The Spice Learning Curve

Amchoor powder, or dried mango powder. Sour and lovely in curries.

Amchoor powder, or dried mango powder. Sour and lovely in curries.

For a beginning cook, herbs and spices are extraordinarily mysterious.

Those little jars are like potions.

Those unassuming leaves contain so much potential to turn a dish from mediocre to magical.

But how? Cooking with herbs and spices once to me seemed like a form of alchemy.

Herb wizardry takes time.

The other day, I was at a friend’s home when she invited me to sample the herbs potted prettily on her deck. “Try the marjoram,” she said. “It’s pretty hot!” I plucked off a tiny rounded leaf and chewed it.

The leaf hit me with a blast of pleasant spiciness and tang.

“That’s oregano!” I blurted out.

She looked baffled. “No, I’m sure I bought marjoram.”

I looked down at the leaves, little club-shaped clusters. I didn’t know what marjoram looked like, but I did know oregano looked an awful lot like that.

Hmm.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It seems like oregano to me.”

These are not oregano leaves or marjoram leaves. What are they?

These are not oregano leaves or marjoram leaves …

Who knows if I was right and the label wrong – no herb judge could be located – but I was surprised by how certain my taste buds were.

I couldn’t have identified any fresh herbs 15 years ago. I couldn’t have told you what an oregano plant looks like. I hadn’t ever chewed a raw oregano leaf.

I love moments like these. These little markers, I imagine, serve to remind us grown-ups that we’re on a path and we’ve stepped some  indiscernible, otherwise unnoticeable distance. It doesn’t matter so much if we ever get there – for there is no there there– but that we’re moving and learning and understanding a little more, with one more leaf, one more taste.

Think of it as the adult equivalent of a sticker or a level up.

Later that day, my friend texted me:

“I think you are right. It’s oregano.”

Here are five things that helped me learn more about spices and herbs. Perhaps they’ll be handy for you, too.

A whiff of tantalizing sweet licorice from these fennel seeds.

I wish you could catch a whiff of tantalizing sweet licorice from these fennel seeds.

5 Aids on the Spice Route

1) Your sniffer. When I’m at a loss for what spice to use, sometimes I start unscrewing lids and sniffing my spices. Sooner or later, one smells exactly right for whatever dish I’m making. My nose knows. It feels so unscientific, but I think of it as training myself, making the lines connecting spice to dish more instinctual.

2) “The Flavor Bible.” If my nose fails at the flavor puzzle, I turn to “The Flavor Bible.” Each ingredient  – ordered alphabetically – is followed by a list of compatible flavors. The best matches are in all caps and bold; other very good matches are in bold; etc. The lists give me both solutions to ingredient shortages and ideas to broaden my use of herbs and spices.

3) Lessons at restaurants. Restaurants that emphasis eating local are treasure troves for the curious cook. I like to pay attention especially to fancy salads, unusual dishes, and seasonal specialties. What is that odd bitter leaf? What is that lovely edible flower? What is that nut unlike any nut I’ve seen before? I take a photo, make notes of its shape and texture and taste, and look it up later online. Or better yet, ask the cook.

4) Cooking outside your comfort cuisines. These days, I’m exploring more Indian dishes, getting familiar with curry powder, ground coriander, garam masala, amchoor powder, cumin, etc. From Hungarian recipes I’ve learned about the wonders of paprika; from Lebanese recipes, the glory of za’tar. Then I can transport those spices to other favorite foods, mixing and matching.

5) Investing in new spices. I learned the sad way that you can’t cook great Indian food by through North American substitutions. Nutmeg does not equal cumin. A splurge on new spices, for use over and over, is rarely more than what one drink would cost in a restaurant. I sometimes remind myself what a cooking class costs, and then a new $5 bag of exotic spice and its built-in mini lesson seems like a bargain.

How do you learn more about herbs and spices? Which ones should I try next?

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