A Pinch of Spice


Skylife — March 2017

Recent developments in many countries around the world may have left everyone wondering whether or not we are nearing the end of globalization and a return to isolation. But in true fashion of the zeitgeist’s mantra of expecting the unexpected, the gastronomy world is going in the opposite direction, giving a nod to diversity, embracing the often-unheard-of local ingredients and elevating them to the global scene.

 Take spices and condiments. A recent study by Comax, a flavor technology company based in the U.S., predicts that globe-trotting spices will be one of the four main culinary trends of 2017. Brand name chefs are now finding new ways to adapt and use combinations of magical spices like berbere, a chili mixture from Ethiopia used for stews and meat, cultivated in far-flung geographies thousands of miles from their restaurants and kitchens.

 Unusual yet harmonious marriage of flavors – savory, sweet and salty, all at the same time – are becoming the new norm in catering to the ever savvier gourmet diners. One such interesting flavor is cocoa curry, one of the three spices mentioned in the Comax study. A powerful combination of brown sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder, sea salt and curry powder, you can smear it on a lamb shank or chicken for a Southern-inspired dinner, or drink it as a fiery hot cocoa drink on its own.

 The same goes for peculiar-sounding concoctions like cinnamon caramel, ginger mandarin cardamom, and my personal favorite, espresso salt. Sadly, most of these exciting novelties are usually one-hit wonders whose sparkle soon wears off. Yet, some discoveries are so significant that they linger for much longer time like the tantalizing smell of a legendary spice. Among such magical ingredients that prominent chefs in the West have rediscovered in the last couple of years is the good old Urfa chili pepper (Urfa biberi) from the southeastern city of Urfa on the border with Syria.

 Lior Lev Sercarz, the spice guru owner of the New York City spice mecca, La Boite, and author of the book The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices, waxes lyrical about this incredibly versatile spice. “The flavor of dried Urfa is just spectacular… Something about the oiliness and the heat and the deep red color—it’s one of those things that you can pretty much add to anything,” Sercarz says in an interview published in Food and Wine magazine.

 Thanks to his Jerusalem roots, acclaimed London chef Yotam Ottolenghi has long been an ardent advocate of this millennium-old spice. He frequently features Urfa chili in the dishes served in his namesake Ottolenghi restaurant in Islington, London, as well as in the Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, Israeli and Palestinian-inspired recipes from his most famous work, Jerusalem: A Cookbook, that he co-wrote with the fellow chef Sami Tamimi. The region around the Turkish-Syrian border is famous for producing perhaps the most aromatic dried chili flakes in the world. Each type varies in “sweetness, acidity, smokiness, heat, and earthiness. Each has its own unique aroma and identifiable tinge,” according to Ottolenghi. For example, the famous Aleppo chili, has a burgundy color and fruity taste. It’s sadly not available any more due to the civil war in Syria.

 As Middle Eastern cooking has grown in popularity, so has another spice that was a best-kept secret until Yotam Ottolenghi featured it in his Jerusalem cookbook: za’atar. This spice is the representative plant of the Palestinian heritage and the mountains of the Holy Land. “If there is one smell to match the emblematic image of the Old City of Jerusalem, one odor that encapsulates the soul of this ancient city nestling in the Judean Mountains, it is za’atar,” Ottolenghi writes. He uses it in dishes such as Roasted Butternut Squash and Red Onion with Tahini, and Pureed Beets with Yogurt.

 Another less known exotic spice blend, which hails from North Africa and is favored by Western chefs, is ras el hanout. “It is great with lamb, as long as it’s accompanied and complimented by a citrus zing and a chili kick,” Hüseyin Vedat says. He is the innovative British chef of Turkish Cypriot origin whose earlier stints include Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa. In his Turkish tavern food-inspired restaurant Yosma on Baker Street in London, Vedat smears his trademark kuzu kaburga (lamb ribs) with ras el hanout to accentuate the meat’s flavor and add depth, and a pleasant heat and tinge to it.

Urfa chili: Also known as isot, this pepper is the staple spice not only of traditional Turkish cooking, but is used especially for curing meats or pickling in southern Turkey. The raw plant, which is something between a bell pepper and the Mexican chili poblano, is exposed whole to direct sunlight to char it. At night, it is covered for the pepper to “sweat,” which keeps its moisture and gives it its distinct flavor and damp, oily texture. It has notes of raisin, chocolate, and a dash of pipe tobacco with a kick of heat.

Za’atar: Known in English as hyssop, this wild plant has been picked throughout Palestine for over a thousand years. The endangered dry bush releases its sharp, warm and pungent fragrance when crushed. Za’atar is an all season spice; it is used fresh in the spring and dried for later use in the winter. Most people, however, are familiar with the spice mix sold under the same name that consists of hyssop leaves, ground sumac (another versatile spice nicknamed “magic dust”), toasted sesame seeds, and salt. The mix is usually sprinkled over mezze like cheese, hummus, or labneh (strained yogurt) and the light, sesame-crusted Arab bagel.

Ras el hanout: It translates as “top of the shelf,” meaning the best spice mix offered in the shop. Although the content changes slightly from chef to chef, the best variety is loaded with saffron and cardamom, alongside cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek and ginger. Sometimes referred to as the “North African garam masala,” it is an indispensible spice in Moroccan tagines and a staple in both Muslim and Sephardic Jewish cuisines. But that’s not its only use. This versatile blend is also superb with roasted vegetables, curried rice, and soup.

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