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How to buy into world flavors

In the last decade, Asian, Latin and Mediterranean have been the big three global influencers on American menus, but now chefs and operators are digging deeper into these broad categories. Several “niche cuisines” are emerging on the foodservice scene, and they’re showing up outside the so-called “ethnic restaurants.” Four of the fastest growing: Spanish, Indian, Turkish and Moroccan.

In the last decade, Asian, Latin and Mediterranean have been the big three global influencers on American menus, but now chefs and operators are digging deeper into these broad categories. Several “niche cuisines” are emerging on the foodservice scene, and they’re showing up outside the so-called “ethnic restaurants.” Four of the fastest growing: Spanish, Indian, Turkish and Moroccan.

In a recent report, Packaged Facts, a food and beverage research house, cites “Indian as an emerging flavor profile in 2005.” The cuisine offers a wide array of spices and sauces, on-trend flatbreads and snacks, plus “on-the-go foods are on their way.”

“Spanish cuisine is hotter than ever,” the report continues. Cured meats, olive oils, cheese and seasonings are the key imported foods from Spain that are making their way onto mainstream menus. And North African and Moroccan flavors are slowly picking up steam, with distinctive spice blends and tagines leading the charge.

Mediterranean continues to have wide appeal, but American diners are now ready and willing to explore beyond the familiar Italian and Greek dishes. At the Culinary Institute of America’s 2005 Worlds of Flavor conference, Turkish food was described as “where Indian was ten years ago.” It makes sense that Turkey is emerging as a source of culinary inspiration; the cuisine is in sync with today’s tastes.  It focuses on mezze or small plates, bold seasonings, fruits, vegetables and grains, and healthful cooking techniques—all top of mind for the 2006 restaurant customer.

These countries all lie along the original spice route that stretches from the Far East to Europe. Not surprisingly, spices figure prominently in each of the cuisines.


Indian

The vast size and diverse geography and climate of India define its culinary traditions, which are comprised of many regional cuisines. In the cooler north, dishes tend to be richer and meatier and bread is the staple starch. Southern India is famous for its tropical fruits, seafood, vegetarian fare and rice. But every state boasts a distinctive ingredient or preparation, ranging from the tandoori cooking of Punjab to the street food of Maharashtra and the vindaloos of Goa. What unites these varied cooking styles is the abundant use of aromatic spices and herbs, many of which grow on Indian soil.

Q&A: The spice trail
Name: Al Goetze
Title: Chief Global Spice Buyer
Company: McCormick & Company, Inc.

How much does India contribute to the global spice market? 

India is the largest spice producer in the world. The climate, especially in southern India, is very conducive to growing a variety of spices. Not only does the country export more spices than any other, its population consumes more. Red pepper is a good example—India grows about 800,000 tons a year and exports about 35,000 tons. The remainder is consumed within India’s borders.

What are the major spice crops?

The highest quality black peppercorns are called “tellicherry” and grow along the Malabar Coast. Cardamom, turmeric and ginger are grown and harvested in the Ghat Mountains. Seed spices, such as cumin, fenugreek, mustard and fennel are planted in the Gujarat and Rajasthan states and sold at the renowned Unjha Seed Market.

How do you go about buying spices in India?

We seldom buy directly from the farmers because the farms are too small and numerous. Instead, we utilize a network of strategic partners working with collectors who purchase the spices directly from the farmers.

What factors determine price?

Weather, supply and demand and politics all impact pricing. However, weather is by far the biggest factor.

What spice trends coming out of Indian cuisine are impacting menus in the United States?

Curries have gone mainstream, with restaurants using the blends to perk up simple preps, like roast chicken and sautéed shrimp.  Chai, most recognized as an aromatic spiced tea, is being discovered as a flavor all its own. The blend of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and pepper is being used to infuse foods with a warm, comforting flavor and aroma. 

