy of the mountains,” covering the rocky land with magnificent abandon and perfuming the warm air with its strong, sweet scent. Rigani’s presence there dates at least to Greek antiquity, when the ancients encouraged its growth in the mountain grazing lands to improve the flavor of their goats and sheep.

The doctors of antiquity too knew the value of rigani. Hippocrates used its oil as an antiseptic and its tincture for his patients’ stomach and respiratory problems. Recently, scientists have discovered that the polyphenols and flavonoids in Greek oregano do indeed have strong health-giving properties, including, it is believed, some protection against the norovirus and the ability to block an enzyme associated with diabetes.

In the kitchen

For the Greek cook, right up until the days of refrigeration and antibiotics, rigani was invaluable as a preservative and a deterrent to flies. Out of these practical considerations came a large repertoire of marvelous dishes imbued with the taste and aroma of the “joy of the mountains.”

For flavor and beauty, rigani’s tiny, white flowers are especially prized. So too are the meat and milk of goats and sheep that feed off the summer-flowering herb, as well as foraging rabbits and other small game. Rigani, flowers or leaves,  flavors grills, oven-bakes, salads, sauces, and bean dishes like no other herb. In the village kitchen it’s measured in handfuls, not with a spoon. This provides a special pleasure for the cook: with finger and thumb, gently rub the rigani in your palm to lightly bruise it, before adding it to your dish. You’ll be releasing some of the herb’s oil and its pungent, lively aroma will lift your spirits as well as perfume your kitchen.

A few years ago, before both “wild” and “Greek” became food-marketing buzzwords, “wild oregano” bought outside of Greece was usually rigani. This isn’t always true today, with a commercial supply chain that’s confused and confusing. The most promising place to find real Greek oregano is in a store that you know takes sourcing ingredients seriously, or in a Greek or Middle Eastern deli where, late summer, you may even be lucky enough to find a large bunch of this fragrant herb that’s been gathered while in flower.

Rigani-Baked Chicken

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Note If you are using chicken pieces, boil the potatoes for 10 minutes before arranging in the baking dish.

Ingredients

  • One 4- to 5-pound chicken, whole or cut into serving pieces; remove skin and excess fat
  • Juice of 1½ lemons
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
  • ½ tablespoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste
  • 2 pounds of potatoes suitable for baking, cut into similar-size pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic (unpeeled), lightly crushed
  • A handful (or 4 tablespoons) rigani (dried Greek oregano), crumbled
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1½ to 2 cups chicken stock, as required
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped (for serving)

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 375 F (190 C, or Gas Mark 5).
  2. Rub the chicken with the juice of 1 lemon, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and the salt.
  3. Place the chicken (or arrange the pieces) in a deep, heavy baking dish and surround with the potatoes and garlic in a single layer. Sprinkle the chicken with the rigani, pepper, bay leaves, and the remaining olive oil, and dot with the butter.
  4. Add half the stock, and bake, uncovered, 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 F (180 C or Gas Mark 4) and continue baking until cooked through but still tender – about 1¼ hour longer for a whole chicken, 40 minutes longer for chicken pieces. Baste the chicken and potatoes frequently, adding more stock to the dish if necessary.
  5. Transfer the chicken, potatoes, and garlic to a serving platter and keep warm.
  6. Strain the pan juices into a small saucepan, remove the fat with a spoon, and add any remaining stock. If there is more than about 1 ½ cups of liquid, reduce it by rapid boiling. Combine the mustard, honey, and half the remaining lemon juice and stir into the sauce. Add salt, pepper, and remaining lemon juice to taste, and heat to warm.
  7. Pour sauce over the chicken and potatoes just to moisten, and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve the remaining sauce separately.

Main photo: Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

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Myanmar's salads are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Credit: © Morrison Polkinghorne

We first discovered the food of Myanmar as armchair cooks intrigued by a cuisine, described by Mi Mi Khaing in “Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way” as “the best of Chinese and Indian cooking, but with a distinctive flair all its own.” After repeated trips to Myanmar, however, we would explain Burmese food differently: Indian lacking spice, Thai without fiery chili, similar to Chinese only via its stir fries, or perhaps a shared Yunnan influence with skewered and grilled pub fare. In other words, it’s unlike any other and deliciously unique.

For 20 years we traveled throughout Myanmar, later hosting food tours there, and eventually made a home in Asia. And we’ve never looked back.

