Here’s a fantastic piece from the NYT Magazine about an Israeli chef working in New York now who runs an ultra high-end spice boutique, where he sells spice blends he makes himself. You start this piece and you think this guy sounds impossibly pretentious, or worse. The reporter thinks so too. Here’s how she describes her first look at his shop:
As I took in the glossy photos of pods and rhizomes lining the walls and handled the decadently cool, silvery pucks, I couldn’t help wondering whether this is what ancient Rome must have been like near the end, before the Vandals trashed Palatine Hill.
Then you read on, and you realize that this guy is an alchemist, and that you’ve got to try his stuff. Excerpt:
The spices he laid out smelled and tasted nothing like the time-forgotten powders in my pantry. They were steroidally potent, burrowing in my nostrils like tiny aromatic voles. After giving an umber mound of cumin a whiff, I felt as if someone had probed my sinuses with a wire brush. I realized then how ignorant I had been.
Take pepper. Even the simple black peppercorn tasted smokier and more complex than I remembered. Lev Sercarz’s come from Tellicherry, on India’s Malabar Coast, just north of where Vasco da Gama debarked in 1498, braving scurvy to procure spices for the Portuguese crown. Green peppercorns, an unripe version of the black, were vegetal by comparison. Pink peppercorns aren’t peppers at all, but dried Brazilian berries that tasted mild and sweet. There was tail pepper from Java, which tasted of pine resin and citrus, and wild Tasmanian pepper that crinkled on the tongue sweetly and then numbed it disconcertingly, like a curare-tipped dart. Sarawak pepper from Borneo, frankly, is too peculiar to describe. White pepper is actually black pepper put through a process called retting: the peppercorn soaks until the skin decomposes, then the seed is dried. Paul Liebrandt, the chef at Corton, calls it “hospital pepper,” because much of what we consume has been retted poorly and begins to ferment, giving it a medicinal stink. The white pepper at La Boîte smelled heavenly, with a texture somewhere between good chocolate and truffle, followed by a flavor both mild and strange. This, Lev Sercarz made clear, was but a cursory glance at the syllabus to Pepper 101.
When I wondered out loud about how much spices could really matter — weren’t they a mere flourish after the difficult work of cooking was completed? — Lev Sercarz invited me for a demonstration in his home kitchen. There, he seared filet mignon coated with Pierre Poivre (La Boîte Blend No. 7, with eight varieties of pepper); imagine an IMAX version of steak au poivre, the meat tasting the way neon looks. Then he did the same with Kibbeh (Blend No. 15, mostly cumin, garlic and parsley), and I could have sworn I was eating lamb: the mild tenderloin had turned gamy. That’s cumin, Lev Sercarz explained, which the palate tends to associate with lamb. Next he cooked a cube of salmon in olive oil infused with Ararat (Blend No. 35, with smoked paprika, Urfa chilies and fenugreek leaves), transforming it into something I would have guessed, with eyes closed, to be pork belly. That, he said, was the smoke. Spices, I was learning, not only behave as intensifiers and complicators but also, in the right hands, can redraw the boundaries of flavor and confound the brain. For the finale, Lev Sercarz dropped a pinch of Mishmish (Blend No. 33, with crystallized honey, lemon zest and saffron) into the bottom of a glass and covered it with an inch of lager. The bitterness and hoppy flavors were gone — the beer smelled and tasted like a gingerbread milkshake. (I reproduced the trick for Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, and he, too, was struck, staring into the glass as if he had glimpsed his future at the bottom.) With that, Lev Sercarz rested his hands on his hips and cocked his head, with a voilà expression, indicating the demonstration was over. Then he grinned.
Here’s where it goes into the realm of magic:
Still skeptical of the missionary aspect of Lev Sercarz’s business, I asked about his so-called spice therapy, and he agreed to show me. I told him a little about my past, and at a late-night session at La Boîte, he made me a blend. I grew up on the periphery of Moscow during the waning years of the Soviet Union, and Lev Sercarz chose ingredients that spoke to him of Eastern Europe but also, he said, of New York: poppy seeds, coriander, sesame, paprika, caraway. He named it Stavia, a play on the Latin name for the black nigella seeds that dotted the rust-colored mixture. He instructed me to put it onto nearly everything.
At first, I had to admit to disappointment. Compared with more exotic blends inspired by Turkey and Indonesia, Stavia tasted — if you can say this about a taste — homely. Still, I dutifully plastered it on seared tuna, threw it on salads and rained it on pasta. I even flung Stavia onto frozen pierogies and store-bought chicken salad. The spices made everything taste more compelling, and there was an appealing stab of heat from the paprika, but the flavor transformation I expected never came.
Then, on Day 3, I noticed that the Stavia was affecting my mind. As I ate, my brain began to regurgitate childhood memories. First there was my mother’s beef flank, simmered in gravy to a punishing doneness; then the smell of a sweet clear brew, dispensed from Moscow store counters, called birch juice; and finally I recalled mushrooms. My great-grandmother and I foraged for them around the polluted lake in the village where she rented a cabin in the summers, and afterward we combed the woods that ran along the wheat fields of the collective farm. She showed me how to pickle and jar them, and in the fall I presented the results to my parents and assembled kin, who congratulated me and bit into the mushrooms with an exaggerated relish, at least until the food poisoning set in. I must have been about 6. I remembered this in front of a plate of Stavia-dosed potatoes, where I sat engrossed until someone at the table waved a hand in front of my face.
Read the whole thing. You can get Lior Lev Sarcarz’s spice blends online, too, at The Ingredient Finder. It’s a good thing his shop is supposed to be closed while I’m in NYC early this week, otherwise I’d melt my credit card down at his joint.