Cooking spices add complexity to savory dishes

Aaron Hutcherson

THE WASHINGTON POST – As we enter what some are calling pumpkin spice season, baking spices – such as cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, star anise, cardamom and nutmeg – are in mind. Often associated with desserts in the United States and Europe — and sometimes with overly flavored edible and inedible products sold by companies this time of year — these spices can do so much more. While they’re an integral part of iconic fall baked goods, they’re also capable of adding flavor and complexity to savory dishes.

Going back to my classic French culinary training, I remember being told to add a pinch of nutmeg to dark leafy greens and bechamel sauce, which sometimes also includes cloves.

You can also regularly find these spices in American BBQ (I love including cinnamon in my spice rubs), the classic Cincinnati regional chili, but that’s about it in Western kitchens.

“Nowadays, I feel like you see these hot spices all over the world, except in western cuisine,” chef and TV host Sohla El-Waylly said in a call. “But in the past, that wasn’t the case, because when you look at the old recipes in Europe, they put cinnamon and saffron in the meat just like the Persians did. It’s interesting that we found ourselves away from that.

While talking with chef Jon Kung, he mentioned a study on the principles of food pairing.

Bechamel sauce with nutmeg. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

While recipes from Western cuisines tend to contain ingredients that have similar overlapping flavors, East Asian cuisines tend to “deal with opposites and conflicting flavor characteristics,” Kung said, which is achieved in part through the use of warm-ups. spices in savory dishes. (In addition to East Asian cuisines, warming spices in savory dishes can also be found in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines.)

El-Waylly has loved cooking spices in savory dishes since she was a child. “One of the things my mum always did was that whenever she made braises and stews of red meat, there was always black cardamom in it, which adds a nice sweet, smoky note that goes well with this heavy, rich, meaty taste,” she said. , adding that star anise was usually also included.

“I feel like you often find the hot spices used with rich, hearty, meaty dishes because it goes really well with that fat, like in a mole or in a chili or in a korma. I feel like because these warmer spices have that kind of sweetness, they work well with heavier things to round them out, kind of cut that richness.

When it comes to flavor balance, heat is another lever to consider when working with these spices. “It’s nice to have the balance of a little spice so you don’t go too far into the sweet zone,” El-Waylly said.

“I think that’s why it works so well in the mole, the poblano mole in particular, because you have all these peppers.”

Black cardamom and star anise would also appear in his mother’s skewers, which El-Waylly now associates with grilled meats in South Asia and the Middle East. More broadly, it connects to grilling globally, such as with American barbecue or the use of allspice in Jamaican jerk chicken. For Kung, it comes down to the char obtained with these cooking methods. “Warming spices enhance the naturally sweet notes that are already present in savory foods,” Kung said. “That would mean anything charred. It does a great job of accentuating the sweetness of the Arctic char.

Star anise is especially good with beef because when combined with onions, it gives the dish a meatier taste. “There’s a compound in star anise that when cooked with onions releases a compound that tastes very much like beef,” Kung said. “In Chinese cuisine, you have a lot of star anise and onions in beef dishes because it makes the beef taste even more like beef. But if you use it in a stir-fry with oyster mushrooms or something thing like that, it does a pretty good job of adding that meaty depth to vegan and plant-based dishes.

Before adding a bunch of cloves to your dishes willy-nilly, keep in mind that these spices can be quite potent, so use them wisely. El-Waylly recommends using whole spices to tone down their potency. “You get a nice little background from that heat without being too overwhelming,” she said. “It’s a trickier approach if you want to add it to seafood or a vegetable stew.” Whole cinnamon sticks are fairly easy to fish into finished dishes, and smaller items can go in a cheesecloth bag for easy removal. (Plus, the whole spice lasts longer. “So if you don’t use it as much, you’ll be fine,” she said.)

Spice blends, like garam masala, are another way to delve into the world of warming spices in savory applications. “It’s a really accessible and affordable way to try these different spices without having to buy six different bottles,” El-Waylly said.

None of this may be new to you. If so, I hope to inspire you to broaden your horizons so you can cook deliciously complex dishes at home. If you need more advice, just turn to the recipes from the kitchens mentioned above. “The plan is already there, right? Kung said. “Kitchens that have been doing this for thousands of years already exist.”

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