We’ve tasted and tested almost every Burmese dish imaginable, supping with regional and capital cooks and learning in the most humble kitchens and 5-star sculleries alike.

Myanmar’s cuisine is a perfect fit for Americans. Granted, chili aficionados here will claim that hot flavors are passionately loved by all, but the general American palate seems drawn to the comforting, non-assertive tastes of Burmese dishes. There, the chili is long and mild, closer to a paprika, akin to the capsicums used in neighboring Yunnan province. Curcumin-rich Alleppey turmeric is a principal spice, while masala is the exception rather than the rule. And simple ground star anise acts as the “curry” seasoning for pork. Even salads — with the notable exception of Burmese Lemon Salad and renowned Pickled Tea Leaf La Phet — are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Vegetables and salads are commonly bound and melded with either besan (chickpea) flour or ground peanuts — depending on the regional crop.

The flavor of Burmese recipes are easy to recreate by merely — and gently — slow-frying onion, garlic and ginger in oil, then using the resulting emollient as a ubiquitous flavoring essence —  both in curries and salads. Better yet, ingredients are easy to find in the United States, more so if there’s an Indian grocery in your neighborhood.

From armchair to actual traveler, our quest for authentic Burmese cookery continues. We find it as exciting as exploring the country’s awe-inspiring sites — from ancient Bagan to imperial Mandalay, to the temples and caves and floating islands of Inle Lake. The image of awakening to the golden rock, Kyeik Hti Yoe, sitting above the clouds will always linger in our minds, as will the vision of the volcanic plug, Mount Popa, with its golden temples crowning the top like a fairyland. But we equally savor memories of the simple peppery stocks of the country’s Rakhine seafood stew.

Why Myanmar? Why Burmese?

Although Burma is the name commonly used by Anglo-Westerners, Myanmar is the term used by locals. “Burma” and “Burman” reflects the Bamar ethnic majority, not its other cultural groups. However, our recently released The Burma Cookbook celebrates all this nation’s diversity — historic and ethnic. We chose the title not as a political statement, but because our cookbook includes dishes of colonial Burma, as well as contemporary Myanmar. So you’ll  find a recipe for Lobster Thermidor served at The Strand hotel for more than a century, but also a biryani rice that reflects the country’s Indian heritage, along with a “bachelor” chicken curry that can be traced back to larrikin lads absconding with a farmyard chicken and herbs grasped from a neighbor’s garden.

Main photo: Myanmar’s salads are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Credit: © Morrison Polkinghorne

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Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry

Ripe dates are pretty lush as they are, but leave it to medieval Middle Eastern cooks to take that quality practically beyond imagining. They made a sweet called tamr mu’assal (honeyed dates) or tamr mulawwaz (almond-stuffed dates) by poaching dates in honey with saffron and perfume, perhaps stuffing them with almonds first.

It’s easy to make, except for the task of removing the pits if you’re stuffing the dates, but you can sometimes find dates that are already pitted or even ready-stuffed with almonds. And you do have to obtain these perfumes: saffron, rosewater and musk. But the effect on diners is worth it, sweet, plush and staggeringly aromatic. And when I say sweet, I mean you’re in danger of sugar shock.

Rosewater and saffron are relatively easy to find at gourmet shops or Middle Eastern markets. The clove, nutmeg and cinnamon in this dish are more familiar.

You’ll probably have to shop on the Internet to find musk, though. It is highly unlikely that you’ll find natural musk, because the traditional sources of musk — the musk deer and the civet cat — are endangered species. No matter, artificial musk will be plenty aromatic enough. In fact, musk is so strong that when you flavor the dates with it, do not think of putting it in by the drop because one drop is far too much and will make the dates inedible. You’ll use your fingertip to infuse less than a drop in this recipe.

Supple dates and slivered almonds

Dates are consumed at several degrees of ripeness, each of which has its own name in Arabic. Tamr is the variety we’re most familiar with. Tamr dates are sweet and dry, perhaps a little gaunt or even shriveled. If you are fortunate you may find dates at the rutab stage, which are soft, moist and very, very sweet.

They tend not to stay this way because they dry out. Medieval Arab cookbooks often give recipes for plumping up tamr dates with moisture so that they can pass for rutab. If you do have soft-ripe dates (the Medjool variety is sometimes sold this way), don’t bother to remove the pits and stuff them with almonds because they’re too soft. Just poach them in the flavored honey.

