A good Alfredo has a kiss of nutmeg in the sauce. Masala means an amalgam of spices. Traditional Peking duck requires infusing the bird with star anise and other flavorings. What they all have in common are spices.
Spices are the pods, bark and roots of plants. They’re harvested, dried and usually ground or broken down to flavor foods, add fragrance to perfumes, and have a long history of being used in rituals or as currency. Whereas the leafy or flowering parts of plants lose the brightness of their flavor when dried, spices can be stored and transported with less risk of spoilage. They’re more concentrated, so less is needed to impart favor.
It’s easy to take for granted being able to pick up a few ounces of cinnamon, nutmeg, curry and pods of star anise. Yet these indispensable harvests have taken millennia to arrive on our doorstep from around the world. Spices once traveled by the Silk Road that wound from the eastern Mediterranean through Arabia and into China by land. There was also a spice trade route that flowed from Europe and ranged across East Africa, the Mediterranean and into Asia—mostly by sea.
It’s no wonder that India boasts some of the world’s spiciest dishes. It produces and exports more spices than any other country. Combining them produces blends, such as the curry for which India is famous. Recipes for a good curry can be commercialized like the Madras curry in the familiar yellow tin. In India and Indonesia, however, people usually make their own from scratch. These are a balance of turmeric, cumin, cassia, cardamom, ginger, chile and other sweet spices. Turmeric is a root that supplies a curry’s deep yellow color. The chiles supply the heat, which I’ve learned is a subjective call. The first curry I ever experienced was in Bath, England, in a small Indian restaurant. I ordered my dish mild, and it nearly took my head off.
Piquant and aromatic cinnamon can go sweet or savory, depending on the context. Much of the cinnamon you find in the grocery is actually from the cassia plant. Gourmands prefer an especially fragrant cassia grown in Vietnam. True cinnamon has a deeper, reddish hue than the bronzer cassia.
To elevate your cinnamon rolls even higher, you might take a closer look at the vanilla in your pantry. I make my own extract by taking 10 to 15 vanilla pods, splitting them end-to-end, cutting them into 1-inch lengths and putting them into a quart of vodka in a mason jar. I let it sit for for six to nine months, turning the jar upside down once a week. The resulting vanilla is wonderfully fragrant and just gets stronger the longer it stays in the jar. Vanilla pods are expensive, so finding an affordable supplier is key. The resources listed below sell vanilla pods and top-quality saffron at good prices.
It’s tempting to buy in bulk quantities, but keep your order down to what you think you’ll use over six months or so. Even though they’re dried, the oils in spices will go rancid if kept too long. Store them in a cool, dark, dry place and in containers that prevent exposure to light.
I prefer whole pods rather than pre-ground when possible. They give much better flavor when freshly ground. The fresher and stronger the flavor, the less you need. A number of companies now sell spice grinders that are nearly identical to coffee grinders. The next time you season your favorite dish or throw something on the grill, don’t grab the store-bought shaker. Grind your own.