Friday, July 06, 2007

More spice

Just when you've convinced yourself that you've tried everything, something surprising comes your way. I was surprised sometime last year to try some guinea pepper (also known as "grains of paradise'), which were important to the medieval European kitchen before being replaced by the indian pepper in each of its hues. Guinea peppers don't have the strength or sustain of the black pepper, but they have hints of ginger and cardamon (the plant is related to both) leaving an entirely different aftertaste. Something lost something gained, I guess, but it's certainly nice that we now have the luxury of both spices on the table; I even have a dedicated pepper mill for the guinea peppers.

If that wasn't enough, discovering after 45 years that black pepper wasn't the only partner for salt in half your cooking, a local market here suddenly displayed a rack of native Australian spices, so-called "bush food." An entirely new set of spices have entered my repertoire. Tasmanian pepper berries are again a substitute for black pepper at the table and as a finishing spice, but also for pimento and juniper berries in slow cooking. The initial impact is hotter than black pepper, but the sustain is berry like, with a strong dose of pine and a smaller dose of cloves in the accompanying aroma. Time to buy another pepper mill. The leaves of the Tasmanian pepper plant are also intriguing, perhaps as a sharper substitute for laurel leaves. And then there's wattleseed, somewhere in the taste territory between coffee, walnuts, and chocolate. It's gathered by aboriginal hand from select acacias, surely as exotic as anything I've ever encountered. I've already mastered the wattleseed waffle, and the wattleseed capuccino has a growing reputation.

The approach to any new item in the market, kitchen, or restaurant always follows the same pattern. The first stage is settling the question of what the item tastes like, and the only descriptions handy are likenesses. I can imagine, after many years of exposure, that the Guinea pepper will be sufficiently distinguished in my taste imagination from its likenesses, that I start using it as a point of reference in itself. It will be fascinating to see if wattleseeds carve out their own niche in-between nuts and chocolate and coffee. (I've already developed fairly concrete niches for my two favorite Indonesian fruits -- salak and longans -- recently, having my first jicama in years, I was struck by its likeness to salak). The second stage is figuring out how to integrate it into ones diet and cooking repertoire, and this begins with substitutions, which requires a bit of abstract thinking. No longer does one think in terms of black pepper, but rather of pepperiness, and of variations within that field of taste. At a certain point, variations become so distinct that they -- like dialects -- cannot be mistaken for one another. The final stage is, of course, when the taste has become so integrated into the local cuisine that it becomes -- if not ordinary -- then at least, expected. White asparagus in the springtime, cabbage in the fall, and what's this, Mom? Maple wattleseed ice cream again?!!!

All of the above could be said for the encounter with a striking new music. Could be, but I'm off to the kitchen.


Anonymous said...

As long as its organic, its gotta be good.

p.s. how is organic supply in DE?

p.p.s ever try Sumac?

Daniel Wolf said...

Germans are very serious about organic production, perhaps too serious sometimes.

Sumac is very common here, particularly in Turkish cooking. I find it somewhat bland and prefer capiscum. I connect it functionally with the Barberry (Berberitza) used in Persian cooking, with which I've had good and bad experiences, as it can tend towards bitter and sour directions.

Vic Cherikoff said...

I am really pleased that you found my Wattleseed product of interest and made the time to blog about it. If you want to know more about its history, have a look here.

There are a lot more authentic Australian ingredients to be found on this site. There are recipes and ideas on the emerging Australian cuisine, a trend starting to make an impact around the world.

I hope you try a few more flavours and let us know what you think of them.