Chefs use many tools and techniques to shape a standard recipe into a signature dish. Spices, when skillfully used in the preparation of a side item, such as a vegetable that complements the main dish, might momentarily steal away a diner’s attention.
Why do it? Because you can, and because the diner may perceive the extra effort by the chef. After all, the diner expects the main dish to be the show, and often, he or she dismisses the accompanying vegetables as a distraction to what was wanted. The chef will not achieve the desired effect by simply sprinkling spice on the side dish.
As an example, the spice called cumin can be purchased as a powder and sprinkled on, with the intent that it will impart its bittersweet taste to an otherwise sweet or bland vegetable. But, why would a chef select the freshest vegetable, slowly roast it over aromatic wood, then sprinkle on powdered cumin? Instead, the chef might roast cumin seeds in a skillet, pull them off just as they release their aroma, then smash them to get at the oil inside the seeds in order to release a hint of saltiness along with cumin’s bittersweet taste. Pour the cumin oil onto the vegetable just before it is served alongside the main dish (which is usually a meat).
“These carrots are delicious? How did you prepare them? I don’t even like carrots. Can I have a few more of these carrots?” The chef who gets summoned to a diner’s table to hear such talk, knows that he or she has earned a regular customer.
Did you know that spice is mentioned in the Christian Bible? In ancient times, the cultivation, transport, storage, preparation, and serving of spices was big business. Spices were main products on caravans (usually transported on camels) that came from southeast and southwest Asia to port cities in Galilee and Judea where they were loaded onto ships for delivery to many lands that border the Mediterranean Sea.
Most people assume that only wealthy patrons could afford spices, but that was not the case. Many skilled chefs were wives of humble means, who bought or traded in the local spice markets. They turned the roughest piece of meat and wild vegetables into memorable stews – by wielding spice.