Forget Souvenirs; Bring Home Spices Instead

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in: Spices

Spices for sale at a souk in Luxor, Egypt. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Whether you love to travel the globe or prefer to vacation a bit closer to home, chances are that if you enjoy cooking you’ve purchased at least one kitchen item as a souvenir. In my case I’ve dragged an 8-quart couscoussier, terra cotta tagines and filigreed tea glasses across Morocco and schlepped copper serving bowls throughout Northern India. I’ve also shoved bottles of potent Czech Becherovka into wool socks and wrapped an Italian-made mezzaluna in pajamas before heading to the airport. Nearly empty when I arrive at my destination, my bag bulges beyond capacity by the end of a trip.

In recent years I’ve become savvier about my mementos. Rather than cram another platter into my battered suitcase, I instead fill it with exotic seasonings. Back home, I restock my global pantry and revitalize my cooking with these colorful ingredients. (Check the U.S. Customs list to see which spices you are allowed to bring into the country.)

Spices of the world can liven up almost any dish

Packed with zesty, spiciness, harissa remains a favored culinary keepsake. This fiery, red chili paste is a staple of Tunisian cooking and has become increasingly common in neighboring Algeria and Morocco.

To make harissa, North African cooks pound together hot chili peppers, coriander, caraway, cumin, garlic and salt and then cover the mixture with olive oil. They use the powerful paste to enliven couscous, salads, vegetables, breads, soups and tagines. Enliven it does! A smidgen adds tremendous zing to a plate of grilled veggies, fish or pita.

No less exciting is the dried, reddish stigma of the crocus flower, saffron. Considered the costliest of all spices, saffron originated in West Asia but today more than 80% of the world’s supply comes from Spain and Iran. Its high price tag is a result of its laborious cultivation; workers must handpick 70,000 flowers to get 1 pound of saffron.

Is it worth paying more than $20 for a meager gram of these pungently fragrant threads? Absolutely! Saffron possesses an unusual spicy, mildly bitter taste and a unique, almost grassy aroma, which are impossible to duplicate. It’s also soluble in liquid and provides a beautiful golden-orange hue to countless dishes. Present in an array of cuisines, it’s indispensable in bouillabaisse, Milanese risotto, paella and Persian saffron rice pudding.

Fortunately, like harissa, a little saffron goes a long way. Because it’s such a powerful spice, you need only a thread or two to enhance your cooking.

Ghee a memorable selection

A far gentler flavor comes from Indian ghee. Ghee is clarified butter that has been simmered until all the moisture evaporates and the remaining milk solids adopt a nutty, caramel-like taste.

Ghee originated from the desire to keep butter in the sultry Indian climate. It can, in fact, be kept at room temperature for several weeks, refrigerated for six months and frozen for a year.

In addition to its long shelf life, ghee has versatility in its favor. Nancy Rohrer of Simply Ghee in Lancaster County, Pa., notes that it complements a host of ingredients. “BBQ mesquite seasoning and ghee is especially good for grilled chicken, fish, even corn on the cob. A ‘chai spice blend’ is outrageous dropped into hot cereal or warm rice pudding right before serving. Mixed with honey, ghee is wonderful on roasted sweet potatoes or acorn squash, ham and as a spread on bagels, muffins and pancakes. Just right out of the jar is delish and reminiscent of very refined caramel popcorn!” say Rorher, who, along with Bev Martin, owns and operates the handcrafted ghee business.

Another India-inspired pantry mainstay is tamarind. Derived from the hard, brown fruit pods of the eponymous evergreen tree, the sweetly piquant tamarind has been compared to a mixture of prunes and oranges, lemons and dates or apricots and raisins. Sold as a dried paste, compressed cake, concentrate and whole, fresh pod, the stringy, reddish-brown pulp is a staple of Indian, Southeast Asian, Latin American and Caribbean cuisine.

Tamarind piques taste at every turn

Rich and versatile, tamarind imparts a pleasant tanginess to chutneys, sauces, jams, syrups, candies, curries and fish dishes. When mixed with sugar and carbonated water, it becomes a refreshingly tart drink. When combined with shallots, chilies, anchovies, cloves, vinegar and molasses, it transforms into Worcestershire sauce.

When restocking my stash of seasonings, I always include a jar of galangal root. A member of the ginger family, the fibrous and peppery galangal is grown throughout Southeast Asia. It plays a prominent role in Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian and Cambodian cooking.

With its sweet, piney fragrance and slightly spicy taste, galangal peps up such soups as Thai tom ka gai, such stews as Indonesian rendang and such curries as Cambodian amok trey. It also flavors sauces and, when sliced, serves as a zesty garnish.

Like the unwieldy couscoussier that I later saw for sale in New York City, galangal as well as the other ingredients can be purchased online or from well-stocked, spice or international markets. So, whether you’re off to foreign soils or headed down the street, this summer stock up on an assortment of global seasonings. They’ll add a dash of flavor and exoticism to your cooking throughout the year.

Top photo: Spices for sale at a souk in Luxor, Egypt. Credit: Kathy Hunt


Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt is a food writer, cooking instructor and author of the seafood cookbook "Fish Market." Her writings on food and travel have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. Presently she is writing the nonfiction book "Herring:  A Global History" for Reaktion Books. Kathy can also be found at KitchenKat.com and on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. 

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Comments

Dana
on: 6/28/13
You are so right. I treasure the two tagines I dragged home from Morocco. But also buyer beware. The saffron I bought in Cairo turned out to be safflower stamens. They add nice color but not that unique saffron flavor.
Kathy Hunt
on: 6/28/13
Dana, you are so right, too! Saffron can be a tricky spice, one that may be substituted with safflower or turmeric by less reputable spice dealers. With saffron I go by the adage, "If it looks too good - or inexpensive - to be true, it probably is."

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