An old Bulgarian proverb goes, “A house without children is like a dish without spices.” I think this pretty much sums up the importance many cuisines place on spices, but many of us don’t have much experience with what spices go with others to make traditional blends. We’ve all had generic curry powder from the local grocery store, but how many of us know how to build a curry from scratch? The exact proportions of spices and how they are handled define the final curry powder.
Aliza Green’s new cookbook, The Magic of Spice Blends: A guide to the art, science, and lore of combining flavors, the 16th cookbook from this James Beard award-winning author, walks the curry clueless through how to make a basic South Indian curry spice blend, as well as other spice blends, such as Garam Masala from Northern India, a Sri Lankan Poudre de Colombo, and Baharat from Turkey. You can find some of these blends in trendy gourmet stores, but some of the more exotic spice blends really need to be made from scratch if one wants to approach authenticity. Green walks you through the process and then provides a recipe in which they are traditionally used.
Her “Spicemaster’s notes” sprinkled throughout the book, add interesting information about the origin of various spices and their uses. I found especially interesting that Mexican mole, a chocolate-tinged pepper sauce, is really defined by the particular spice blend employed. Hmm … I had never really looked at Oaxacan mole negro that way, but she is right. Mole negro is a mixture of dried, medium-to-hot guajillo and mulato negro chiles plus other herbs, to which unsweetened chocolate is added. The resultant dark spiced sauce is almost black. And although the spices sublimate the taste of chocolate, it is there in the background. In the Spicemaster’s note that accompanies her chapter on moles, she discusses the seminal importance of the anise-flavored hoja santa leaves, an indispensable herb if you want to make a genuine one.
This cookbook, which is also a kitchen tutorial, covers the globe by including African, Asian, Latin-American, European, Indian, Middle Eastern, and North American spice blends. North American? Most American cooks make their own apple spice blend from memory based on family traditions passed down through the generations … such as adding just the right amount of ground cinnamon to white sugar for the perfect American apple pie. But there are other spices to consider to compliment the simple apple. For example, Green promotes a mixture of ground cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, mace, and cloves. I might try that next time I make my apple pie or cobbler. Many American cooks make homemade chili by throwing in a couple tablespoons of a store-bought chili powder, but Green encourages making your own blend instead of reaching for the commercial, pre-blended ones. Of course, this takes some forethought and planning, but is not impossible.
As she covers the globe, Green covers a wide range of spiced dishes, including condiments, pastes, sauces, rubs, chutneys, soups, main dishes, salads and desserts. In fact, a good way to experiment with and explore the book would be to assign a group of friends various items from a full menu and then come together for a grandiose potluck.
Not sure where to get a hard-to-find spice or herb, such as ground sumac or dried curry leaves, which are the small oval leaves of a tropical citrus tree native to India? Green helps the reader out by including a list of spice and spice-related sources in the back of the book. She mentions Kalustyan’s in New York City and Whole Spice in Napa, which both offer mail order, but Philadelphians can find most of the spices in her book at Penzey’s near Independence Mall.
If you decide to really delve into the world of spices, Green recommends buying a masala dabba, a special spice box or “spice tiffin,” to organize your spice library. An excellent one is sold by Indian cookbook author Anupy Singla.
As we all become global culinary enthusiasts, this cookbook is a great primer on how to bring some of the world’s best traditional foods into your own home, and to prepare them most authentically. I am going to have fun cooking from it for years to come. And if I’m really successful, I’ll never buy a can of commercial curry powder again. •