Once upon a time you could easily find blanched almonds in markets, but these days the almond choices are often limited to whole, slivered and sliced. You can blanch whole almonds yourself but it’s a little tiresome. You bring water to the boil, take it from the fire and let the almonds sit in it until the peels loosen, then transfer them to cold water and strip the skins off by hand. Sliced almonds are not quite suitable for this dish, but slivered almonds are just fine, in my book. In fact, it’s easier to get two or three slivers into a date than one blanched almond.

Richly indulgent

These dates are so sweet and rich that two or three are enough of a serving for many diners. You might want to make sure that diners have a glass of water at hand, particularly if you’re using rutab dates, because these can be really, really sweet.

Perfumed Dates

Makes about 30 dates, serves 8 to 10 people

Ingredients

7 or 8 ounces of dates

About 30 blanched almonds or 1½ to 2 ounces slivered almonds

1 pound honey, about 1⅔ cups

¾ to 1 teaspoon rosewater

5 to 8 threads saffron

Musk

½ cup sugar, preferably finely granulated in a food processor

Dash cinnamon

Dash clove

Dash nutmeg

Directions

1. Remove the pits from the dates. A small skewer or something similar should do the trick. Stuff dates with the almonds.

2. Thin the honey with rosewater. Crush the saffron and stir it into the honey. Put the dates in a small saucepan, cover with the honey and simmer over lowest heat for about 1 hour. The dates should become plumper and the honey should thicken but not boil.

3. Remove a spoonful of the honey and allow it to cool on the spoon. Unscrew the lid of the musk vial, cover mouth of the vial with your fingertip, shake it, then remove your fingertip and close the vial again. Dip your fingertip in the spoon of cooled honey and stir a little of it into the saucepan. If you want it more aromatic, stir in more.

Allow the dates to cool in the honey.

4. Whenever it is convenient, set a rack over a plate, remove the dates from the honey and transfer them to the rack to drain.

5. When the dates have drained, put them on a plate. Mix the sugar with the spices and toss the dates with this mixture to cover. Transfer them to a serving plate or storage bowl. Keep the honey in a closed container and use it like ordinary honey.

Top photo: Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry

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Gourmet flavored popcorn. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

It’s Oscars time, and in addition to dressing for the occasion, we always like to set the table with award-worthy snacks. Some years required black-tie starters like Champagne and oysters. Other years, California-made cheeses like Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog and the wonderfully stinky Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery competed for Best Cheese in a Supporting Role. But this year, we plan to honor the movies with their best-loved partner, popcorn.

Of course, because it’s the Oscars, it couldn’t be just any microwaved popcorn. Last week when I found some dried popcorn being cut off the cob at the farmers’ market, I knew it was time to use my newly inspired love for spices to elevate popcorn to a starring role.

First, you must be willing to set aside the iconic melted butter and find the very best extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) to dress the hot kernels. EVOO’s intense flavor will lend an earthy, grassy, herbal flavor that just belongs with farm-grown popcorn.

Next, your choice of salt is critical to the perfect box of popcorn. It’s got to be soft enough to cling to the kernels, but crunchy enough to hold its own on the palate. I found that the moisture of grey sea salt fit the bill perfectly.

Finally, adding variety with ground spices, grated cheeses and even cocoa powder creates an interesting mix of options for movie-loving guests. Any blend of favorite flavors will do, but my winning combination was hot salted popcorn tossed with grated pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with Aleppo pepper flakes and doused with another healthy drizzle of olive oil.

Old-Fashioned, New-Flavored Popcorn

Serves 4

 Ingredients

½ cup popcorn kernels

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil, to taste

Sea salt, to taste

Flavoring suggestions:

Grated hard or semi-hard cheese

Aleppo or Marash chili pepper

Cocoa powder mixed with sugar

Cinnamon

Smoked paprika

Saffron

Freshly ground peppercorns

Directions

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart, deep saucepan. As soon as the oil melts and spreads evenly, add enough kernels to fill one layer on the bottom. Cover and increase heat to high flame. As soon as the corn starts popping, shake rigorously over heat until popping is complete.

2. Immediately dress with olive oil and salt and toss to coat.

3. If you are adding grated cheese, do so immediately after removing from heat to ensure that cheese clings to popcorn.

4. Sprinkle with other seasonings to taste.

Top photo: Spiced popcorn. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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