Cooking's new heat wave
Spice racks go global as amateur cooks bring new boldness to the kitchen.
As much as she prized the wide, multiethnic offerings of the big one-stop grocery near her Los Angeles home, Charlotte Beal recently began to feel that something was missing in her culinary life. It needed still more zest, and some personal alchemy.Skip to next paragraph
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So a few months ago, the self-described "foodie" - a 30-something former editor for Bon Appétit magazine who researches food trends for the online firm Iconoculture - joined with friends on an excursion. Their goal: Make a powerhouse paella from scratch. "We spent an entire afternoon going to these specialty stores looking for smoked paprika from Spain, pimentón de la vera," Ms. Beal says. "And peppers - you can't just get red peppers, you have to get roasted piquillo peppers."
Her club has since reconvened around an Indian menu, scouring shops for amchoor (mango powder). The group plans to eat its away around the world, and not by way of the local food court. That puts Beal and her friends in the middle of a long-simmering and newly resurgent trend: Many of today's amateur cooks reach confidently for spicier ingredients and greater degrees of difficulty.
Experts credit the influence of burgeoning Latino and other ethnic populations, hotter restaurant fare, television shows (such as Bravo's "Top Chef") that showcase ever more radical fusion, catalog and Internet purveyors of spices and plants, even a post-Katrina diaspora of Cajun cooks.
"To a certain extent it's a grass-roots backlash to the sort of standardized food that people have been eating" at fast-food and chain restaurants, says Carl Brasseaux, director of the Center for Louisiana Studies in New Orleans.
Experts trace authentic ethnic cuisine as a dining-out option to the 1980s - to the opening of Santa Fe's Coyote Café, or a US tour by Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme. Last year the National Restaurant Association debuted an International Cuisine Pavilion at its Chicago show, acknowledging that the ethnic-food boom had become a main driver of the $476 billion industry. For daring home cooks, grocers such as Whole Foods have long carried exotic provisions. What has changed: the elevation of the arcane, and the depth of do-it-yourself interest.
A one-day chili pepper festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., drew some 10,000 attendees in August. Over the past few years, attendance has increased dramatically, says Anita Jacobs, who coordinates the festival for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. "People are coming with much more knowledge than they have in the past," she says, "and much more openness to trying new things."
Ms. Jacobs, who "curates" peppers for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's show, points to the emergence of fiery show-stoppers from such places as Korea, Thailand, Haiti, and Brazil. She also notes the rise of one of her favorite websites, chileplants.com, which ships seedlings. A few years ago, she says, the site could boast an already impressive 200 or so varieties. Today it offers more than 500.
Online spice-seller Penzeys Spices, in Brookfield, Wis., claims a database of more than 1 million names in its 20th year of business. Once a catalog-only firm, it still issues print catalogs eight times a year and has an expanding network of 28 stores.