CS is a lifelong world traveler who works to restore rainforest. He strives to bring international elements into his life.
Are You Using the Same Old Spices?
Let's be honest: we all use the same 10 spices.
True, different recipes might call for different combinations, different balances, or different types of what still boils down to the same thing (I'm looking at you, pink Himalayan sea salt). But the flavors are the same. And all the recipes call for them because, well, we're all stuck in this flavor rut together.
And like a visual artist that uses only 10 colors, a culinary artist with only 10 spices is limited without knowing it. It makes it hard for a budding chef to fully express their signature style; there are no surprises, no flares of completely new sensation, no vibrancy in the palate.
But who has time (or thyme!) to experiment with new spices? Dinner needs to happen now, and nobody has the energy after a hard day at the office. If only we had more time at home...
Today, many of us are logging on instead of commuting to work; or we've been furloughed or laid off. Either way, we are advised to stay home. Included in the mix are millions of cooks, chefs, and bakers whose businesses have shuttered their doors. They are left scratching their heads, wondering what to do next.
Or, as my Seattle-based chef friend eloquently summarized the situation, "crap!"
Chef in a Pandemic. What Now?
My chef friend reached out to me after his restaurant unceremoniously closed for good, and he found himself with a lot of free time. While he's perfectly aware that I'm a menace to culinary society in the kitchen, he also knows that I regularly travel to some of the most obscure corners of the earth.
And when I do, my favorite thing to bring back for him are spices he's never heard of, things he's never used and can't pronounce, items that few grocery stores have ever bothered to carry.
With them, the fusions he creates are fully unique and his own, giving him a style that's hard to copy. Each new spice is a new sensation that nobody else uses, and as a result he's at the top of many restaurant's shortlists. He's being actively courted by some huge names in the Seattle restaurant scene (whenever they are allowed to reopen).
Whether you're a furloughed chef, restaurant owner, or just a passionate foodie, there's no pretending that being confined to home isn't a hardship.
But that doesn't mean it has to be a waste of your talents and time. Take one of these obscure spices from the corners of the world for a test drive, add some unique color to your cooking, develop your style as a culinary artist, and get a better job.
Plus, it's probably a lot better for you than bingeing cooking shows for two weeks straight. Just sayin'.
Note: As a kitchen newbie, I enlisted my chef friends to help me research this article, as I don't really know all of the culinary lingo.
1. Voatsiperifery Pepper (Madagascar Wild Black Peppercorns)
This exotic black peppercorn is incredibly rare in markets, and easily the most unique spice on the list. The pepper is the seed of Piper bourbonese, and grows only in rainforests in Madagascar. Its unusual name comes from the Malagasy words for "fruit" (voa) and the local name for the plant, tsiperifery. Tsiperifery is a climbing vine that uses mature trees as a scaffold to reach their preferred level of dappled sunlight, and the pepper is hand-harvested via ladders into the rainforest's heights.
As a perennial plant, older tsiperifery vines produce the most pepper, providing a strong incentive to keep mature plants healthy year after year. Given that it only grows in Madagascar, and only in a tiny area where rainforest remains, few people have had the experience of voatsiperifery's complex, aromatic flavors.
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Perhaps best of all, this is easily the most rainforest-friendly spice on Earth. The tsiperifery vine that produces the pepper will only grow in rainforests in Madagascar; therefore the more people around the world use the pepper, the greater the incentive to protect Madagascar's priceless forests (about 97% of Madagascar's rainforest has been destroyed, making it some of the most endangered forests on Earth).
Extremely aromatic with a subtle, lingering heat. Aromas are earthy, floral, woody, citrus, peppery. The heat is pleasant, gentle, rich, building slowly.
(I can't speak to all of this, but what I can say is that it immediately transports me to the rainforests where I work in morning. In my own unprofessional opinion, this pepper just tastes like Madagascar's forest smells and feels at dawn. Impossible to fully explain until you try it.)
- Basically, anything you're already using black pepper for. It's potent stuff, so the best thing is to substitute about 1/3 of the black pepper you were going to use with ground voatsiperifery.
- Infuse liquors with whole grains, especially gin, vodka, and whiskey
- Infuse coffee and tea with whole grains to add complex, earthy aromas and subtle spice
- Fantastic when added to rubs and marinades for meat, fish, and poultry
- Pairs beautifully with red wines
2. Grains of Paradise (Longoza)
There are a number of species that are sold under the name of "Grains of Paradise", but this name primarily refers to the seeds of two species of wild ginger with the local name 'Longoza', Aframomum melegueta (native to the swamps of western Africa) and Aframomum angustifolium (native to Madgascar and across Africa). Not always obscure, this "African Cardamom" has undergone waves of popularity and obscurity, from its peak use in Europe during the Renaissance to its long-standing use in local cuisines. Nearly unknown to western chefs today, some prominent chefs have recently worked it into their repertoires, including Alton Brown.