Ideation: Curries by the dozen

At the Curry Club in East Setauket, New York, owner Kulwant Wadhwa treats guests to a wide range of regional Indian curries. “I’m from northern India and our ‘Special Club Curries’ reflect that style. They are adaptations of recipes made by the royal chefs for the Mughal Dynasty,” says Wadhwa. Also served are Vindalu Curries from Goa, with vinegar and chilies; Korma Curries, cooked in cream sauce; Jhalfrezi Curries flavored with chili masala; and Saag Curries, made by grinding spinach with spices. The Curried Turkey Kofta, pictured here, has a base of onion and tomato spiked with ginger, cumin and garam masala—the latter made in-house with chiles, black pepper, cardamom, coriander and mint.

A custom blend

The heart of numerous indian recipes is a mix of toasted, ground spices known as garam masala. Translated into English, garam means “warm” or “hot” and masala is the Hindi word for spices; together they refer to a blend of up to 12 different seasonings. These may include black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, cardamom, chilies, fennel, mace and nutmeg.

There are probably as many variations of garam masala as there are accomplished Indian chefs and cooks—many of whom create their own personalized blends. The trick is to dry roast the spices and grind them in small batches to retain their freshness. Or you can purchase commercial garam masala blends from companies like McCormick.


Turkey

Situated on the mediterranean sea between the middle east and Europe, Turkey is at a cultural and culinary crossroads. Many of the country’s food traditions are rooted in the Arab world, since the nomadic Turkish people passed through Persia on their way west from Asia. Other classic dishes evolved from the bounty of the land and sea, the influence of Greece and Eastern Europe and the lavish palace meals served during the Ottoman Empire. It was during this time that Constantinople (now Istanbul) became a bustling food marketplace with its still world-famous spice bazaar.

Turkish pantry

Turkish cuisine is characterized by savory-sweet flavors pumped up with a little heat, says Ann Wilder, founder of the Baltimore, Maryland-based Vanns Spices. She suggests purchasing the ingredients and seasonings described below to impart that signature accent. 

Aleppo pepper, originally from Syria, grows in Turkey and is used extensively to add a sweet, fruity piquancy to dishes. 

Marash pepper is new to American restaurants. The red dried pepper flakes have a mild heat, deep flavor and roasted aroma.

Sumac berries, ground, provide a tart citrusy note to fish, poultry and vegetables. It adds dimension to rubs, marinades and barbecue sauces.

Sesame seeds have been harvested for food since 3000 B.C. In Turkey, the oval-shaped, nutty and slightly sweet seeds are used in dips and spreads, breads, cookies and pastries.

Nuts and dried fruits are both important to Turkish cooking. Walnuts, pine nuts and almonds and figs, apricots and raisins are especially prevalent.

Pomegranate molasses, a thick, tangy condiment, is prepared by reducing pomegranate juice until it becomes syrupy. It can be used in marinades, sauces and glazes or as an ingredient in salad dressings or dessert toppings.

Yogurt is originally a Turkish word. Turkish “yoghurt” is tangy and thick; it’s essential in classic dishes like cacik—a yogurt and cucumber salad zipped up with dill and garlic.

Ideation: Translating Turkey for Americans

At the 60-seat alison at blue bell in suburban Philadelphia, chef-owner Alison Barshak flavors her contemporary American menu with tastes she discovers on her travels. A recent trip to Turkey inspired these Turkish Batter Fried Mussels with Garlic Pine Nut Sauce—an interpretation of a “meze” or appetizer she sampled there.

“I never try to duplicate something exactly,” Barshak says. “Instead I remember the context of the dish and translate the flavor and experience for my customers’ tastes.”

The fried mussels are served with an olive oil-lemon vinaigrette thickened with bread crumbs and nuts and garnished with herbs.

Journey of a spice

Wilder works directly with farmers in Turkey who pick oregano from the mountaintops, bay leaves from the forests and chili peppers from the fields. They take their harvest to a local spice cleaner, who acts as a middleman between the pickers and Vanns. From there, the spices are transported to the United States for processing and packaging.

