Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Lately I’ve been taken by spice.

Cinnamon, rosemary, thyme.

Turmeric, cumin, curry.

Ginger, especially, and garlic, inevitably.

I linger at the shelf of spices in my apartment, opening each bottle and inhaling. At home in Boston for New Years, my mom’s collection of vanilla beans was captivating; the paprika she brought back from Hungary, titillating. I find myself choosing recipes based purely on the pungency of their individual flavors.

My ability to detect the scent of spice isn’t remarkably new. I remember in the days after the accident when my father would hold bottles of curry or garlic powder or nutmeg under my nose and ask imploringly if I could smell anything. Nothing registered for months; each bottle filled with a monotone nothingness. But within a year that began to change. My sense of smell has been returning at an especially rapid rate for the last 6 months or so. The spice rack has registered for a while; I’m not sure why it’s suddenly consumed me.

Perhaps it is for scientific reasons: I recently spent a day at a Taste and Smell Center in Philadelphia for a project that I am working on. A doctor there told me that there was a scientific study in Germany which showed that those who sniffed spices each night before bed over time improved damaged senses of smell. Practice makes perfect.

But, really, my spiced obsession is less of a conscious decision to spruce up my olfactory neurons than the simple desire to feel alive. And detecting the cinnamon twang to a cup of coffee or the subtle wash of red wine in my mom’s braised short ribs gives a depth to my experience that is new and exciting. I used to revel in the fact that I couldn’t smell skunk, spoiled milk, sewage, or any of the many facets of New York City’s rancid summers. My friends said I was lucky. But even those, I suppose, are exciting in their own way.

So now I'm obsessed with my spice rack. How fitting, then, that I recently discovered Ana Sortun’s cookbook: Spice, Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean.

I spent an evening at Sortun’s restaurant, Oleana, last week when I was in Boston to do research and reporting for my mater’s thesis project. She twists western techniques with Middle Eastern cuisine to create a modern menu both comforting and innovative. Her food is filled with new and unfamiliar flavors. Her cookbook is organized by spice. I love it.

I made her Spicy Fideos with Chickpeas, Kale, and Lemon Aioli this weekend. Toasted angel hair pasta is broken into small pieces and cooked in a concentrated sauce made from tomatoes and cumin, vanilla beans and bay leaves, ancho chili peppers and cocoa powder, saffron and cinnamon, chickpeas and kale.

The complicated flavor combined the scent of spices, the feel of spicy, and a texture both soft and defined; it was an exercise in smell and taste. And so good I had it for breakfast the next day as well.

Practice does indeed make perfect.


Lauren said...

Hi Molly - glad you are getting back into the "spice game"! I think most US consumers are starting to take an interest in spices and herbs along with the new global cuisines they are trying.

I wanted to let you know about SpiceStack - a spice rack my family designs and manufacturers in the US. Its designed to hold more spices in less space in your kitchen cabinet and maybe it would be helpful for keeping your new obsession organized! Check it out at SpiceStack.com.

Janel said...

i found your blog from perusing the list of shauna's gluten-free blog, because she has immaculate taste.

you write superbly and your words make the reader feel as if we're walking beside you smelling the coffee, so what a magical blessing that your sense of smell is coming back to you!!

Anonymous said...

I feel exactly the same way about spices. I recently found a local ethnic market specializing in Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern foods. I have so many new combinations of spices and am so excited about making so many things from them. Growing up with so many herbs and spices in my foods, I have a hard time eating anything that is lacking either one of these. Love your blog!

Anonymous said...

Hi Molly - I can not stop adding nutmeg to everything and anything which is turning into quite a problem. Thanks for an amazingly well written and informative blog.

Shaun said...

Molly ~ Next time I'm in Boston, I'm definitely going to Oleana. I also love Ana Sortun's book. One of my most favorite recipes is for Arabic Coffee Pots de Creme for which one infuses coffee and cream with cardamom before making baking it in a bain marie...Interesting and divine.

Roger Stevens said...

Hi Molly

I came following a Billy Collins link.

But my sense of smell isn't very good, mainly due to rhinitus and grotty sinusses (or should that be sinuses?) But every now and then I have a good day and can smell things - it's great.

Had a very spicy lunch today. Very hot chille con carne.

BTW I think too much nutmeg is dangerous. I'd check that out cooking bee...