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Ancient Spices, Future Flavors

Chef Suvir Saran’s cardamom-roasted cauliflower tossed with ground cumin, coriander and dried chiles was one of many recipes to showcase ancient spices at the CIA’s Worlds of Flavor conference. Photo courtesy of the culinary institute of america. The exhilarating foods and flavors of Spice Route nations provide vast opportunities for menu innovation

By Gerry Ludwig

There is no doubt that American dining consumers are more sophisticated and adventurous than ever. Sriracha has become the new ketchup. Pork belly is everywhere. Kimchi is now an omelette filling and burger topper. And today’s chocolate fix often has a 72 percent cacao content or higher.

However, ask the average foodie about spice blends such as baharat, bzar or mitmita, and you’ll likely receive a blank stare. The intoxicating flavors of these spice blends and many more provided the foundation for the Culinary Institute of America’s most recent Worlds of Flavor Conference, held last November at their Greystone campus in Napa Valley, California.

Entitled “Arc of Flavor,” the conference could easily have been called “Future Flavors from the Ancient Spice Route.” All of the 23 countries represented were stops on the original route, starting with the Spice Islands of Indonesia and traversing Southeast Asia, China, India, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

From a flavor trends standpoint, this was perhaps the most forward-looking conference the school has hosted. Many of the dishes served by the more than 60 international chefs contained complex and pungent flavors that may be a bit beyond the palate of today’s consumer. However, it wasn’t that long ago that the chipotle chile was considered a leading-edge ingredient, so in the coming years the boldly flavored foods of the Spice Route should steadily find their way onto mainstream menus.

Throughout the three days of the event, the chefs layered flavors onto a vast array of meats, poultry, seafood, vegetables and grains with the spice blends that define each country’s culinary heritage. The most basic of these blends incorporate four to six spices, while the more complex may contain 12 or more. And as is the case with Indian curries, chefs routinely have their own formulas that they carefully protect.

Chef Ana Sortun prepared a classic Turkish dish of crisply grilled chicken rubbed with baharat spice and stuffed with toasted pine nuts, pistachios and dried currants. Baharat also flavored a dish of grilled lamb kefta kebabs served by Mediterranean chef and author Joyce Goldstein.

The North African spice blend berbere was featured in a dish demonstrated by Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou, who crusted diver scallops with the spices and served them pan seared with a garnish of pickled raisins.

Khulood Atiq, the first female National Chef from Dubai, prominently featured the Arab spice bzar, also known as Emirati spice, in many of her dishes, including: a braised lamb and bread stew garnished with eggplant, potato and hot chiles; roasted chicken with rose water and saffron; and grilled Emirati-spiced shrimp flavored with tamarind and dried lime powder.

Rich Greek yogurt plays a savory role when combined with mixed greens, garlic, herbs and nuts, by Turkish chef Hande Bozdogan. SPICE INSPIRATIONS
While most blends were made from dried spices that are toasted and ground, Balinese chef/instructor Heinz von Holzen treated attendees to several dishes flavored with Bali spice paste, made entirely from fresh spices. The demonstration gave many attendees their first taste of fresh turmeric, which resembles ginger root but with a bright orange flesh. Von Holzen used the paste to prepare a Balinese pork sate (satay), minced duck steamed in banana leaf, and grilled shrimp in spicy tomato sauce.

In addition to the many spice blends, saffron was an individual spice featured in dozens of dishes, clearly demonstrating its adaptability and potential for menu innovation well beyond flavoring rice dishes and bouillabaisse. Khulood Atiq prepared two saffron-flavored breads, one rolled into balls and deep fried, the other baked in a clay pot and drizzled with honey. Ana Sortun served Brussels sprouts that were given a bright saffron flavor and golden color by simmering them in saffron water before oven roasting them. And Sicilian chef Corrado Assenza demonstrated a uniquely delicious dessert of saffron-and-honey-infused pasta topped with a sweet almond cream.

By far the star ingredient of the conference was Greek-style yogurt — luxuriously thick and most often made from whole milk. Greek yogurt with fruit flavors has exploded in popularity at the retail level, as consumers have discovered its superior qualities when compared to the thin, conventional varieties. This is surely setting the stage for increased mainstream acceptance of foodservice dishes featuring Greek yogurt in savory and hot applications.

The versatility and importance of the product in so many of the cuisines was clearly evident as chefs incorporated the yogurt in a vast number of preparations, including marinades, dips, spreads, dressings, sauces, fillings, relishes and desserts.

A wide variety of dips and spreads combining Greek yogurt with roasted or grilled vegetables were served. Iranian chef Anahita Naderi roasted and puréed butternut squash, blending it with yogurt, garlic and mint, while Turkish chef Burak Epir created a spread made with yogurt and fire-roasted eggplant. Israeli chef Erez Komarovsky demonstrated two delicious variations of Greek tzatziki sauce, one incorporating roasted beets with garlic, dill and chives, and another combining yogurt and raw shaved zucchini with fennel and mint.

