Oh Yeah, You Blend

Spice blends are a great way to add a completely new chapter to your culinary repertoire; they add pizazz and oomph to almost everything. Too often, however, due to a lack of knowledge or understanding, these fragrant mementoes from abroad are condemned to an unnoticed existence somewhere in a spice rack until their aromas have faded away. Let’s not allow that to happen anymore!

Many culinary cultures are famous for their ingenious use of herbs and spices, and serious food enthusiasts who travel to a region celebrated for its aromatic fare will not miss a chance to explore one of its spice bazaars. The omnipresent fragrance of herbs and spices, noise and aromas from mobile kitchens, and encounters with people energetically haggling over the price of the tantalizing goods make for an unforgettable experience. Traditional spice mixes obtained at these markets are welcome souvenirs, and may include a variety of masalas from India, ras el hanout or tabil from the Maghreb region of North Africa, Cajun spice mix from Louisiana, and za’atar from the Middle East.

Once you’re back in your familiar home kitchen, you’ll be eager to recreate your new favorite exotic foods. Yet, on the very first attempt, you may wonder how to best use your spice mixes—should they be applied at the beginning or at the end of cooking? Should they be briefly fried in oil or dry-roasted or simply added to the food? The answer? It depends, as every region or cuisine has its distinct spices, flavor profiles, and cooking methods.

Certainly one of the best-known spice mixes is curry powder. It’s believed to be of East Indian origin, but comparable blends can be found all over the world. In India, however, it is hard to find “curry powder” or even “curries.” Instead, the spice mixes and some of the dishes made with them are known as “masalas.” What is known as curry powder today was fashioned by returning British colonists in an effort to recreate the flavors they enjoyed so much during their time in India. It didn’t take long for spice manufacturers to recognize the potential of this ubiquitous spice blend and commercialize it. Most recipes using curry powder suggest briefly frying it in oil before adding the main ingredients and then simmering it gently to achieve the most complex flavors.

Another well-known spice blend from India is garam masala. Literally meaning “warming spices,” garam masala generally contains cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, and black pepper. It is commonly applied at the very end of cooking to avoid altering the original flavor of the spices and to add a layer of complexity to the dish.

Hailing from Morocco and Tunisia is ras el hanout. The literal translation of its name is “head of the shop,” implying that it is made with the best spices in the shop. Composed of 12 or more different spices, the exact composition varies from producer to producer. Ras el hanout is versatile and can be used for savory stews, to flavor couscous or rice, or as a rub for grilled meats.

To get the best flavors from your spice mixes, most experts agree that all spices should be ground and used as fresh as possible. During long storage, their delicate essence is slowly but surely going with the wind.

So, experiment with some of these unknown flavors. It will help you gain culinary confidence and discover exciting new dishes. Guten appetit!

Hinnerk von Bargen is a professor of culinary arts at the CIA San Antonio. He holds a Master Chef certificate from the Hotel School in Hamburg, Germany and is a certified hospitality Hinnerk von Bargen is a professor of culinary arts at the CIA San Antonio. He holds a Master Chef certificate from the Hotel School in Hamburg, Germany and is a certified hospitality educator. Chef von Bargen has lived, worked, and traveled extensively throughout Asia, and is the author of Street Foods.

Garam Masala
Makes 3/4 cup

1 1/2 tablespoons Black peppercorns
1 tablespoon Cloves
6 Green cardamom
3 Cinnamon sticks, 2-inch pieces
6 tablespoons Cumin seeds
8 Chile de árbol

In a dry skillet, toast all spices over medium heat until fragrant.

Transfer spices to a spice grinder and process to a fine powder.

Recipe source: The Culinary Institute of America

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