By Lorrie Baumann
As the world’s economy emerges from economic recession, American foodies are ready to launch out from the safe harbor of Italo-American and traditional American comfort food for deeper culinary waters, and all the indications are that this is going to be a spicy voyage. Demand for seasoning and spice is increasing due to the increasing demand for new flavors and flavor ingredients, growing popularity of ethnic cuisines and increasing health awareness among consumers, according to a 2013 report from Transparency Market Research, a market intelligence company.
This is part of a global phenomenon, according to both Transparency Market Research and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which released a report in 2011 on growing opportunities for small farmers in developing nations to participate in the global spice trade. India is one of the world’s largest manufacturers and exporters of seasonings and spices, and growth in the Asia-Pacific spice trade is riding on the developing spice markets in India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, which have traditionally been net exporters of spices.
“What’s really changed in the spice business in the past couple of years, Spice 2.0, is that 300 million Indians and 400 million Chinese have entered the middle class and want to eat the food of their cultures. American spice prices have gone through the roof as the Chinese and Indians buy more spice,” said Tim Ziegler, Spice Master for Italco Food Products, Inc. a specialty food distributor in Colorado and the co-author of “Spices and Culinary Herbs” by Tim Ziegler and Brian Keating, a poster presentation designed to aid chefs in creating flavors by pairing spices and herbs from the same culinary family. “India is now a net black pepper importer. It is the most staggering development in the spice business in the past 25 years.”
Spices can be defined as vegetable products used for flavoring, seasoning and importing aroma in foods. Herbs are leafy spices, and some plants, such as dill and coriander, provide both spice seeds and leafy herbs. Around 50 spice and herb plants are of global trade importance, but many other spices and herbs are used in local traditional cooking. There is also an overlap between spices and herbs and plants normally classified as vegetables, as for example some mushrooms that are used as spices in China and Pakistan. Paprika is widely grown by small-scale farmers in Africa, while chiles are widely grown in Central America, Asia and Africa. Cloves are grown in low-lying tropical areas including Indonesia, Madagascar and Zanzibar.
Trade is dominated by dried products. In recent years, fresh herbs have become more popular, and spice- and herb-derived essential oils and oleoresins are sold in large and growing markets.
Pepper, the world’s most most important world spice crop, is grown in areas of South America, Africa and India and some Pacific Ocean countries that have high rainfall and low elevations. Lemongrass is another important herb, and it’s grown widely in the tropics. The leaf is used dried in teas, and the stems are used fresh and dried in Asian cookery. Growing interest in organic food and beverages is also catching up with the market as large amounts of certified organic spices have been introduced to the market over the past few years, according to Transparency Market Research.
This trend is already having its effect in home and restaurant kitchens across the U.S. “If the melting pot is true anywhere in America, it’s true in the kitchen,” Ziegler said. “American cuisine is not roast beef and mashed potatoes and asparagus spears any more.”
Ziegler says that Americans are growing more interested in the flavor profiles that originated in Middle Eastern and southwest Asian cuisines. “I’m a history major and I’m a chef. I sell spices on a daily basis, and increasingly the flavor profiles that even the young chefs are asking me for are increasingly southwest Asian,” he said. “I believe that 3-1/2 million to 5-1/2 million Americans have traveled or lived extensively in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrein and the Middle East, and those flavor profiles have come back to the United States, and I think that’s going to be a burgeoning trend.”
New Dehli-born Chef Suvir Saran, Executive Chef at Devi in New York City and Chairman of Asian Culinary Studies for the Culinary Institute of America, says that he sees Americans’ growing interest in spices as an indication that Americans are becoming more mindful about how they cook and eat. “My feeling is that we’ve been a nation that’s reactionary and loves fads and diets and trends. With the economic recession ending, people have become less reactionary, and they’re becoming more mindful,” he said. “Taking Mediterranean or whatever comfort food we were already doing and adding more herbs and flavors and spices will be a way that we can cook and eat more mindfully and also save money in the end. Spices and flavoring ingredients are cheap. They’re wallet-friendly and last a lifetime. They give you great joy and great flavor without spending too much…. As there is more availability for aromatics and spices, we can incorporate these into what we already know and create more breadth and depth in our repertoire.”
Chef Staffan Terje, Chef/Owner of Perbacco restaurant in San Francisco, agrees. “I don’t think food ever gets boring. I never think flavors go out of style. I think that people find new things and discover new things for themselves, whether they’re eating or cooking, but I never think that basil and tomato is going to be boring,” he said. “Chefs are exploring other spices and herbs and flavors that might not be familiar to people. Spices had a place that’s been pretty constant for a long time in different foods, but I see that people are exploring things in the spice realm itself. It’s not so much about the heat of spiciness but about different flavor combinations. You’ll see things like cloves and allspice sneaking their way in.”
“I look at how I flavor my own dishes, cooking northern Italian food, and I look at history. Italians were part of the early spice market and adapted things that came from the East and from the New World,” he continued. “You start looking at old European recipes, and you’ll find some very interesting things – the use of cinnamon, the use of ginger – things that came from the Middle East. It’s not just about chile peppers.”
Chef Hosea Rosenberg, owner of Blackbelly Catering in Boulder, Colo. and winner of the fifth season of “Top Chef,” says he’s hearing a lot from his fellow chefs about their interest in the cuisines of Morocco and Latin America. “Everyone’s familiar with Americanized Mexican, but there are so many regional cuisines in Mexico that have not been highlighted, such as Oaxacan,” he said. “I see a few chefs that are starting to get a lot more press attention that are either from Morocco or have Moroccan heritage. It’s an amazing cuisine, and I don’t think there’s enough attention to it as of yet.”
He is exploring both of these cuisines in his own cooking, especially the tagines characteristic of Moroccan cuisine. “I just love the slow cooking, especially in the wintertime. Slow braises of meat. I have a farm and we raise our own lamb, and I’m always looking for creative ways to cook and serve lamb,” he said. “This type of cuisine really lends itself into turning a cheaper cut, if you will, into a remarkable centerpiece-type dish.”
“Now that it’s so easy to access all these spices, I see people really taking regional American cuisine and applying global spices to them as well to enhance those dishes,” said Chef Matt Greco, Executive Chef at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in California. “People are using spices that, not long ago, no one had ever heard of.”
“You’re definitely seeing a lot of that cross between American, especially southern American, with Asian flavors,” he continued. “I definitely see a lot more fermented products. Korea uses so many fermented products in their food. I definitely see those types of influences applied to American cuisine. The past five years have seen a rebirth of southern American food, and that whole movement is going to other areas of the United States that have their own food cultures.”