When I first started cooking a half century ago, I stayed with paprika, dry mustard, cinnamon, garlic powder, chili powder—the basics that got housewives through most of the recipes of that era. Today after an influx of immigrants from around the world, we have been exposed to a far broader range of cultures and their foods, some of them requiring spices not found in the American pantry.
My visit to Istanbul this spring gave me a chance to visit some of their ancient markets, where spices have been traded since the days when the Silk Road passed that way.
I bought some turmeric because I have a few Indian recipes that call for the spice. Turmeric is the ingredient that gives curry its color. What’s more, the bright yellow spice is touted for its health benefits, so I sprinkle it on lots of dishes. Turmeric has been used as an anti-inflammatory in China and India for centuries. It supposedly improves memory, promotes heart and liver function, and aids in the treatment of cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
I also bought saffron, because I’m always having to borrow from my daughter-in-law when I make a pot of Arroz con Pollo. Real saffron is very expensive, but you only need a tiny bit when cooking. Have you tried to buy a thread of saffron in St. Louis? At Global Market, it’s kept behind the counter at the front of the store and you have to ask to see it. Penzey’s on Manchester also has the real stuff and you pay accordingly.
Too often fake saffron is sold at cheaper prices, but there is a water test that shows what is authentic. When a small amount of saffron is placed in a cup of hot water for 10 minutes the real threads will maintain their color and the water will only be slightly yellow. Fake saffron threads will turn white and the water become red-orange.
Adventuresome cooks think of a colorful rows of spices the way Imelda Marcos did her racks of shoes. You don’t use them all, but it’s nice to know they’re there. Some dishes do well with a mosaic of spices, as does this Indian Korma I often cook.
Such old favorites as crab cakes benefit from the elegance of simplicity. IMHO, nothing should be included that masks the flavor of the lumpy, lightly-formed crab meat, not even Old Bay Seasoning.
Cooking is a matter of knowing when to keep it simple and when to explore more complex flavors.