Spice expert, and owner of La Boîte spice shop, Lior Lev Sercarz introduces us to three unique spices: ajowan, amchoor and Urfa.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Lior, you've become famous for the unusual spices that you have at the shop and also for the spice blends that you do. Now you've done this book, Spice Companion, and it's essentially a guide or an encyclopedia. There are some things in here that I don't think most of us run across on a daily basis or have had a chance to use. What I've done is I've picked out three of them. I'd love for you to explain how we use them. The first one is ajowan. Tell me the story of ajowan.
Lior Lev Sercarz: I myself until probably 10 or so years ago was not familiar with ajowan. As I was doing a lot of research and reading about spices, obviously one of the first places you're usually drawn to is India. All of the sudden came these beautiful, cute little seeds that are a bit bigger than celery seeds, a bit smaller than cumin, with such a rich complexity of slight bitterness, sweetness, savory notes, and even some oregano note to them. All of that in one little seed. It's not that hard to find ajowan seeds; however, they're neglected for one reason or another; but can be a great addition to food because of all these complex notes. Not to mention the light sodium content which brings a nice salty flavor to dishes. I know a lot of people talk about reducing sodium and trying to improve the way they eat. Why not? It's an added bonus.
LRK: I've had them in chickpea fritters, and they're delicious. But, how else would you use them? What's a guide for using them?
LLS: I think spices generally should and can be applied everywhere. I know it doesn't help most people when I say that, but I recommend sprinkling a little bit of whole ajowan seeds or ground ajowan seeds whether it's a raw vegetable or fruit, or it's a cooked dish. The beauty of ajowan seeds, because of their size, is that you can leave them as-is – whole. It doesn't even require any grinding, which sometimes can scare some people. Really, from the most simple sliced vegetable or fruit or salad or dressing, to a chickpea to fish, meat; before, while, or after cooking.
LRK: Another one on my list, number two is amchoor.
LLS: Again, very unfamiliar. Amchoor is made from mango. Most of us has had a piece of mango in our life, once or twice. Amchoor is basically unripened green mango that can either be purchased in wedges or slices of dried mango or powdered. The beauty of amchoor is the sourness and acidity that it brings. It's a sort of lemon or vinegar powder, to some extent, but naturally it's only that fruit. How amazing it is if you could add a touch of acidity to a raw or a cold preparation, to a soup, a roast, or fish. Often enough lemon juice or other citrus juice just fade out a little bit throughout cooking. Sometimes we just don't have a lemon handy. One of the things that's crucial in cooking aside from sodium and heat, which are fundamental, is acidity. It's always that little thing that brings the dish to the next level. Amchoor is one of your secret weapons. A little jar of amchoor can always do good in anything, pretty much.
LRK: I have to say, I've only sniffed it. I just haven't gotten a chance to use it yet. But it seems to have more dimension to it then lemon or lime. It's more complex. You list something in what to try: apple pie.
LLS: Absolutely. I love the idea of the sweet and sourness, this kind of contrast, and apples having a little bit of sourness or a little bit of acidity, so it does pair really well. However, it cuts through a little bit to the richness of the dough or the sweetness from the sugar and the other spices. Because it is made from mango, you do get these beautiful fruit notes still in the scent and in the flavor.
LRK: My last pick is something that I have been puzzled by. I keep sniffing it when I go to spice shops and I never buy it. It's a form of chili; it's called Urfa.
LLS: Absolutely. Urfa, named after the town of Urfa in the south of Turkey. Fairly large bell pepper-ish. Kind of like a poblano pepper that we're most familiar with. Dried out in the sun and then at night, covered, it's a process called “sweating," which, on one hand, dries the pepper during the day, but on the other hand, at night, by covering it, preserves these great natural oils. Then it gets crushed it into fairly large size flakes. It's a great example of chili, which often is confused with being overwhelmingly hot. Chilis could be fruity, could be sour, could be sweet with citrus notes and can bring so much to a dish, whether it's cooked or not. The heat is obviously there, but it's not the main thing. Urfa is a fantastic example. Because of that sun drying, you definitely get qualities of some smoke, even notes of some chocolate, tobacco, and some wine into it. All of that in one chili. I cannot think of any preparation, pretty much, that cannot benefit from a little pinch of Urfa in it.
LRK: I'm looking at your list of suggestions. Fried eggs, carbonara -- the pasta dish, orange barbecue sauce, hummus, and chocolate mousse.
LLS: I'm a big fan of dessert and of chocolate. I often look at the dessert menu before I look at the regular menu in a restaurant. To me, dessert is not separated from savory. I like the idea of playing with either fruit and vegetables and savory notes in desserts. It's a continuous part of the meal, I would say, if they're very distinguished. Chocolate is such a great vehicle to handle heat and acidity and smoke. When you look at the history, we haven't invented much; the Mayans were doing it very well a long, long time ago.
[Ed. Note: Find more information on ajowan, amchoor and Urfa including recommended spice pairings and recipe ideas at this Splendid Table link.]
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