International spices make a world of difference

International spices make a world of difference

February 29th, 2012 by Steve Hardy in Life Entertainment

Jose Luis Fernandez's secret mole ingredient is ground peanuts, which contribute a savory taste in a dish with a lot of powerful spices.

Jose Luis Fernandez's secret mole ingredient is ground...

Photo by McClatchey Tribune /Times Free Press.

Indian House of Spices Tandoori

1 clove garlic

as much ginger as there is garlic

1/2 cup plain yogurt

salt to taste

chili powder to taste

1 pound chicken thighs, skinned

1 tablespoon tandoori masala (a mixture including coriander, fenugreek, cumin, cinnamon, and bay leaves)

Combine all ingredients except chicken in blender. Score chicken pieces. Marinate chicken for at least four hours. Cook at 350 degrees for 20 minutes per side.

For many cooks, it's easy to get into a flavor rut: oregano, basil, salt, repeat.

But what about tamarind, fenugreek and lemongrass?

Local grocers who carry exotic herbs, spices and sauces say that a few cupboard additions can make a world of difference, bringing the taste of foreign cuisines to any kitchen. And for those unfamiliar with international cooking, they offer several suggestions for introductory dishes that are flavorful without overwhelming intrepid eaters.

Barbecue aficionados might try tandoori chicken, suggests Daniel Thomas of the India Spice House on Lee Highway. It offers many flavors familiar to American barbecue -- garlic, chili powder and cumin -- but adds ginger, coriander and fenugreek, which contribute crisp, citrus and bitter flavors, respectively.

Thomas, who was born in Kerala in South India, notes that Americans expect their dishes to be flavored with meats and vegetables, while Indians demand much more of their herbs and spices.

To give traditional taco night some extra kick, try cooking the meat in a molé (pronounced moh-lee), advises Jose Luis Fernandez, of Carniceria Loa, a grocery store on Broad Street. Though he says that nearly every Mexican chef has his own recipe, his store carries a premixed version that includes cloves, pumpkin seeds and nutmeg along with more common seasonings.

And for ultimate authenticity, shoppers can pick up dried peppers, such as the less spicy mulato chiles or anchos for those who prefer some heat. Fernandez's secret molé ingredient is ground peanuts, which contribute a savory taste in a dish with a lot of powerful spices.

Cooks looking for a new spin on baked chicken might take a hint from Chinese cuisine. However, rather than using the flavors of lemon or orange, try lime. Debbie Delcarmen of Asian Food and Gifts on Hixson Pike has a kaffir lime plant in her store. Its leaves retain the fruit's tart taste, she said. Cooks can marinate chicken or duck in a mixture of the leaves, lime juice, soy sauce and lemongrass, which also has a citrus flavor.

Delcarmen suggests brewing some good tea to drink with an Asian-inspired dish. Fans of jasmine tea might enjoy a pot steeped in fragrant chrysanthemum flowers which she says has a similarly light taste compared to heavier teas like oolong. She also recommends Thai iced tea which is mixed with condensed milk to make it sweet without adding just sugar.

And in Mexico, Fernandez says that no picnic is complete without aguas frescas. One popular version includes the fruit of the bean-like tamarind, which has a sour taste, steeped in sugar water. Those unfamiliar with tamarind might recognize it as the sour component of Chinese hot and sour soup, Delcarmen adds.

In addition to being tasty, some exotic spices can even keep you healthy. For example, turmeric, Thomas explains, is great for adding a light flavor and bright yellow coloring to a dish, but it is also a powerful antioxidant. And the next time you have an stomachache, try settling it with some of the spearmint tea sold at Carniceria Loa.

Thomas and Delcarmen also suggested Asian recipes for those who are looking to save time. A very simple meal can be made of meat, garlic, shallots and soy sauce stir fried with some combination of baby corn, carrots, bok choy or napa cabbage. More adventurous cooks can substitute salty, savory oyster sauce or mushroom sauce if they get bored with the soy version.

And Thomas says that a good curry needs to cook only until the meat and vegetables are done. While he calls garlic, ginger and turmeric the most essential Indian spices, cooks can also add cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and coriander to their tastes.

Once cooks develop their spice palates, they can move on to even more exotic, authentic dishes. Delcarmen likes to show off stacked bags of black fungus in the corner of her grocery while Fernandez and his butchers would love to share their recipe for burritos filled with a stew of tripe and intestine.