I didn’t even know what sort of a cooking rut I was in until I got a copy of Floyd Cardoz’s fusion-Indian cookbook, One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors, coauthored with Jane Daniels Lear (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2006). As I leafed through the book, I realized how many things I never do: For instance, I never layer fresh ginger with dried ground ginger; I never use fenugreek (mildly bitter seeds and leaves from a Eurasian plant that taste a little like maple syrup when toasted); and, frankly, not only do I not use the spice anardana, I’ve never even heard of it. (It’s a seasoning made by drying pomegranate seeds and grinding them to a fine powder; it’s available in ethnic markets and online.) Sometimes you really do need an outside perspective to see yourself, or your cooking, at all.
Cardoz knows something about the value of that outsider’s perspective. Raised in India, he went to cooking school in Switzerland and then came to prominence in the New York City French-tinted kitchen of the great Swiss-born, Singapore-influenced chef Gray Kunz. He was able to seize the best elements of each of those global cuisines for his own cooking, so when he opened his restaurant, Tabla, it was a revelation.
I make a point of visiting Tabla, or its more casual, less expensive sister restaurant, the Bread Bar, every time I’m in New York, because the food is like none other on Earth. The flavors are vibrant, the textures are light, and I always walk out feeling healthy and happy — not weighted down and bloated. That’s another reason why this cookbook was such a revelation: I could see for myself why his foods taste so good — it’s spice, not fat!
I talked recently with Chef Cardoz about the new perspectives his book, and his food, had offered me. “What happens in most traditional cooking,” he told me, “is that you get your flavor from fats — from cream, butter, and so forth, which we naturally respond to because they taste good. However, if you’re not getting your flavor from those, you have to get your flavor somewhere, and spices are simply a much healthier alternative.”
The healthiness of spices is something modern American science is just beginning to quantify. For instance, in 2002, the journal Cancer published a paper showing that curcumin, the yellow pigment in the Indian spice turmeric, stopped many cancer cells cold. Cinnamon has been shown to help the body regulate insulin and, thus, control diabetes. Garlic is a well-known antibacterial agent. But modern science is really just catching on to something that Indian cooks have sensed for generations.
“In India we use a lot of ghee [a.k.a. clarified butter] in our cooking,” Cardoz explained. “And yet there’s less heart disease and obesity in India than in America. Spices help the body react to and process the foods we eat — using spices just kind of helps the body process and utilize the foods we eat in the best possible way.”
Lots of Americans hear “spice” and think “hot like fire,” Cardoz said. Yet hot is just one small part of the spice palette. “A lot of people think that Indian food is spicy and that it’s that way because we use spice to help preserve the food,” he said. “But, in fact, spices were developed to support the body with what people call the ‘Ayurvedic’ principles. For example, in southern India, we use more chilies because the fire of chilies makes you sweat and brings the body temperature down. So that’s considered a cooling spice. However, in the cooler north, they rely on warming spices — cardamom, cinnamon, mace and, to a certain extent, cloves. These warming spices warm the body from the inside out. These principles of spicing have come down through the ages: Fenugreek is a digestive, fennel seeds cure an upset stomach, and so on.”
Cardoz said he frequently hears from guests in his dining room at Tabla who assumed that because they were eating such a wide variety of unfamiliar spices that they’d wind up with a stomachache, but they don’t because of these ancient traditions of spicing.
If all this talk of unfamiliar spicing has you hankering to try something new, the Roast Chicken With Fenugreek recipe reprinted here from Cardoz’s book is a great place to start. It starts someplace familiar, with a simple oven-roast bird, and veers off into, at least for me, completely new waters. It’s funny: We often say that to really understand someone, we should walk a mile in her shoes. What if we could cook for a week with someone else’s spices? We might come away with an entirely new perspective.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she received four awards for her restaurant and wine column in the Village Voice Media–owned newspaper City Pages. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies.