If you look at your spice rack with trepidation every time you’re cooking, you’re hardly alone.
Even Erma Bombeck had a spice rack that was full of spices, but it’s likely she didn’t use them much, based on one of her classic jokes.
“Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I’m taking with me when I go,” she once quipped.
While we likely won’t be buried with our favorite spices, we likely have a few favorites – star anise to bring out the meatiness of beef, saffron to give meals an exotic and decadent feel, the nostalgia of vanilla to remind us of our childhood kitchens, when our mothers or grandmothers baked cookies and we learned about spices for the very first time.
A person could travel the world for the rest of his or her life, and never truly know the cuisines of other cultures completely - or maybe even their own - thanks to the spices that are the essence of food, the gentle dusting of color that turns simple to spectacular.
Spices are complex and powerful, but that can lead to a bit of fear when it comes to using them with abandon.
Even the most seasoned chefs have their own tried and true spices that they use in a wide variety of dishes.
But being afraid of the unknown hanging out in our spice rack is unnecessary, most culinary experts say.
“The main thing is not to be afraid. That’s the biggest hindrance people have with spices, because they equate that to heat, which is not the spice. Well it is a spice, but it’s chili. Chili adds heat, spices add flavor and color,” said Tony Singh, who along with Cyrus Todiwala makes up the dynamic duo that is The Incredible Spice Men, who have together authored cookbooks, run restaurants and worked as award-winning chefs.
The two spoke with Gabriel Soh on "The Dinner Special Podcast" to share their love of spices.
Essentially, spices and heat work together to create a work of art, and while spices can be used without heat, heat is flat when not coupled with another spice to balance and enhance it.
“Today if you look at most of the larders in the western world, most homes would have nutmeg, would have cardamom, would have cloves, would have peppercorns, would have cumin, would have coriander,” said Todiwala. “Many people are keeping turmeric now, which is a very common ingredient in homes and you’ve got chilies. Actually, if you have cinnamon, cardamom and clove and peppercorn already in your house, and you’ve got chili, cumin, coriander and turmeric and that’s all you need, really. You don’t need many, many more.”
But having them is not the same as using them, and knowing how to use them takes practice.
Even chefs learn to understand that the balance of flavors is instinctual, and comes only with time spent in the kitchen.
“Most young chefs don’t know much about spices,” chef Mark Forgione told the New York Times, “and they tend to stick to what they know.”
But the same old, same old is unnecessary, especially when there are so many great spices showing up at your local market.
“Have no fear trying, because anything you make, you’re going to eat the evidence anyway. If it’s not good, then you don’t do that again,” Singh said.
“The main thing is the fear,” added Todiwala. “Once they get over that threshold, they will really enjoy their cooking. Really, really enjoy it. Most western food goes very, very well with a little bit of spice here and a little bit of spice there.”
The best thing is to be fearless, like “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi, who said, “Every country I would go to, even if it was just on a modeling job, I would go to their markets. If I went to Morocco for ‘Elle’ magazine, I would be in the spice markets during my off time and just come back with a suitcase full of stuff that I really wanted to try.”
Her experimentation allowed her to find a second career in food after modeling.