Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Spices: Redrawing Flavor & Scent and Confounding the Mind

I have long communicated on these pages the idea that context makes for a powerful shift in our perception of fragrance and that is not only culturally, but quite literally true as well. A small inclusion of rum brings the catty whiff of blackcurrant buds in a herbal composition with mint. Violet and violet leaf takes on the nuance of pale tea incorporated into the structure of a citrusy floral. The sweet fruitiness of pink jasmine takes on bubble-gym hues paired with nectarous floral notes. The fine bubbles of champagne bring out the flavor of strawberries and adding ground cinnamon and cardamom to cooked grains imparts a sweet, earthy depth.

It's perhaps just as well that fine cuisine has long capitalized on this interplay between sensory stimuli in a single dish to render dishes worthy of a Michelin guide star. Spices in particular hold a complex fascination; a currency in ancient times, prized for their ability to preserve sensitive materials, like meat, fish and fruit, they have not lost their mystical rapport with our innermost illusionist, combining in novel ways that bring out hidden attributes.

Below please find excerpted from  “The Transformational Power of the Right Spice” by Alex Halberstadt in the New York Times magazine, a profile of “spice therapist” Lior Lev Sercarz and his shop La Boîte at the far west side of Midtown Manhattan.

 "When I wondered out loud about how much spices could really matter — weren’t they a mere flourish after the difficult work of cooking was completed? — Lev Sercarz invited me for a demonstration in his home kitchen. There, he seared filet mignon coated with Pierre Poivre (La Boîte Blend No. 7, with eight varieties of pepper); imagine an IMAX version of steak au poivre, the meat tasting the way neon looks. Then he did the same with Kibbeh (Blend No. 15, mostly cumin, garlic and parsley), and I could have sworn I was eating lamb: the mild tenderloin had turned gamy. That’s cumin, Lev Sercarz explained, which the palate tends to associate with lamb. Next he cooked a cube of salmon in olive oil infused with Ararat (Blend No. 35, with smoked paprika, Urfa chilies and fenugreek leaves), transforming it into something I would have guessed, with eyes closed, to be pork belly. That, he said, was the smoke. Spices, I was learning, not only behave as intensifiers and complicators but also, in the right hands, can redraw the boundaries of flavor and confound the brain. For the finale, Lev Sercarz dropped a pinch of Mishmish (Blend No. 33, with crystallized honey, lemon zest and saffron) into the bottom of a glass and covered it with an inch of lager. The bitterness and hoppy flavors were gone — the beer smelled and tasted like a gingerbread milkshake."

Clearly La Boîte is an experience I'm noting down for when I visit New York City. Aren't you?


  1. Anonymous14:35

    Your keyboard is stuck on the "quill pen" setting.

  2. Delicious! I love spices in perfume and in food. Early childhood scent memory: playing in the spice cabinet and being allowed to combine anything I wanted, usually with Worcestershire sauce, which my mother discreetly discarded. I've been cooking ever since. Thanks for the article.

  3. R,

    I admit to a great love of spices in fragrances as well (and do love them in food too!) They just add so much zing. It's such a shame that many of them are lately rationed...

    How lovely and gentle of your mother! That's why you grew up liking the process, I bet. If only more parents let their kids experiment with sensory stimuli more.

  4. Miss Heliotrope02:51

    Cooking without spices (or herbs, for the green side of things) is so tediously boring - I used to get in trouble for adding flavour to what my father assured me what a perfectly good meal.

    When I left home, my first kitchen had half the pantry filled with spices. (Ok - it was a very small pantry, but still)

  5. C,

    figures...I tend to attract the foodies. Good for you!!

    I find people who cook and enjoy eating infinitely better company than people who never do. :-P

  6. Ariadne22:39

    Yummmmm.... such fun! And so cocoa powder added to any dish will transport the diner to another galaxy! Add it to your pot of chili and you will become the Pied Piper.

  7. A,

    you're absolutely right! I need to use more of it.


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