Hot preparations incorporating Greek yogurt were even more intriguing. Lebanese chef Mohammed Antabli demonstrated his technique for making classic lamb and bulgur kibbeh meatballs, simmering them in a creamy tarragon-laced yogurt sauce, while fellow Lebanese chef Greg Malouf served fish fillets bathed and baked in a yogurt sauce flavored with shallots, chive and fresh lime. Ana Sortun used yogurt as a hot pasta sauce, tossing it with chickpeas, toasted fideo and sautéed Swiss chard.

Yogurt-based desserts also garnered much attention at the conference. Mourad Lahlou prepared and served a light, airy yogurt mousse topped with candied pistachios and pomegranate seeds. And chef/author Diane Kochilas demonstrated her recipe for yogurt cheesecake, flavored with honey, vanilla and the uniquely aromatic pistachio-tree-resin powder known as mastiha.

Labne is Greek yogurt that has been strained through cheesecloth to extract the liquid whey, making it exceedingly thick and creamy. Mohammed Antabli highlighted labne’s rich quality via two dishes. The first, a vegetarian sandwich filling featuring a clever mixture of labne and bulgur wheat, was garnished with parsley, scallions, garlic, chopped walnuts and green chile, and scooped into a warm pita.

The second dish, known as shanklish, was one of the most unique and delicious served at the conference. The labne is flavored with red bell pepper, green chile, garlic and paprika, and scooped into small balls that are allowed to air dry for two days. The balls are then rolled in dried thyme and allowed to dry several more days until completely hard. The finished product is crumbled into a salad of diced tomatoes, scallions, parsley, mint and olive oil. Needless to say, shanklish requires preparation well in advance.

Of all the vegetables served at the conference, creative dishes featuring cauliflower dominated the menus. Indian chef Suvir Saran demonstrated the vegetable’s versatility by preparing a trio of dishes: cardamom-roasted cauliflower tossed with ground cumin, coriander and dried chiles; a Manchurian-style cauliflower roasted and tossed in a ketchup-based tomato glaze with garlic and chiles; and a stir fry with diced potato, fresh ginger, cumin and cilantro.

Several chefs prepared cauliflower in unexpectedly creative ways. Mourad Lahlou shaved florets and then pulsed them in a food processor, creating a cauliflower “couscous.” Israeli chef Erez Komarovsky stuffed and roasted whole heads with a filling of ground lamb and freekeh (smoked green wheat berries), topping the dish with a spiced yogurt sauce. And Icelandic chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason served an ingenious cauliflower carpaccio, thinly shaving the stems and marinating them in a light vinegar brine.

Another flavoring ingredient showing huge menu potential was pomegranate molasses. The thick, tart syrup was incorporated into sauces, marinades, salad dressings, meatballs and ground meat fillings, rice and grain dishes, and used as a finishing drizzle over a variety of savory and sweet items. Standouts included Turkish chef Hande Bozdogan’s Shepherd’s Salad of fresh tomato, onion, bell pepper and cucumbers tossed in a pomegranate and olive oil dressing, and Anahita Naderi’s grilled prawns with pomegranate glaze.

For a Turkish shawarma variation, chef Musa Dagdeviren shaves slices of beef ribeye before folding into warmed lavash along with fresh garlic and salted onions. GLOBAL SANDWICH BUILDS
Sandwiches and handheld foods continue to present a prime sales-building opportunity for menus in all restaurant segments. Flatbreads such as Indian naan, Greek pita and Armenian lavash are the carriers of choice for sandwiches along the spice route. These breads have been increasingly appearing on mainstream American menus, and the vibrant and authentic flavors of the sandwiches served at the conference provided inspiration for new and unique menu offerings.

Mohammed Antabli served a delicious Middle Eastern take on grilled cheese, spreading pita with a mixture of toasted ground pistachios, sumac, sesame seeds and dried thyme, and generously topping the bread with Greek halloumi cheese before broiling. Chef Musa Dagdeviren created a Turkish variation of Lebanese shawarma, assembling layered slices of beef ribeye with fresh garlic, salted onions and beef suet on long wooden spits, which were slowly turned over an open wood fire and then thinly sliced onto pieces of warmed lavash.

The most unique flatbread served at the conference is technically a pancake. Demonstrated by Vietnamese chef Bobby Chinn, the Banh Xeo is made from a rice flour and coconut milk batter that is griddled and filled with ground pork and shrimp, and deliciously topped with pickled julienne vegetables, fresh basil and mint.

American diners have shown not only willingness but eagerness to taste, experience and experiment with new flavors. The cuisines of the Spice Route countries clearly have the potential to provide chefs and operators with flavor inspirations for years to come.


About The Author

Gerry Ludwig

Chef Gerry Ludwig is a nationally recognized food writer, speaker and trend tracker, and leads the Culinary R&D department for Gordon Food Service, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.