So you’re new to spices. How are we friends?
Okay, let’s start again. This is a judgment-free zone.
I was inspired to write this post while experiencing a rage stroke upon reading an excerpt of Real Simple’s guide for young people on how to live their lives that proposed that you really only need 12 spices. I’m Indian, so when I read that I basically died. Also, two of the 12 were salt and one of them was curry powder – a made up spice that white people sprinkle on chicken salad to make it taste “just a teensy bit exotic.” (BTW, curried chicken salad is delicious and if you’ve never had it, you should.)
I don’t disapprove of the book – I haven’t read the book – though I’ve heard that it advises young people to stay away from Crisis Pregnancy Centers, a recommendation I applaud; that took guts on their part – it also makes me feel like they’re trying to give real advice to young women, rather than nonsense talk. And I also like it that they are creating something for millennials that is not meant to shame them for being too [fill in the blank with something horrible and useless].
I also don’t disagree with the premise of identifying 12 critical seasonings because (1) people have to start somewhere and (2) spices are expensive.
I do have general gripes with their article and some of their inclusions (which, by the way, are black pepper, cayenne, cumin, cinnamon, chili powder, curry powder, ground ginger, kosher salt, whole nutmeg, oregano, crushed red pepper and sea salt). Here they are arranged in list form.
1) There is a difference between classic and outmoded.
All of these choices seem to revolve around the way white Americans ate in the 1980s: Want something to taste a little Mexican? Add cumin! Want it taste a little Indian? Throw in a dash of curry powder! Craving Chinese? Asians love ginger! But if you know anything about Millennials, you know that we are the most diverse generation and a preponderance of us come from families with non-European food traditions. So while there are a few spices here that no kitchen should be without (salt, pepper, cumin, red pepper flakes), hard and fast rules don’t make a lot of sense. Would you tell a person of Chinese descent that oregano is more important for them than white pepper? No. What’s in your spice cabinet should revolve around two things: What you currently cook and eat, and what you aspire to cook and eat. Which leads me to my next complaint.
2) There should be more, and better, blends.
Spices add piquancy, flavor, depth and complexity to dishes. Which is why you use multiple spices in just one dish. One of my favorite dishes for example, cumin lamb, is not just lamb with cumin. Because that would be gross. It’s lamb with cumin, sichuan peppercorns, chili, white pepper, etc. If you only have time, space, interest, or money for 12 items on your spice rack, you are doing your food a severe disservice by not investing in good blends. Their list only includes two – one of which is curry powder, an abomination, and the other is chili powder which, while great, doesn’t do any heavy lifting on its own.
3) The emphasis should be on building, not having.
Building a spice collection – like any collection – takes time. You you just go to the store one day and blow $200 on spices and then call it a day. I built mine by walking down the spice aisle every other time I was at the store and buying something I had never heard of. And now I have a brilliant, badass, spice collection. It might be feeding my hoarder-ish tendencies to have 7 different types of salt, but whatevs. I always have the right salt.
4) They should teach people how to save money on spices.
Spices are expensive, especially if you’re young and not earning much money. You don’t have to pay $5 for a bottle of dried herbs even if that’s how much it costs at the grocery store. In fact, you can get that shit for half the price. Then you can buy 24 spices!
Spices in bags (at the Indian store or sometimes in the aisle with all the Mexican food) are like 1/3 the price of spices in bottles. Even going to a high end store like Penzey’s allows you to save if you skip the bottles and go for the bags.
Also, specialty spice stores and some hippy stores (co-ops, health food stores, etc.) have spice bulk bins, which allow you to buy small amounts of spices you might not use a lot of. Like I just bought a little baggie of anatto for a recipe I’ll probably only make once in my life because it is needlessly complicated and probably won’t pay off.
Finally, go in on it with friends. Buy in bulk and then divvy up amongst other friends who like to cook with. That way you can take advantage of bulk prices without getting stuck with like 4 cups of cumin powder.
5) All of their spices are dried, and I think that’s bullshit.