Grains of Paradise have an impressive history as a folk medicine as well as being incorporated as a condiment. The spice has been long used in veterinary medicine, and has been linked to improved cardiovascular health in mountain gorillas (though the exact mechanism is not certain).
In an effort to find the perfect anti-aging product, several large cosmetics firms such as Dior have rediscovered the Longoza plant and seeds as a potent anti-aging element. While the benefits of this spice are not well-studied in humans, it has been prominent in numerous local dishes and as parts of folk medicines and traditional ceremonies for centuries.
Almost a perfect blend of black pepper and cardamom; sharper and brighter than black pepper. Tart, peppery, acidic, bitter, and floral. Balanced between tangy florals and sharp black pepper. The Madagascar Grains of Paradise are smoother, with less bitter tone. Notes of ginger.
- Another excellent black pepper substitute. Not as potent as voatsiperifery, but interacts with it beautifully, as well as standard black pepper
- Flavorful and bright as a ground spice, excellent for summer salads
- Add to pepper mixes (a 2:2:1 mix of black pepper, Grains of Paradise, and voatsiperifery creates an unbelievably complex, floral pepper blend)
- Whole grains are excellent for infusing beers and liquors; used by the French to renew stale wines
- Pairs nicely with mellow red and dry white wines
3. African Bird's Eye Chili (Peri-Peri)
As its devilish nickname suggests, this little pepper packs a punch, weighing in well above jalapenos on the Scoville units (100,000-150,000; around the "hotness" of a habanero). The southeast Asian variety of this pepper is heavily-used for a huge variety of cuisines, including curries, noodle dishes, or even eaten raw. The African version is the hottest that this little pepper gets (even more so than the Asian varieties of Bird's Eye Chilis) and has been just as equally embraced in local cuisines.
While all chilis can trace their native roots back to the Americas, African Bird's Eye Chili was introduced by Portuguese and Spanish explorers and has become naturalized as a wild plant as well as cultivated for centuries. If you're fond of Thai and Southeast Asian foods, add in the African Bird's Eye to crank up the fire and for a subtle-yet-memorable twist on your old favorites.
This is hot. Seriously hot. Once you get under the heat, a smooth fruitiness, with less complexity than many chilis. Less tart than habaneros, with warm undertones of dry grass, late summer evenings.
But seriously. It's hot!
Warning: This pepper needs to be handled carefully, raw peppers with goggles and gloves. Take special care not to use the restroom, touch your face, blow your nose, or even touch your skin before thoroughly washing hands after handling. Consider yourself warned...
- Add Peri-Peri as an excellent addition/substitute pepper for Asian cuisine, curries, chili, jerk, barbecue, and anywhere else a little (or a LOT) of clean heat is required
- The relative simplicity of African Bird's Eye Chili makes it great for already-complex dishes where additional aromatics would only make the dish's flavor feel "crowded"
- Infuse olive oils, vinegars, or even alcohols to add a fiery twist
4. Amchur (Unripe Mango Powder)
Mangoes are an all-or-nothing fruit. Most of the year, there's nothing to harvest, but when Mango Season comes around, each tree produces enormous quantities of fruit that can quickly saturate anyone's appetite for mango. Plus, if we're being honest, a good mango can be a complete mess to eat. Incorporating them into cooking is often risky, as that sharp mango flavor comes at the cost of lots of extra moisture.
Luckily enough, the citric brightness that makes mango so appealing can be used in cooking year-round, thanks to Amchur/Amchoor. Made from unripe mango that is cut into strips and powdered, it packs all the tangy acidity of mangoes without the extra sweetness and water that a ripe mango carries. It's a fantastic way to sharpen up your cooking without watering it down.
Commonly used in Indian fare, Amchur is a base spice in a wide variety of dishes. though mango trees grow in warm climates all over the world, the use of the unripe mangoes is not as ubiquitous in western cooking (to their detriment, in my opinion). This has saved many a cooking experiment for me, ranging from fish that gets soggy when I add lemon juice, to fickle deserts that can become quickly become pudding with too much moisture.
Think condensed lemon powder, with a fruity, floral mango aroma. Clean, sharp, floral sour tones. Bright, fragrant.
- Curries, sauces, smoothies, stir fry, cocktails, and anywhere else that a pop of acidity is needed without drowning the dish
- Substitute for lemon, especially as a light zest rub for fish, or sprinkled on top of fruity deserts for extra punch
- Pure magic for cocktail mixologists. Use a sprinkle to provide balancing tartness without watering the drink down
- Frozen fruit deserts, tarts, cheesecakes, and even vanilla ice cream can be given an easy citrus twist with a sprinkle of amchur on top
- Pairs beautifully with sweeter white wines, especially Pinot Grigio