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A Taste of Africa

Ancient Spices Inspire New World Cuisine

Lily Ko

Japanese, Thai and Indian are officially staple cuisines in major cities across the U.S. African, however, has remained exotic until only recently. With unusual spice blends and bold flavors, ingredients and techniques from Northern Africa have emerged as the new ethnic inspiration of kitchens across America.

African spices such as harissa and cooking methods such as tagines, are now regularly featured across western menus. As supply and demand would have it, curious, adventurous diners, are taking note and opening up to this new realm of food, embracing Moroccan and Ethiopian cuisine.

Northern African countries have strong roots that date back to the Mediterranean spice trade. These spices are what define and unify the many cuisines of Africa, which are rich in meat and seafood. Today, chefs in California integrate African spices with local produce, creating fresh, brilliant dishes that push the traditional western palate.

Old World spices in New World cuisine

The heart of any African dish lies in the spices. While the spice blends may be unfamiliar to many kitchens, chefs should embrace the challenge.

“Don’t be afraid of spices you don’t know,” says Executive Chef Bernard Guillas of the Marine Room in La Jolla. “That’s the beauty of our profession. A painter has a white canvas. A chef has a white plate. A painter has all of their colors, and our palette is full of spices. Create a beautiful canvas with those spices.”

That said, keep in mind, “African spices are very strong and need to be cooked out,” says Chef Josh Thomsen of Meritage restaurant in Berkeley. “You have to know how to use the spices and understand the procedure. They’re not spices you dust on top.” Chefs agree the best way to experiment is to read up on the ingredients, taste the food and then give in to trial and error.

Chef Bridget Batson of Gitane in San Francisco brings a little African spice to her dishes by folding harissa into butter and applying to a variety of ingredients.

Chef Batson says Ras el Hanout, a popular African spice blend, is her favorite to use when cooking African food both at home and at Gitane, an Iberian Peninsula-inspired restaurant.

Ras el Hanout is a blend of some 30 indigenous spices. Chef Rudy Mihal of Spoonbar in Healdsburg says, “It’s great with meat and fish, but I don’t use it for chicken.” He notes that, if not introduced carefully, African-inspired dishes can be a challenging sell to customers. In order to successfully acquaint diners with foreign ingredients, he marries the unfamiliar flavors of African spices with the more  familiar of California’s bounty, such as common cuts of locally raised meat and produce. Chef Mihal’s menu “follows the Mediterranean down to Morocco,” applying an international palate to ingredients grown locally. Cumin, paprika, saffron, coriander, caraway and turmeric play on the plate with Sonoma’s seasonal produce, making for winning combinations. Dishes such as spiced Marrakesh gigante beans and Merguez sausage with harissa and tomato dip depict how Chef Mihal creates balance in his dishes that is both approachable and comforting, while pushing customers outside of their culinary comfort zone.

When he thinks of African spices, Chef Mihal says he, “Imagine[s himself] in a Moroccan market, surrounded by mosaic tiles, walking down streets with cone shaped spices.” The African spices certainly bring a vivid image in one’s mind and a strong aroma to the senses.

Chef Mark Sullivan of Spruce in San Francisco creates his own Moroccan spice blend. “The predominant ingredients are cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, oriander, cayenne – the 5 C’s,” said Chef Sullivan. “And then we add quite a bit of fresh mint before cooking.”

“It’s a natural progression for chefs to want to
explore the world of spices,” says Chef Sullivan. “As chefs you can be inventive in a lot of different ways, and one of them is the use of spices. One can play with and deviate from and learn to utilize spices in different applications. That makes our job more fun.”

Chef Sullivan also blends this spice mix with olive oil to make a rub or a paste. At Spruce they rub the spice blend on prawns and cook them in a cast iron pan to char the spices, as one of their hit appetizers.

Chef Guillas hails from France and traveled to North Africa several times as a child. “The spices in Africa are delicate, complex and intense,” he said. “The spice really finishes an African dish and makes it sing.”

He also notes that African spices aren’t limited to cooking. “In Morocco and Tunisia they use a lot of their spices for baking and also for flavoring coffee and tea,” says Chef Guillas. “Or try breaking it down. You can
extract the oil from most African spices and the oils can also be used in foams.”

The tantalizing, aromatic spices bring a strong contrast of spicy, tangy and bold ethnic flavors that create synergy in African dishes. Western chefs particularly enjoy using these spices in updated versions of the African classic tagine.

Truly tagine

The tagine is a traditional Moroccan dish, named after the fluted clay pot it is cooked in. The pot braises the diverse contents of the dish and locks in the robust flavors from each sizzling spice.

“The great thing about the tagine is that you can make it vegetarian with eggplant or make it with chicken thighs, or lamb,” explains Chef Guillas. “For Easter I do a rose cardamom spice blend that we rub on the leg of lamb and cook slowly in the tagine. It’s really all about the spices.”

“There are so many tagine dishes, all year round,” Chef Batson agrees. “You can do something with dried fruit, quince, lamb, anything really. There are so many twists and turns with ingredients and spices that it’s never ending.”

At Gitane, Chef Batson includes a tagine with spiced chicken breast, saffron tomato broth, green olives, cauliflower, almonds and couscous.

Chef Thomsen first played with a tagine while working under Michael Mina at Seablue in Las Vegas. He explains the beautiful tagine process as, “taking a less tender cut of meat and braising it for a long period of time to get this phenomenal product that tastes just as great as the filet cut of meat.” Aside from creating such a flavorful, tender product, tagine dishes are also relatively healthy, because they essentially steam the food.

Bye-bye, butter

“African food is health conscience without being health conscience,” says Chef Mihal. “They eat the four food groups and they don’t cook with cream and butter. You’re tasting whatever is naturally there.”

Chef Batson, who began cooking African food at home because she loved eating it so much adds, “I really enjoy eating a balanced diet, and African is great because it’s a lot of couscous and full of flavor without all of that extra added fat. It’s pretty awesome to get that flavor from only spices and ingredients.”

Whether or not it’ll be the new health or diet craze, African food is hearty, savory, and certainly an emerging trend. And it all goes back to the spices.

As Chef Guillas put it, “Spice is life. Spice is love. Savour the African journey.”

Chicken Tagine with Preserved Meyer Lemon & Green Olives
Inspiration for Executive Chefs