Saturday, May 30, 2009

more on olfactory journeys

I don't use spices casually anymore. I have since learned, mostly
from making mistakes, that seasonings follow a grammar all their own.

When Dutch and I went to the Indian Grocery, we brought home nearly a
dozen spices-- some were old friends but others were complete
strangers. I have written about cardamom before. It is one of my
favorites. In addition to using it in coffee, I tried it in
shortbread recently (inspired by Arizmendi's bakery) and it was
decadent-- butter and sugar are near perfection by themselves, but
cardamom has a way of creating its own niche in otherwise complete
things. At least for things besides kidney beans. We discovered that
cardamom and kidney beans don't play well-- there was an overly
cardamommed stew recently that I had to quietly compost.

My first
association with cilantro is a memory of my dad trying to pick out the
tiny green leaves from his Tres Amigos burrito. I thought it tasted
like soap, but I was too hungry to care. Since then I have discovered
how empty pico de gallo is without it (it just tastes like tomatoes)
and how lovely just about anything Asian is with it. Imagine my shock
when I discovered that coriander seeds (cilantro's English name) taste
like lemon! Too heavy a hand with it, and the dish tastes of lemon
detergent (no escaping its soapy nature). Cumin has always been
exclusively for chile-- being the key ingredient that makes chile
taste like chile. This time I bought it whole-- such a different
beast than the dry powder. It has a subtle sweetness that comes out
when you toast it gently (emphasis on the gently-- burnt and it tastes
like charcoal). Every curry dish seems to call for a bit of coriander
and cumin together. The deep brown flavor of the cumin complements
the high yellow citrus of the coriander. Ground is better than
whole-- as they are they fit into my molars like a key in a lock.

Black mustard seeds have been a bit of a puzzle. At first I thought
the recipes called for them because they look so dramatic (little black dots in a deep yellow sauce)-- I couldn't
find a flavor. Their smell is so subtle (or my batch is so bland)
that I was able to smell them only after the mint lotion I had on my
hands was thoroughly dissipated and I was able to catch a hint of
pine trees-on-a-coastal-bluff-in-the-distance smell. Finally I
carefully crushed some with my incisors when the pine trees suddenly
rushed forward and morphed into something between French's and wasabi.

The writer says that "asa" is Persian for "resin" and fetida comes to
us from the latin "fetid." Walking into the grocery, I half expected
to find the asafetida hermetically sealed in a specially designed
cryogenic safe. Instead, when the proprietor pointed it out, it was
between the hair dye and the shampoo, in a nondescipt white bottle
that could have been cheap asparin. As soon as I turned towards it, I
realized it was the source of an unpleasant odor that had hit me on
the street, but had been lost in the cacophony of other smells. If it
had been a pitch, it would be one of those deep organ notes that you
feel with your feet more than you hear with your ears. I had to have
it. It was so powerful I wanted to cry, and transgressive, like
secretly admiring Nazi architecture. I brought it home and tried it
immediately in a curry (granted, there is no fast curry) and two hours
later after the custard had failed to solidify and the dairy had
separated in the sauce so it appeared like a botched cocktail
experiment the odor of the asafetida lingered well after the last
dishes were washed. Dutch, in his infinite generosity pronounced the
dish "flavorful." As I write, it is keeping the frozen eel company in
the freezer.


dutch said...

Big red, the kitchen, even the freezer, all 'perfumed' by ass-fajita.

H said...

"ass-fajita"? I'm not sure I really want to even know...

dutch said...

asafetida, ass-fajita, fetid-ass...
all the same difference, same odor by whatever name you call it

H said...


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I blog about life and soup, but mostly soup.