By Lauren Kramer
Variety is the spice of life, goes the old adage. For chefs on the brink of joining or launching new kitchens, culinary opportunities and menus, it’s common sense that the addition of spices can make a world of difference to a dish. They can elevate an ordinary salad, transform a bland bowl of rice and move an entrée from mundane to heavenly.
But they can also pose a daunting challenge. How much do you use? When do you reach out to ethnically rich spice portfolios? And to which dishes are they best applied? To answer these questions we spoke to culinary experts from the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, requesting their top picks for ethnic spices and their best applications.
This Middle Eastern spice is a seven-spice blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, white pepper, coriander, all spice, cumin and cloves. Used exclusively in hot dishes, it can be applied to chicken, lamb or rice and has a wonderfully savory flavor.
“Baharat has the added bonus of helping to disguise the meaty smell in the air when you’re cooking meat,” says Simone Saleh, owner of the restaurant Sassool in Raleigh, NC. Saleh uses Baharat in 60 percent of her restaurant dishes. “It’s just a traditional spice used in rice pilaf or roasted meats,” she adds. Best used in teaspoon quantities at any one time, this is not a spice that will burn your mouth if you add too much.
Another Middle Eastern spice combination, za’atar means thyme in Arabic but is in fact a composition of sesame seeds, sumac and thyme, with many regional variations. This spice complements the tangy, lemon-like taste of sumac with the nuttiness of sesame seeds. Mixed with olive oil, za’atar makes a fabulous dressing or a dip for flatbread.
“I recommend tossing it with pasta as a substitute for pesto, but I’ve also seen people use it as a dry rub on chicken,” says Saleh. At Sassool, every diner gets a serving of za’atar and fresh pita bread as they wait for their meal.
A traditional Indian blend of five whole-seed spices used to make accompaniments to main dishes, panch phoron is comprised of fennel (sweetness), Fenugreek (bitterness), nigella (for an onion-like quality), cumin (smokiness) and black mustard seed (sharpness). It’s a great addition to chutneys and sauces, says Maneet Chauhan, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, “Chopped” judge and chef at Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, Tenn. She uses this blend to make cranberry orange chutney, peach and mango chutney.
“It adds a deeper layer of flavor and dimension to a good old cranberry sauce,” she says. “But you can also use it to make rice, curries and even potato salad.”
Chauhan advises chefs to heat a neutral oil like canola or vegetable, with the spices. “Once the spices start dancing, that’s when they’ve released their true potential. This is a super versatile spice that can be used in many dishes — but not in desserts,” she cautions.
Translated from Hindi, garam masala means “warming spices.” It’s used to flavor dals, lentil soups or marinades for chicken, beef or lamb.
It’s crucial to understand how to balance food with spices before you start adding seasonings, cautions Chauhan. “If I’m making tamarind lamb chop, then garam masala would be the predominant spice, but if I’m making mint kebabs, the garam masala would just accentuate the flavor and the predominant taste would be the mint,” she says. “Mastering this technique comes with practice, so keep trying until you get the perfect flavor blend.”
A six-spice Japanese blend traditionally used for making sauces and seasoning food, togarashi contains Korean chili, orange peel, seaweed, ginger, poppy and sesame seeds. Used to season rice, shrimp, vegetables and chicken, it adds a toasty, sweet spiciness to a dish.
“This spice has a very mild flavor, so use a light hand when seasoning with it, as a little goes a long way” says Ce Bian, corporate executive chef at Roka Akor in Chicago. “It doesn’t have the acidity of a hot sauce, so while you get the kick of spice from the chili, it doesn’t burn your tongue. Instead, it blends nicely with the other flavors in a dish.”
This purple seasoning salt has a burst of citrus and a slight sourness that makes it an ideal flavoring for seafood. “We often use it in our sushi to season rice before adding fish,” says Bian. “It also pairs well with grilled vegetables like shishito peppers.”
Bian recommends using small quantities of yukari when seasoning food. “Japanese cooking is all about the flavor of the actual food, rather than adding many other ingredients.”