Only using dried spices and avoiding pastes is nonsense. #PastesAllDay
6) Dried ginger is kind of gross.
Ok, so I really like complaining (see above). But I think it’s shitty to just offer complaints without any of my own suggestions and thoughts, and in this case I have many. I used to be a teacher, and I would occasionally organize healthy cooking demos for my kids, and I love food and cooking. I think the list Real Simple included isn’t going to do anything to nurture enthusiasm and curiosity about food and cooking with young people, and neither is my bitching about it. I want people to be able to make delicious fucking food and get curious about how to make it even more delicious and exciting and how to make it their own. So that is what inspires my list. But if you’re reading, you have to do some work yourself before you go to the store.
Questions to ask yourself
1) What kind of food do you want to cook?
See above for my two basic questions: What do I already cook and eat, and what do I aspire to cook and eat? Your answers could be basic like, “Italian food” or more general like “Rustic food” or more esoteric like “Food that reminds me of my mother” or even something lifestyle-oriented like “healthy food.” To build thy spice cabinet, know thyself. And of course, I recommend building a spice cabinet that reflects where you currently are and also builds a bridge you to your next culinary frontier. For example, it’s a logical step to move from Mexican to Indian because they share some ingredients. Or from French to Creole, which share a history. Doing this allows you to maximize the use of even a small spice collection because your spices multitask for you. (And you get to learn something new!)
2) How much does cooking actually matter to me?
Maybe it doesn’t, that much. Maybe you just want to be able to cook something that tastes fine to save money or eat healthy. You want it to be fast. You don’t have to fall in love with every bite a little bit more. You just want to stop eating those gross egg’n’cheese biscuits that are giving you night sweats. That’s cool – your spice cabinet should be reflective of your desire for ease and simplicity rather than a desire experimentation. Cuz that’s not you. In this case, more blends for you.
3) How important is variety to me?
If it is very important to you, 12 will never do it for you, no matter how you swing. That’s the problem with using blends – after a while, you get sick of having everything taste the same. There is no magic salve for your love of variety, my friend, except quest and adventure. It’s going to be complicated, expensive, and require a lot of jars. If you’re like my brother, it also involves a label-maker. But it’s a magical obsession that leads you down the road of delicious things. Ya’ll, I got like 7 different kinds of salt. SALT.
So… without further ado…my list
– Herbes de Provence
– Kosher Salt
– Fresh ground 4 peppercorn blend
– Ground cumin
– Ground coriander
– Red chili flakes
– *High quality* taco seasoning (like Penzey’s Bold Taco Seasoning)
– Greek Seasoning (I like Cavender’s because I used to live in Arkansas)
– Some kind of all-purpose season salt (I swear by Uncle Bill’s, which my friend Kelsey introduced me to, and have used it in everything from roasted parsnips to grilled chicken to garlic bread to salad dressing) or adobo powder
– Some kind of warm spice blend such as Garam Masala, Chinese Five Spice, Baharat, or Ras al Hanout
And guess what, there are three slots left just for you!* Do you love Indian food? Then you’ll probably have to add in asafetida, turmeric, and cayenne (at least). Hoping to explore Vietnamese cooking? You probably won’t get very far without star anise. Cajun? Just make sure you have a shitload of butter. Just kidding. Make sure you add cayenne, dried thyme, and paprika (added to Uncle Bill’s this makes a makeshift creole seasoning, or you can just buy a creole blend). Middle Eastern? Make sure to add zata’ar and/or sumac. Do you see how this works? It’s like the choose your own adventure of spices, which is how it should be, I believe.
So DEATH TO PROSCRIPTIVE LISTS OF SPICES! Follow your hearts! If you only like noodles with butter and salt, buy 12 different types of salt! I won’t judge you (because you’ll be asleep in a carb coma and that would be mean). I WILL BOW TO YOU.
So tell me, what is the one or two things in your spice cabinet you could never do without?
*Honorable mention: Bay leaf, sesame seed, dried mustard