Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"He who controls the Spice, controls the universe!"

Do you know the quote? It's from the 1984 movie adaptation of the novel Dune, the seminal SciFi novel written by the great Frank Herbert and spoken by his creation Baron Harkonnen. The spice he refers to is an illicit geriatric drug the gives the user a longer life span and heightened awareness.

For the purposes of this post, I'd like to paraphrase a bit and say that:

"She who controls the spice(s), controls the food."

Here, spice is neither illicit nor a drug, and I don't know if it will increase my life span but it certainly does provide me with heightened awareness (of the food).

Used correctly, spices elevate food from sustenance to the realm of pleasure and can activate any or all of the 5 elements of taste perception: salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami.

There seems to be a belief, held by many, that "spicy" food means "hot" food. Although peppery hot food is certainly spicy, not all spicy food is hot. Far from it. There are literally thousands of spices available to the adventurous cook that can be used to enhance the enjoyment of any dish, from the simply hamburger to the most involved haute cuisine.

When I decided to write a post about spices, I asked Cynthia to guess how many individual spices we had in the house. Her response was along the lines of, "I don't know,um, a lot?" Turns out she was right, we have a  lot of spices

The main spice drawer

The rest of the spices

Some, but not many, come from the supermarket. Many others come from specialty spice purveyors like Penzeys. We are fortunate to have a brick and mortar Penzeys here in Northern Virginia, but if you don't have one near you, they do a large percentage of their business via the Internet. Lastly, some of our spices have come from spice shops we try to visit when we travel.

Last fall we were in Seattle and had an opportunity to spend some time at World Spice Merchants, where among other things, we found powdered Worcestershire. We knew we had to have some of that after Cynthia took the lid off the sample to smell it, and almost choked herself when she inadvertently inhaled a very small amount of the powder (which is so finely ground that it gets airborne very easily). Funny now, not so then (well, maybe a little funny then). We've used it several times since in soups and stews and it creates a depth of flavor that its bottled cousin can't.

One of our favorite spice packages is curry. I use the term spice package because curry is not really a spice, it is a generic term primarily employed in Western culture to denote a wide variety of dishes originating in Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Thai or other Southeast Asian cuisines. Their common feature is the incorporation of more or less complex combinations of spices and herbs, usually (but not invariably) including fresh or dried hot capsicum peppers, commonly called "chili" or "cayenne" peppers. Curry powder, as you find it in most Western stores, is but one blend of spices from among thousands of combinations found around the world - all referred to in their local geography, as curry.

Through trail and error, and with the help of the Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices, we have determined the blend we like best. Here is the recipe that Cynthia uses to make ours.It's slightly adapted from one found in the book.

10 dried red chillies
8 tbsp coriander seeds
4 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp fenugreek seeds (probably the least known of this group)
2 tsp mustard seeds
2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger

  • Remove stalks and seeds from chillies (unless you like it very hot, which we do, then leave a few seeds)
  • Roast or dry fry the chillies, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seeds and black peppercorns in a heavy pan over medium heat until they give off a rich aroma. Shake the pan constantly to insure even roasting.
  • Grind the roasted spices, after cooling to room temperature to a powder then stir in the turmeric and ginger.
Stored in a well sealed container, the curry powder will retain its potency for at least 6 months.

Reasonably easy, right? It's a matter of having the ingredients and taking the time to do it. I can promise you if you do, you'll never buy that supermarket stuff again.


  1. How do you keep your spice drawer so nice and tidy, I have to empty mine everytime I want a spice.
    Great adaptation for Worcestershire, thanks.

  2. I'll be honest, we did straighten it a bit for that picture, but it was mostly turning the labels face up. Keeping it relatively tidy helps us know what we have and makes us more likely to use them. It doesn't hurt to have a nice big drawer to work with either.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

    1. I keep mine in a wire rack over the stove. I heard it ruins them, is that so?

    2. I'm certainly not an expert but I would suspect that neither the heat nor the ambient light are doing anything positive to extend the life of the spices.

    3. Agree, storing spices over the stove isn't good for them. In addition to heat and light damage, the moisture from steam is bad as well.

  3. I'm the same exact way! Only I think that bottom pile might be just my salt collection! I buy spices the way most women buy shoes...

  4. I hear you. I never really understood people who say they don't like spicy food - maybe they think spicy has to be hot.

  5. Thanks for sharing - I don't dare go in and check my HOW many spices I have...I do, however, keep them in alphabetical order so I can make sure I have inventory and they are easily accessible. Very virgo of me.

  6. Interesting, I too am a Virgo, hmmmmmmm.....

  7. I was dating a Virgo and cooking in his kitchen. When I threw the spices back on his rack in non alphabetical order he looked so dazed. How could I do that? I'm a Sagittarius. My spices huddle together around the foods I use them with. Cloves go right next to nutmeg and the chili powder goes right next to the beans and rice. I'm sure it's hard for an outsider to navigat my kitchen, but it works for me.

  8. Interesting blog. It is always good to have a selection of spices and to create spice blends. I haven't made curry powder but I have made chilli powder and cajun spices. Very easy once you have the basic spices. I do make my own curry paste before making a curry (essential to have at least one a week!). We found a huge spice rack via the internet that holds about 70 jars, there is a picture of it on my blog :).

  9. Great post! I love making my own spice blends not only because I usually have the individual spices on hand to concoct whatever I might want, but it's a great way to build an understanding for how various spice flavors blend, giving you more freedom and confidence when seasoning food. By the way I'm a big fan of World Spice Merchants. It's a must visit place for any cook visiting Seattle.

    1. Thanks Carol! That was our first and only (so far) visit to World Spice Market.we're looking for a reason to get back to Seattle so we can go again.

  10. Wow, your spice drawer is perfectly organized! Mine is very messy right now and needs to be fixed up. Great article. :)

    1. Thanks! We try to keep it like that most of the time but it occasionally gets away from us too. Just have to stay on top of it so we can find what we need quickly. Thanks for reading and your comment!


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