The spice trade

May 17, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

The names are as romantically enticing as the places they come from - tamarind and tellicherry pepper from India, saffron from Spain - but today's new spices and flavorings are as close as the corner restaurant, as familiar as your grocery shelves.

People are traveling more, immigrants are arriving from places such as the Far East and Eastern Europe, and global communications have improved - meaning ordinary Americans are being exposed to - and subsequently craving - new flavors.

"The American palate seems to be demanding big, bold, in-your-face flavors," said Marianne Gillette, director of marketing for McCormick Flavors of Hunt Valley. "Maybe it has to do with the fact that we're aging, or maybe it has to do with entertaining, getting a more dramatic taste in your mouth. But it runs across all menus."

Between 1976 and 1995, Gillette said, McCormick's sale of red pepper rose 125 percent. Sales of mustard and black and white pepper are up 58 percent.

And it's not just the hot stuff.

Sixteen years ago, when she and a pal started Vann's Spices, said owner Ann Wilder, few people in the United States had ever heard of herbes de Provence.

Today the blend of thyme, rosemary, basil and lavender is Vann's top seller.

Now, as in the past, almost all spices are grown in places within 10 to 20 degrees of the equator all around the world, Wilder said. But new demand and global-marketing changes mean some spices are coming to the United States from such nontraditional sources as Turkey, Northern Africa and the Far East.

The spices and flavorings on this page are some of the latest seasoning their way into the mainstream. The best way to get to know them is to sample them, in small quantities, on familiar foods. If you like the flavor, you can branch out to less familiar recipes.

In general, the aromatic spices - such as lemon grass, saffron and cardamom - work best in lighter preparations, while the flavorful spices - such as cumin, chipotle peppers and tamarind - work better in heartier dishes.

Cardamom

Cardamom is the seed of a wild bush that flowers at random on jungle hillsides in India, and flavors Indian dishes such as rice and biryani (spiced meat with rice). Since the randomness makes it hard to harvest, cardamom is somewhat expensive. It may be whole or ground. A traditional use is in sweet baked goods (try it in waffle batter), but cardamom also gives sweet piquancy to pilafs, soups, stews and chili. And it adds a fresh note to fish.

Chinese five-spice

This blend of spices includes allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and sometimes Sichuan pepper (which isn't a pepper at all, but the flower of an ash tree). It's delicious on roasted vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, and blends well with chicken and pork. Interestingly, the four base spices - allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves - show up as blends in other cuisines. In England, it's pudding spice; in France, quatre-epis. With some additions, it's raz el-hanout in North Africa.

Chipotle peppers

Chipotles are the smoked and dried version of the familiar jalapenos, but with a smoky, grilled taste. "They're not real hot, and that allows the flavor to come through," said Marianne Gillette of McCormick. They are used in Mexican dishes, in soups and stews, and in what Gillette called "nueva Latina" dishes - traditional flavors put together in a modern way - such as a papaya-chipotle chutney.

Cumin

Cumin is the seed of a small plant indigenous to Egypt, but now grown in the Middle East, Far East and Europe. It's used in Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese dishes, but it was also common in medieval gardens. It has a warm, aromatic flavor that works well in chili, soups and stews, bean and rice dishes, and with lamb, beef and chicken. It adds a nice touch to yogurt dips and yogurt dressings. "It has a wonderful affinity for pork, and I find it incredible in scrambled eggs," said Wilder of Vann's Spices.

Fenugreek

Fenugreek is a tiny, squarish seed that's been grown in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean for thousands of years as a fodder for animals, as a spice and as medicine. It's most often used as an ingredient in curry, a spice blend used in India, but it also adds a slight peppery flavor to pickles, chutney and vegetarian dishes.

Herbes de Provence

Thyme, rosemary and basil are the base ingredients in this blend of spices from the south of France, but it is lavender that gives it its distinctive aroma and taste. In France, it's used to season mustard and pate, but it gives subtle aroma and an array of bright tastes to soups and stews, roast chicken, fish and lamb. It also works well in salads and salad dressings and on roasted vegetables.

Lemon grass

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