Thanks to celebrity chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi and David Chang, the once exotic tastes of Morocco, Korea, Japan and others have infused our food world. Whether dining out or curling up at home with the hottest new cookbook, many of us are bumping up against the same “it” ingredients.
“A whole new generation is looking to these people as their leaders,” says Ethné de Vienne, co-owner of Montreal’s spice shop, Épices de Cru, known for its rare and treasured ingredients from around the globe. Resourceful cooks are waking up to new worlds of flavour thanks to the increasingly available ingredients. “You are seeing ras el hanout like you used to see cumin,” de Vienne said.
Here are three (literally) hot ingredients to try right now.
Sometimes referred to as “the new sriracha,” gochujang is a pungent hot chili pepper paste – a beloved condiment in Korean cuisine that contains glutinous rice and fermented soybeans.
Ottawa chef Jamie Stunt adores the heat, as well as “the funk” and “potent umami punch” of the fermented hot sauces he discovered during his time spent travelling in Korea. Silver medalist at the Canadian Culinary Championship last year, Stunt says newbies should start with tiny amounts. Once acquainted with the unfamiliar taste, he suggests mixing equal parts gochujang, honey and apple cider and a little minced garlic, “to make the best chicken wing sauce known to man.”
Hana Jung, who runs the Korean food cart Raon Kitchen at several Ottawa farmers markets, noticed a recent spike in customers asking for gochujang. “It’s not easy to handle,” she says, cautioning people who don’t have much experience with authentic Korean cooking. The product – widely available at Asian markets – is often mixed with other spices and ingredients in traditional dishes. Jung makes her own (without MSG), but sells it as a ready-to-use gochujang-based marinade that combines the fermented red chili paste with soy sauce, sugar, plum vinegar, ginger and rice wine. She suggests tossing it with pork, chicken or tofu as a marinade or pouring it over stir-fried vegetables.
A pop-in-the-mouth appetizer from Japan, shishitos have started showing up in farmers’ markets and trendy restaurants. The digit-sized, slender Japanese variety of pepper is delicately sweet and usually mild, but every once in a while, you get one with some heat – a brief yet serious sting. Like a game of Russian roulette featuring addictive finger food, the possibility of biting into a hot one arguably heightens the pleasure.
Shishitos have been spotted on the menu at Pidgin in Vancouver, paired with Parmesan and pine nuts, and at Toronto’s Patria where they receive the traditional Spanish treatment – blistered in a hot pan until the thin skin begins to turn black and finished with sea salt. This easy preparation is the one to try at home.
At Bar Isabel in Toronto, chef Grant van Gameren gives them a super-quick 20-second dip in the deep fryer and tops them with a squeeze of lime juice and flaky salt. “My experience has been when it’s colder outside, I find them spicier,” he says. Sourcing them can be tricky for the consumer, says van Gameren, who discovered shishitos in Toronto’s Korearown labelled as Japanese curry peppers.
Ras el hanout
In Morocco you might see a customer walk into a spice shop and ask to smell the ras el hanout. The name translates as “roof of the store” meaning that it’s the ultimate secret blend of the spice merchant – the best the seller can offer.
In Toronto, at Momofuku Daisho, it’s more likely to be your server who will be describing what spices made the cut. Sous chef Jed Smith created his own 15-ingredient ras el hanout for a new lamb dish featuring braised belly, roasted rack and a salad of pickled tongue. He started with the classics of Middle Eastern and North African cooking – cumin, clove and coriander – adding floral notes with dried rose, hibiscus and lavender. He also adds a little chili, pink peppercorns and fenugreek, which he admits may not be traditional but are flavours he likes.
The Épices de Cru blend, sold at de Vienne’s shop in Montreal’s Jean Talon market and online, contains 32 different spices. “That’s not including the traditional hashish and Spanish fly,” says De Vienne with a wink. Her recipe has been evolving over 10 years to become ever more mysterious. It contains things like iris root, banglé (a citrusy ginger-like spice from Bali) as well as hand-picked wild cumin from Uzbekistan.
She recommends taking a good spoonful of the blend, grind it and use it as a finishing touch at the end of a recipe – anything from couscous to pea soup or even vanilla ice cream. “It has many delicate fragrances, so it’s the same principle as using perfume,” she says, “A little goes a long way.” De Vienne warns of the ras el hanout imposters out there with just seven or eight ingredients – which to her is a glorified garam masala.