If there is a food ingredient with the potential to transport you instantly to another geographic place, it must be spice. If there is a flavouring by which we can share another culture — that dash of star anise, that pinch of paprika, that sprinkled zing of za’atar — that too, is spice.
It’s a new age of discovery when it comes to spices. Supermarket shelves take cues from specialty food purveyors and stock more — and more arcane — spice selections, while restaurants of all genres are using spices like never before.
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW
Spices have been popular for thousands of years. During the Age of Discovery (between the 15th and 18th centuries), Europeans explored the world, plundered cultures and brought home spices and cooking techniques. Columbus, of course, brought New World peppers to Europe in his quest to find the East Indies, and Portuguese explorers brought them to Asia in the 16th century.
A vestige of that history remains today at Nando’s Peri-Peri, a global company that started in Rosettenville, South Africa in the late-1980s and landed in Richmond, B.C. in 1994. According to Nando’s director of Marketing David Ross, the flame-grilled peri peri chicken, or at least the tradition of it, is the result of those ancient Portuguese navigators finding the small red peppers in Africa and using them in their cooking. “We are using African bird’s eye chili. The neutral chicken lends itself well to the application of the spice, which is also called peri peri,” says Ross.
Nando’s sources peppers from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, but it doesn’t ferment them when making its sauces and marinades. “That’s a significant difference in terms of both production and the flavour profile,” he says.
WHAT IS A SPICE?
While herbs come from a leaf of a plant, a spice is derived from the plant’s other parts. Spices have a wide range of botanical categories: they may be roots (ginger), berries (peppercorn), buds (cloves) or bark (cinnamon). In the case of one of the world’s most expensive spices, saffron comes from the stigma of a crocus flower (which requires in the order of 13,000 threads to make just one ounce).
For restaurateur and television’s Dragons’ Den alumnus Vikram Vij, spices are to him what notes are to a musician. “The cloves and the cinnamon and the ginger and the garlic sing that way to me. You are not just using spices — they are part of your life. You grew up with them. They are never just a secondary ingredient. Like a stock, spices are the basis of cooking,” Vij says.
SPICES ON THE MOVE
According to Lysang Lay, while referring to McCormick’s annual “Flavour Forecast,” today’s consumers, from QSR outlets to fine-dining restaurants, want bolder flavour experiences. Spices are “on the move,” she says, and include savoury combinations such as olives marinated in cumin and coriander or a date cake with allspice, coriander, ginger and cinnamon. “Spice blends are being pushed more and used in different ways that we don’t normally think of,” says Lay.
It’s why Subway had a Korean BBQ sub as a special feature at less than $10 and Wendy’s has jalapeños on a burger — spices have found their way into a wide range of foods and are being added to familiar dishes such as poutine or pizza.
Much of the world’s spice supply comes from India and the east. However, while spice giant McCormick sources spices from about 40 countries around the world, the renewed interest in spices at the smaller-scale retail level is similarly pronounced.
Allison Johnston owns and operates The Spice Trader, a Toronto specialty shop to which she says spice aficionados gravitate for gumbo filé (a spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the North American sassafras tree) and asafetida (used in Indian cooking) — and then might pick up the more common spices almost as an afterthought. Her business procures spices from both large and small sources; it might be someone who brings in three things; it might be someone who has everything, says Johnston. “We deal primarily with organic spices and tend to deal with smaller farmers. We don’t import huge quantities at one time,” she explains, adding that stock turns over quickly.
She’s observed an increase in tagine cooking in Toronto, as well as use of north African harissa hot chili paste and ras el hanout — a Moroccan spice blend, which might include 30 or more ingredients.
Trends in spices are set in much the same way that many food trends are established: via television. Bal Arneson, author and television host known as “The Spice Goddess,” sees the medium as a boon to education and cultural exploration. “Food television has opened up palates and encouraged people to go outside their comfort zone,” Arneson says. “Indian food, the spices and the flavours, is going to be the next big thing.”
THE FORECAST IS FOR HOT AND SMOKY
The first spice off (or on, as it were) the tip of her tongue is turmeric. The rhizome, also a top spice trend for Vij, is part of a palette of related flavours to Arneson. “I see coriander, cardamom and saffron more and more. I was recently at a French restaurant in Baltimore and had saffron ice cream with a hint of cardamom.”
Spices now stand alone, says Vij. His observations and contact with other chefs show him that spices are being given independent identities by cooks. “Individualization of spices is happening. We’re seeing cumin-scented lamb rack, for instance, or a dish spiced with cinnamon.”
As they have in the past, spices defy national boundaries, and flavours from the Middle East have blossomed in popularity. In Waterloo, Ont., Shawerma Plus is chock-a-block of spices and blends. Not just a popular venue for the vertical-rotisserie and self-basting chicken, the dine-in and take-away restaurant adjacent to Wilfrid Laurier University specializes in Syrian dishes, including ones that hail from Damascus. Some top sellers are the fattoush salad with greens, fried pita chips, pomegranate syrup and sumac ($5.99) and Maqloobeh of eggplant with veal and rice seasoned with black pepper, a seven-spice blend and cardamom ($15).
Owner Jawad Ghabra identifies several primary spices that build the flavour profile that satisfies students, professors and neighbourhood regulars: cardamom, cloves and cumin along with the increasingly popular sumac.
He’s not sure what came first, though, the popularity of sumac, or that people seem to be gravitating toward their sumac-oriented dishes. It’s perhaps a perfect example of the spice as a vital part of the whole dish and not a mere ingredient from a recipe.