Spice prices can swing wildly from year to year, Wilder says. Recently, drought in the Far East affected the black pepper crop, making it scarcer and hotter-tasting than usual. And the political situation in Indonesia kept much of the nutmeg off the market. But so far, 2006 looks stable, with prices reflecting that stability.


Moroccan

Multi-cultural heritage and fertile land have shaped moroccan cuisine into the rich, colorful mosaic it is today. France, Spain, West Africa and the Arab world have all played a part in the development of the country’s culinary traditions. A stroll through one of Morocco’s souks (markets) reveals the heart of the cuisine: aromatic fresh herbs, vegetables and citrus; glistening olives; a vivid array of lentils and dried beans; golden semolina grain for couscous; and a multitude of fragrant spices, including cinnamon, ginger, paprika, cayenne, saffron, coriander and cumin.

Modern Moroccan master

Many classic Moroccan dishes are slow simmered. Most famous is couscous, a savory mixture of lamb, chicken or fish cooked with vegetables until everything forms a flavorful albeit mushy stew that’s served over fluffy, steamed semolina. Tagines are another typical one-dish meal; a combination of meat, vegetables, preserved lemons and olives cooked in a domed, earthenware pot. And there’s spicy harira, a lemony lentil soup eaten during Ramadan.

At Aziza in San Francisco, chef-owner Mourad Lahlou, a Moroccan by birth, takes these and other traditional dishes and reproduces them with a contemporary sensibility. “The flavors get lost when you cook everything for hours,” he explains. “I start with the same foundation but buy local produce and free-range meat, game and poultry, then shorten the cooking time and use different techniques so the results taste fresh and light.”

Couscous Aziza is a good example. This best-selling menu item ($20) features crisp vegetables, grilled chicken and prawns, spicy beef sausage and stewed lamb. The Prawn Tagine ($18) is modernized with fresh herbs, seasonal vegetables and house-preserved meyer lemons. These are an indispensable Moroccan ingredient made by steeping local lemons in sea salt; preserved lemons can also be purchased in jars. Couscous is prepared on premise too, by a dedicated cook who rolls it fresh every morning.

Lahlou goes to the farmers’ market four times a week to patronize Bay Area producers and get the best seasonal, sustainable ingredients. For Moroccan condiments and spices that are difficult to find in the States—including Spanish fly, queens of paradise and argon oil (pressed from a native nut)—he works with a specialty importer.

The mother sauce and others

The fiery red condiment known as harissa is to Morocco what salsa is to Mexico. The standard harissa familiar to most Americans is a puree of hot chilies, garlic, cumin and coriander. But there are as many variations of harissa as there are of salsa. At Aziza, a version is made with roasted tomatoes, blackened chili peppers, cumin, coriander, paprika, cayenne, garlic, olive oil and argon oil. The prepared sauce is available in cans and jars from purveyors who import Moroccan and Tunisian products. Offering a dollop of harissa along with herbed roast chicken or grilled fish can instantly impart a North African accent.

Prepared spice blends are another convenient way to bring Morocco to the plate. Ras el hanout is a flavorful mix of 21 spices and herbs that has recently become commercially available. Included in the mix are cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, thyme, lavender, coriander, fennel, green cardamom, dill, caraway, saffron, cayenne and orange root. This multi-purpose seasoning can be used in rubs, marinades, sauces, dressings, soups and stews.

Sourcing the exotic

Since 1937, surfas has been a destination for chefs and operators shopping for ingredients that are a bit out of the ordinary. The Culver City, California, restaurant supply house has recently doubled its size and stocks an inventory of 14,000 products to keep up with the demand for spices, condiments and other products necessary to create a global menu. And all things Moroccan are selling briskly.

“Demand is driving our supply,” says Diane Surfas, an owner of the company. “About 80 percent of our clientele is foodservice, and they are looking for authentic, high-quality ingredients.” Surfas cultivates relationships with exporters all over the world; they can go direct to Moroccan sources for items like preserved lemons, harissa, ras el hanout, couscous and other essentials. Recently, Surfas introduced Berber Spice—a blend of salt, coriander, onion, chilies, ginger, garlic and paprika inspired by the nomadic Berbers of the country. “We like to stay ahead of the curve,” says Diane Surfas.


