Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Great Grocery Adventure: On Spices

A number of lady shoppers slowed down their carts to avoid two big obstructions on aisle 15, a couple of teens stared with their brows slightly raised, and a male merchandiser stood a few feet away waiting to be called, while my friend and I were sniffing and sneezing our noses away for a great number of minutes. By the looks on their faces, they were probably thinking that we were either a bunch of nerdy weirdos or a couple of acclaimed chefs.

Usually, I would just grab a pack of cinnamon for my carrot muffin or a bottle of paprika when a recipe calls for it, but during that fateful day, I opened the caps of all the colorful bottled spices. I also lifted my head and browsed through the several packs of herbs hanging on the metal hooks. I closed my eyes and smelled each and every variant. The different aroma took me to places, to foreign cities, to a trip down the memory lane and even to lands I’ve never been to.

A very familiar smell drew my attention, it reminded me of the Chinese medicine my mom would brew for me whenever I get sick. The sibut smelled like musty old wood, very earthy. True to its smell, this spice comes from barks of trees. It is usually used to make a healthy hearty soup called the Sibut Teng. Ask any Filipino-Chinese grandmoms around for the recipe, they’d gladly share it with you.

Another favorite Chinese flavoring is the five spices, it is a mixture of different ground spices that includes a blend of black, brown, grey and white colors. It has a dusty smell -- a mixture of pungent and weak flavors layered together in a pack. What’s remarkable about this spice is that it embodies all five flavors -- sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent. Chinese cuisines use it as a rub for chicken, pork, duck and seafood.

Right beside the five spices was a greenish powder also sealed in a pack. The celery powder wasn’t as pungent as the five spices, it had a light and refreshing smell of a juicy celery stalk. This may not be your usual spice, as it is only an optional touch you may add to your favorite soup, spaghetti, salad or anything else that has celery in it.

Cumin seemed to be another weakling spice. It smelled like a very light pepper. But do not be deceived, this spice is the 2nd most popular spice in the world after the black pepper. It is used to bake breads in France, to make cheese in Netherlands, and to make stews in Rome. Moreover, it is very rich in iron. Would you believe that in a lot of South Asian countries, cumin seeds are boiled to heal digestive problems?

Hanging at the far left of the spice rack were some odd shaped flowers with an earthy reddish color. The star anise exudes a sweet smell with a hint of bitter taste. It comes from small native evergreen trees in South China where the love for numbers was also the inspiration for its Chinese name “Eight Horn”. My mom usually places star anise in her famous Chinese Pata Tim.

Then there was this bright yellow powder at its right that shouted: INDIA! Although I’ve never been to India, the spicy aroma of the turmeric painted a very vivid picture of India with its colorful shawls and tunics, and plenty of chicken curry. The turmeric spice comes from the “Yellow City” of Erode, India. It is considered to be one of their most traded commodities. In Europe it is popularly known to be “Indian Saffron,” a favorite alternative for the very expensive saffron spice.

The bright orange red colored powder beside it did not smell as spicy as its name chili powder sounded. It was cool to the nose and it smelled like wet earth. Chili powder is a ground, dried fruit -- common ones are Cayenne Pepper and Red Pepper -- that when sprinkled on a dish, literally and figuratively adds spice to it.

As I continued to let my gaze and nostrils wander, I saw those long yellow rope-like spices tucked in plastic pouches. I was ecstatic that my favorite fruit banana has its own spice, the banana blossoms. It smelled nothing like banana though. It has a sweet and sour tang, and resembles the scent of kiammui, a Chinese candy. Banana blossom grows on the stems holding clusters of banana and the deep cherry red blossom. It is considered to be a delicacy in southern India.

One of my favorite spices on the rack was the cool cinnamon. It’s sweet and minty smell brought me back to several Christmases ago, when we youngsters would eat bread sprinkled with cinnamon and drink a cup of rich dark hot chocolate with it. This nostalgic spice comes from the inner bark of Cinnamon trees in South East Asia. Now that I’m older, it has become a staple in my Starbucks coffee!

Finally, I found a native grown spice, the kasubha. This red-orange stripped spice did not have a smell that truly stood out, probably because its most popular function as a culinary ingredient is to color or dye the foods into yellow. But it is not limited to simply become a nice accent to dishes like Arroz Caldo and Adobo, it is also known to be a good laxative to various diseases.

My friend and I closed the leads of all the caps and secured the herbs on their metal hangers. It was a beautiful and enjoyable journey. Simply sniffing the wide array of spices, plus a colorful imagination, we realized can already lead you to places.

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