McCormick’s “Flavour Forecast” shows the popularity of shawarma spice blends has grown not only in major cities, but in smaller centres as well. “The blend,” says Lay, “is being used in different ways, on fries for instance, that give something new to flavours we are comfortable with.”
A thousand miles away, in Lunenburg, N.S., Martin Ruiz Salvador would agree. He owns Fleur de Sel, Salt Shaker Deli and The South Shore Fish Shack. “There’s been a wide selection of Middle-Eastern spices that you’re seeing everywhere. Things like cloves and cardamom certainly offer a savoury flavour to dishes.” Salt Shaker Deli’s Middle East Meatloaf features cumin-spiced lamb, garlic yogurt, cucumbers, tomatoes, kalamata olives and a chili mayo on focaccia ($12).
A big driver of that spice movement is the media. According to Spice Trader’s Johnston, the cookbook Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and the hefty, glossy LCBO magazine, both generate huge interest in food. “The magazine mentioned fennel pollen ($23.50 an ounce) and I’ve had a million different calls. Middle Eastern is huge,” Johnston says.
Visit a restaurant for udon noodles, shabu shabu hotpot or steaming, porky bowls of ramen and you will no doubt have seen a small shaker of shichimi togarashi — a Japanese seven-spice blend. Lay notes that like the shawarma spice that has found its way into other dishes, togarashi can be found adorning tuna or ground beef for hamburgers. “It has chili peppers, sesame, nori and citrus notes in it, so there’s layers of flavours in togarashi.”
SOME LIKE IT HOT
Call it the Sriracha phenomenon that won’t let go. “Hot sauces, hot peppers and hot flavours are popular,” says Trevor Thiessen, manager of Culinary at Mr. Mike’s SteakhouseCasual, a Western Canada-based 60-year-old brand of steak restaurants. Sriracha chili pepper sauce continues to be popular and Mr. Mike’s has introduced it to a few dishes, both appetizers and mains, at its 25 Western Canadian outlets. The yam fries appetizer is seasoned with a mango-chipotle spice ($7.99), while 12-ounces of rib eye with signature spice blend or the same sized Ragin’ Cajun (with earthy garlic, paprika and red pepper Cajun spices) both clock in at $31.99.
And after you reach for the red Sriracha bottle with the hallmark green top, get out your smoke gun and wood chips: it’s not just about the spice itself but how the spice is treated. Smoked spice is a doubling-down of flavour. According to McCormick’s Lay, smoky flavour ranks number-3 on the scale of preferences in Canada behind savoury and spicy. Adding smoke to spices is easy: smoked curry powder can be added to vegetable pickling ingredients, while adding smoky notes to Creole mustard and garlic powder gives an entirely new dimension to the classic devilled egg.
Mr. Mike’s knew that smoke is a natural with beef, so it added a deeper, fuller flavour profile to its steaks. “It’s a new and upcoming trend,” Thiessen says. “We do a custom spice blend with a Quebec company and smoke our own steak spice. It has introduced a cutting-edge flavour profile, and, honestly, the smoke brings a certain kind of umami to the palate.”
The palate is stimulated by liquids, too, and when it comes to beverages, smoked cinnamon bitters are boosting the flavour profile of cocktails, according to McCormick research.
Such marriages of spice and libations are a match made in heaven for Frankie Solarik. With his potions, the Toronto-based BarChef co-owner and mixologist is as close to an apothecary as you might get. In his experimental cocktail laboratory, Solarik creates herbaceous gins and vanilla cognacs, to name only a few. “What I’m seeing is a lot people making their own bitters and syrups at their bars,” he says. “My particular style of bitter is very spice-driven, where traditionally bitters are more root- and bark-driven. I find those to have a fairly two-dimensional flat flavour profile and I want to achieve more complexity and length with the bitters so I use predominantly spice-driven infusions.”
There is no shortage of inspiration and ideas for new infusions for bitters, the making of which can take up to three months, says Solarik. BarChef uses green cardamom, fennel, star anise, cloves, licorice root and cinnamon. “I use a lot of caraway as well because it has a smoky quality that goes really well with Islay scotches.” BarChef’s Toasted Fizz beverage draws on gin chamomile syrup and saffron bitters ($14), while the pakora snack with spinach, onion and a mint and yogurt chutney ($11) rely on garam masala and turmeric spice.
THE FUTURE OF SPICES
Are spices always a seasoning drawn from the other side of the world or mere sprinklings in a dish’s preparation? “While it isn’t something I do a lot of, we’ve been foraging for ingredients like wild rosehips, which we’ve been toasting,” says
Salvador. “They’re just fantastic. We also use sweet gale [bog myrtle], and we roast sea parsley seeds and incorporate that in some of our fish dishes.”
Salvador also uses local mustard seed, creates his own spice seasoning and dehydrates and then crushes ingredients such as cranberries to give them a spice-like quality. His inventiveness touches Phylum mollusca too — he salts and dehydrates scallop roe and then pulverizes it to make a bright orange seasoning salt that imparts an ocean flavour.
It speaks to the creativity and ingenuity that spice sparks and moves it more into the foreground of cooking. Arneson says opportunities are created when spices hit warm oil and heady aromas are released. “Chefs with food in their DNA follow flavour first,” Arneson says. It’s a matter of imagining the spices of a dish and the proteins and vegetables will follow, she adds. “Spices are the expression of what I am going to cook. Artists have a palette of colour in front of them and they will create a beautiful painting. That’s how I feel about spices.”
Volume 48, Number 9
Story By: Andrew Coppolion