Spanish

Spain is a hotbed of culinary activity, leading the charge to transform traditional ingredients and preparations with cutting-edge techniques. American restaurants are embracing the new while preserving the old, stocking up on Spanish foods and integrating regional flavors into the repertoire. Many distinctive ingredients characterize the cuisine, but these are must-haves.

Serrano ham is to Spain what prosciutto is to Italy. Until recently, it was not imported to the U.S., but now operators can purchase the jamon either whole or sliced in packages. Use Serrano for tapas or slivered into paella. 

Cheeses from Spain number over 100, including the familiar manchego and blue cabrales as well as the lesser-known idiazabal (Basque sheep milk cheese) and ibores (goat cheese rubbed with paprika). Serve with figs or olives.

Spanish olives include the small Manzanilla Fina and the larger Gordal. Tiny, naturally cured, reddish-brown Arbequina olives from Catalonia are newer imports. Marinate in herbed olive oil and add to chicken and fish dishes.

Piquillo peppers are sweet, slightly piquant red peppers that are hand-picked and wood-roasted. They are available peeled, packed whole and ready to use in cans and jars. Stuff piquillos with a crab or salmon for a quick and easy tapa.

Sherry vinegar has been produced in Spain almost as long as the country’s famous sherry wine and comes from the same source—the Jerez region in Andalucia. Mix with Spanish olive oil for salad dressing.

Spices indigenous to Spanish cuisine include pimenton (smoked paprika) and saffron. Pimenton comes in three styles—mild, bittersweet and hot. Saffron is available as both a powder and dried threads.

Ideation: It’s tapas time

For JohnPaul Damato, executive chef of the three Jaleo restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, “it’s all about the product” when it comes to creating classic tapas and pinchas (one-bite Basque tapas) for his menu. “We believe in keeping tradition alive, so we work with several suppliers to purchase authentic ingredients.” He also attends Spain’s large food trade show, Alimentaria, to gather ideas and spec products.

Jaleo’s 40 tapas selections range from $3.50 to $9.95. Among the top sellers are piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese and mushrooms; gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp); croquetas with ham and chicken; skewered housemade chorizo; endive with goat cheese, almonds and orange (above); and boquerones en vinagreta (marinated Spanish anchovies).

“Spain grows and produces more food than any other European country, and the products are just becoming familiar here,” Damato says. The number of importers has quadrupled in the last ten years, claims the Trade Commission of Spain, and items like chorizo, Serrano ham and piquillos that weren’t around back then are now available.

Product evolution

Fresh from Barcelona is a new line of Spanish-inspired soups from Stockpot. Corporate chef Len King offers an inside look at their inception.

  • Stockpot chefs meet to discuss the next global focus. China, Italy and Jamaica were recent themes. Several team members have cooked in Spain and are excited by its culinary heritage.
  • The research phase begins. The chefs delve into cookbooks and come up with 18 to 30 “paper” ideas. “We were aiming for hearty soups, so we drew from some of Spain’s classic entrees, like paella,” King explains.
  • Recipe development and testing follows on about a dozen ideas. The challenge:  to find sources for authentic ingredients, such as Spanish saffron, smoked paprika, chorizo and Serrano ham, to use in manufacturing. “The ingredients we spec are easily imported, but the package size may be too small,” says King. The solution: contract with several vendors to guarantee availability.
  • An internal group comprised of the culinary team, sales people and marketing department form a tasting panel to sample, tweak and select the soups.
  • Four soups make the cut: Chicken Coronado with vegetables, ham and romesco sauce; Gypsy Lentil with spiced sausage, tomatoes, garlic and smoked paprika; Vegetable Fandango with white beans, spinach, roasted peppers and fig; and Saffron Gold Paella Soup. “Diversity within the line is key so our soups appeal to a wide customer base,” King notes.

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