Written with Suzanne Lenzer
Americans are scared of spices. Wait, let’s rephrase that: Americans are scared of cooking with spices. Not all spices, mind you — loads of cupboards are well stocked with cinnamon, chili powder and the odd “seasoning mix” made of myriad dried flavorings for chicken, fish or steak. Cumin and fennel and coriander seeds may make an appearance a bit farther back on the shelf, but fancy salts (think pink Himalayan rock and black volcanic flake) likely take up more of the cabinet’s space than intriguing spices. Why? Chalk it up to fear of the unfamiliar, not an unusual trait in human beings, but a rather restrictive one when it comes to contemplating what to cook for dinner.
Americans enjoy eating well-spiced food. Going out for dinner no longer always means a steak or pasta; it can mean Mexican, Dominican, Spanish, Middle Eastern or Asian — Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian. Chinese food has been sufficiently explored that American diners know whether they prefer Cantonese, Szechuan or Hunan. Even the smallest towns have their share of global cuisine on offer, and Americans eat it all — they just don’t cook it. They may love the flavors of crispy whole fish in turmeric and cilantro sauce, but they don’t dare try to replicate it at home. Certainly the national passion for food television (full disclosure, I have been a “Top Chef” contestant) has helped introduce a world of spices to stateside viewers, but it hasn’t translated to a full embrace of the spices in their own kitchens. It’s time for that to change.
Start with spices you know you like
Home cooks just need some confidence and a gentle nudge in the right direction. So here goes: The easiest way to integrating more exotic spices into your own cooking is by starting from a place of familiarity. What spices do you feel comfortable with now? What spices do you gravitate toward when eating out? Think about where you love to travel, what kinds of flavors you prefer and start there. Do you love the sour bite of tamarind paste in your take-out pad Thai? Pick some up and start to cook with it. If you crave the tanginess of lemongrass, why not buy a few stalks and use it to marinate tonight’s chicken? That’s what I do; I play around to get to know flavors so I can anticipate how they’ll work together.
Much of the creativity in my recipes has come from food I’ve tasted elsewhere. I start getting creative by mixing something new or more exotic with a dish I already love. In Asia, sweet flavors are often enhanced by a hit of heat. Adding curry powder to the whipped cream garnish in my tomato soup — along with the gojuchang (spicy sauce) in the soup itself — brings out the sugar in the tomatoes and adds an entirely new dimension to the dish. It still reminds me of childhood in a very strong way, but with these added spices, the soup becomes sophisticated as well as familiar.
Spices have this power. They can transport you to a different place entirely and push your cooking to be more exciting as a result. Consider a simple French preparation, the pot de crème. I started playing with this because while it’s a rich dessert when prepared traditionally, it’s also a bit of a tabula rasa. I wanted to bring a touch of the warmth that Indian spices offer, so I added cardamom, cumin seeds and turmeric along with fresh cilantro. It sounds savory at first, but it’s really just a jacked up version of the classic pudding.
DIY curry is a gateway
Creative thinking and experimentation are the remedy for getting comfortable with more exotic flavors. So what should you try next? How about coriander seeds? Star anise? Szechuan peppercorns? Better still, if you like curries, invest in a few individual spices in their whole form and make your own; this way you’ll also begin to understand how flavors balance each other out. (Worth noting: That stuff you buy in the grocery store labeled “curry powder” is not a single spice, it’s a blend of several. And probably not terribly good.)
Give spices the respect they deserve. Toast them in a dry skillet until they’re just aromatic — you can put them all in a single pan, but stagger the additions starting with the larger spices and adding the others in order of decreasing size so they toast evenly. Then grind them. A coffee grinder works perfectly. After you’ve ground your spices, blitz up some dry rice to clean your grinder and keep your morning brew from having hints of turmeric in it.
Already, by leaving the packaged, pre-ground stuff behind, you’ve embarked on the journey. Begin to play, open yourself up to the flavors of new spices. You probably won’t love them all, but your culinary world will expand once you give them a chance.
Spices bring a dish to life; they’re the details that allow the larger story to be told. People care more than ever about the farm their chicken came from, the artisan who made their cheese, the beekeeper who made their honey. Americans want to know the story behind everything they’re eating. Spices add significantly to the narrative. Rich in history, they have helped define the cuisines of cultures the world over. Spices add personality and distinction to every ingredient they touch. It’s up to you to start the conversation.
Photo: Angelo Sosa. Credit: William Brinson
This week’s Zester Daily soapbox contributor Angelo Sosa is a “Top Chef” contestant and the chef-owner of Xie Xie and Social Eatz in New York. He trained with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alain Ducasse and employs traditional technique in a contemporary style marked by an Asian flair. Co-writer Suzanne Lenzer collaborated with Sosa on his recent cookbook, “Flavor Exposed.” A food writer and stylist, she has worked closely with New York Times’ columnist and food writer Mark Bittman and collaborated with Anne Burrell on her recent New York Times’ bestseller “Cook Like a Rock Star.” She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Education in New York City.