When we eat at ethnic restaurants, spices are what typically set apart those flavors from those considered classic American.
This layering of unique, and often disparate, flavors yields dynamic dishes that are inherently ethnic. Spices traditionally reserved for desserts, like cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg, are often a subtle, yet integral part of main ethnic dishes.
Our tenuous claim to Tex-Mex would be nothing without the Mex part. America's richest culinary tradition of Southern cuisine would be tasteless without the influences from African and Caribbean slaves. And even herbs and spices commonly used in American kitchens, such as bay leaves, have roots in Native American cooking.
Chefs have brought life experience, professional training and some tips from their grandmothers to create menus that not only blend the spices of their heritage, but in turn sometimes incorporate some elements from other cuisines as well.
Here is a tour of four ethnic restaurants around the Triangle with chefs, and spices, hailing from various parts of the globe.
Since taking over the modern Mexican restaurant this summer, chef Oscar Diaz, 29, has brought professional technique and a few well-guarded family recipes to his menu. Originally from Chicago, he invokes his Mexican heritage when shaping his dishes.
A large part of his spice repertoire resides in layering the flavors of dried peppers; he never uses just one pepper in any of his dishes. This is the foundation for his mole—a recipe he is loath to share but was willing to discuss its basic ingredients.
First, he uses a blend of dried peppers, among them guajillo, pulla, ancho and mulato. Then he adds bay leaf, black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, marjoram, raisins, a blend of nuts and a modest amount of chocolate.
The key to this rich sauce, he says, is that the spices are given a hard toast—on the cusp of being burnt. Diners would be surprised to see just how much cooks toast the spices, he says. The resulting flavors are dark and earthy, just like a true mole is meant to be.
Other spices found in his dishes include saffron and dried avocado leaves. Yes, they are edible. He swears by marjoram. It's grassy and tea-like, and his mother always mixed it with cumin when making beans. Allspice nicely rounds out tomatillos, and Mexican vanilla is used in desserts.
Flavors like thyme, rosemary and oregano are also part of his repertoire. They were part of his grandmother's garden in Mexico, and they play nicely with the dried peppers.
Last month Samad Hachby was back in Morocco loading up on spices for his new restaurant, which opened in July. Upon his return, he is quick to show bright and lively photos he took on his cellphone from the bazaar.
Preserved lemons, saffron, turmeric, ginger: These are the flavors of Moroccan cuisine, a genre of African cooking like no other, since, as Hachby points out, Morocco was the only country in that part of the world not conquered by the Ottoman Empire.
Hachby uses spices not just to flavor dishes as they cook, but to marinate meats and create the famous Moroccan condiment harissa, a sauce made from pepper, cumin, vinegar, olive oil and garlic. He believes that most of his food is best served hot so that the aromas of the spices penetrate the dish, as well as the taste.
"The way I look at spices is like colors," he says. An artist mixes and layers the same way he does with his menu. "You have to decide as a chef, what is your intention?"
Jamil Kadouras has perhaps the most dynamic array of spices on his menu in the state.
Asked to pinpoint the restaurant's focus, he says it is mainly Lebanese, Greek and Turkish. Yet he hails from Jerusalem, and he often explains recipes as "the way his mother always did it." Many dishes from Africa, Spain and the Far East also circulate throughout the expansive deli cases that run the length of the café.
Menu descriptions often omit the array of spices and herbs he employs, partly because there is not enough space to write them all, but also to preserve the mystique.
Some of the most interesting flavors come from spices like sumac, a garnet-hued powder with a surprisingly lemony kick. This was recently featured alone on sautéed cauliflower but is usually blended with other flavors. Look for it in the shawarma—a Middle Eastern wrap about as common as a turkey club here, but containing cardamom and tahini sauce.
Persian root resembles seaweed, a pickled herb found in many of his dishes. The closest taste comparison might be that of capers, but it is far funkier and more dynamic. It has a supporting role in the spinach pie, but literally makes the dish what it is.
His falafel contains a blend of sesame, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper, and coriander, which is then mixed with fresh cilantro, green pepper and parsley. His shish tawook is a home recipe used for beef and lamb, consisting of rosemary, nutmeg and paprika. He sprinkles a mixture of sesame seeds and wild thyme he imports from Jordan on freshly made pita.
Kadouras uses spices in dressings, marinades, rubs and nearly every aspect of cooking, infusing rice with saffron and garnishing salads with a dash of paprika. He buys them in bulk and has them ground at Al Baraka, a Middle Eastern store in Raleigh.
If you want to know more about Kadouras' recipes, just ask him. He can't help but share them.
Mel Melton is cooking in one of the most spice-laden genres of American cuisine: Cajun and Creole. Although he was born and raised in North Carolina, Melton is well-traveled, having spent many years learning how to make both Cajun and Creole food while living in New Orleans.
Both styles are influenced by Native Americans, Caribbean slaves and Spanish and French colonialists. But the difference between Cajun and Creole cooking mainly resides in the use of herbs and the amount of heat in the dish.
The Creole blend consists of dried garlic, onion, cayenne, black and white pepper, paprika, basil, oregano, thyme, dry mustard and a dash of salt. The Cajun blend is saltier and hotter, as it should be. As Cajun is considered to be backcountry Louisiana cooking, it consists simply of cayenne, paprika, garlic, onion and pepper. It's not as refined as the Creole style, but therein lives the variety found in that part of the country.
Much of Melton's cuisine is based on varying forms of roux—a combination of fat and flour used to thicken dishes ranging from gumbo to jambalaya. And for many of his meals, Melton uses butter rather than peanut oil, depending on the meat variable, and then layers Cajun or Creole spices.
When you order his gumbo, you get a side dish with some file powder—dried sassafras, originally found in root beer.
When they are in season, he features a crawfish boil. The critters cook up in a slurry made from cayenne, marjoram and cloves, which is infused with whole peppercorns, mustard seeds and the Cajun blend. Not for the faint of heart: He points to scars on his forearms to show how caustic the liquid is.
Nearly every dish on the menu contains a mix of seven spices—a blend so integral to the Lebanese cooking of Charlie Hamaty's mother that he has never even thought to ask her what they are. Cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, sumac and cardamom are included, but the other two he only knows by their Arabic name, and he is unsure how they translate.
Hamaty opened the first Charlie's Kabob Grill in 2008, and added a second location this summer. Locals have happily adapted their palates to the seven spices, and most every dish on his modestly priced menu.
Hamaty recently returned from Lebanon and brought back the seven spices, grape leaves to be stuffed and a powdered blend of rosemary and thyme that when making his classic Greek gyro, he adds to the seven spices with white and black pepper, basil and mint.
The seven spices also haunt items like the kafta: ground beef, parsley and onions wrapped in a hot pita with lettuce, tomato and tzatziki. He orders the tahini he needs for his falafel straight from Lebanon in 50-pound barrels. He just can't get the same quality elsewhere, he says, and all the recipes he uses were his mother's.She must be proud.