Spice Stadium

IMG_0760 You have your shirt, your pants. Your starch, your protein.

What adds the refinement is the something extra -- the necklace, the tattoo, the perfume, the turban.

And so it is with spices.

I really got into spices about a year ago because they represented a new frontier of taste sensitivity and alchemy.

Cooking is visceral, intuitive. Pastry is precise, fastidious. Spicework is more mysterious and abstract than both. Spices add the element a pinch of complexity here, a dash of nuance there. To me, they can hold memory and personality more than chicken or bread or a cookie (even a madeleine).

IMG_2508I chomp fennel as a breath freshener and dip hard-boiled eggs in fennel seeds and salt after a morning workout. Szechuan peppercorns, of course, go in mapo tofu, but also, once, an ice cream made even more shivery. Cumin is the obvious choice for an Indian-swaying dish, but also plays a more subdued role in Asian and Mexican dishes.

I like the pop of mustard seeds and the way they act as natural emulsifiers. White pepper reminds me of Chinese restaurants, red pepper flakes of pizzerias.

I use turmeric to stain the shells of hard-boiled eggs, and cinnamon to roasted apples, bananas, pears. Star anise boiled in soy sauce is so familiar to me, I often don't even recognize it as it is, but rather as a scent of my youth.

Like polka dots, poppy seeds are fun for their pop-art cheeriness. Sumac became my obsession for awhile, adding flakes that were a little sour, a little berried. And, yeah, it just sounds cool.

Garlic powder and powdered ginger are my secret weapons, a marinade's addictive X factor. I bought fenugreek on a whim, and marveled when it filled my kitchen with the smell of maple.

Since my mother is from Madagascar, I use vanilla pods with abandon -- cut up in my French Press, pulverized whole in my smoothies. I must feel those black spots on my tongue.

Sweet paprika, smoky paprika, they are like some reversible vest, sweet silk on one side, and leather when reversed.

And like my jewelry and scarves and makeup and perfume... I use some spices a lot, and some not at all. Though I own them, I have yet to use juniper berries. Nigella tastes too bitter. I can respect celery seed for its assertive celery-ness, but never think to include it.


I organize my spices on a kitchen rack, stadium-style. You can also put them in a drawer, though the bottom containers will be covered. My dream is to house my spices in a shallow drawer, the type architects use to protect their blueprints.

(For further inspiration, Melissa Clark and Amanda Hesser both have lust-worthy setups.)