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Spicing up the menu

Sysco SHAPE June 2018

Chefs, operators explore international flavors with exotic spices, herbs and condiments.

As the interest in global cookery continues to deepen, chefs and restaurateurs are expanding their palette of flavors by exploring a host of spices, herbs and condiments from North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and other areas.

Chefs participating in the National Restaurant Association's What's Hot 2018 Culinary Trends study confirm this culinary direction, ranking Uncommon Herbs at No. 8 among this year's Top 20 Food Trends, Ethnic Spices at No. 10 and Ethnic Condiments at No. 19.

Spices, herbs and condiments “are the gateway to new cuisines,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting in Carmichael, Calif. “Think about the rise in popularity of sriracha. First, it appeared in Vietnamese restaurants as a way to add more heat to pho and other dishes. Today it’s everywhere. We as diners want to try new foods and flavors.”

“It's incredible to see how the spices, herbs and condiments of diverse cultures have become integrated into the mainstream,” agrees Neath Pal, culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I. “Americans are open to different cuisines. A few years ago it was Asian. Now it's Mediterranean and Middle Eastern.”

The use of a spice, herb or condiment can make a ho-hum menu item more flavorful and adventurous while also seeming “safe” to the diner, Miller adds.

In addition to adding flavor to a wide variety of preparations, spices, herbs and condiments also possess various healthful properties. Some of the more popular flavorings that have emerged on menus recently include:


Similar to harissa but not as hot, chermoula is a North African paste made with cumin, garlic, onion, parsley, chilies, cilantro, paprika and saffron. This pungent condiment can be used as a marinade for fish, especially shellfish, as well as for meats, couscous and vegetables, Pal says. Chermoula is recognized as an anti-inflammatory and a digestive.


Chervil is an herb in the parsley family used to flavor mild-tasting dishes. It adds a fresh, herbal note to poultry, seafood, soups and stews. Long popular in France but now gaining in widespread usage, chervil — with its slight aniseed flavor — is also a component of the classic French fines herbes, which includes tarragon, chives and parsley. A popular folk medicine remedy, chervil is said to help lower blood pressure and aid digestion.


Dukkah is a coarse spice blend from Egypt often added to olive oil for dipping pita bread, and used for flavoring vegetables and meats, according to Datassential. It contains chickpeas, coriander, cumin, sesame seeds, thyme, mint, pepper and nuts. The nuts are a source of protein, essential fats and antioxidants, while the sesame seeds contain calcium and magnesium.


A workhorse of Korean cookery, gochujang can contain red chili powder, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and sweeteners. This sticky, hot condiment is used in marinades for meat dishes like bulgogi, meat-and-vegetable rice bowls such as bibimbap and as a flavoring for dipping sauces, soups and stews. It facilitates metabolism and helps to burn fat and improve digestion.


A spicy hot condiment from Tunisia, harissa contains a blend of chilies, garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway and olive oil. Harissa is a traditional North African accompaniment for couscous but is also widely found in soups and stews, and used as a marinade for chicken, fish and lamb. It is an excellent source of Vitamin C.


Said to taste like a combination of celery and parsley, lovage has many culinary uses — its leaves are used in salads, soups and broths; its seeds can be dried and used as a spice; and its roots eaten as a vegetable by themselves or in a salad. Considered to be an aquaretic, lovage helps protect from urinary tract infections and kidney stones.


An herb native to Mexico, papalo tastes like cilantro but with more intensity, Miller says. Mild when young, papalo leaves gather complexity — and bitterness — with age. Traced back to the Aztecs, this herb can be incorporated into dishes calling for cilantro, either raw in a salad or as a garnish, or in such dishes as carnitas and salsa. It is said to aid digestion.

Ras el hanout

Ras el hanout is a Moroccan spice blend containing more than a dozen ingredients including anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, galangal, garlic, ginger, lavender, mace, nigella, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, rosebuds and turmeric. A popular accompaniment for couscous, rice and tagines, ras el hanout boasts anti-inflammatory and digestive properties.


Commonly found in the cuisines of Indonesia, Malaysia and southern India, sambal can be served raw or cooked, and includes a blend of chilies, sugar, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, onions, galangal, tamarind and coconut milk. Usually an accompaniment for rice and curried dishes, sambal also can flavor meats, seafood and vegetables. There are said to be as many as 300 variations of sambal, which is rich in vitamins A and C.


Sumac is a spice commonly found in Middle Eastern cookery. Mostly available in powder form — although also as dried berries — sumac has a pleasantly astringent quality which complements a variety of dishes, Pal says. Used as dry rub or a flavoring for vegetables, fish and meat as well as a component of spice blends like za'atar, it is high in vitamin C and antioxidants.


Long used in Indian cookery but surging in popularity among today's chefs, turmeric is in the same family as ginger root, and is a key ingredient in curries, mustards and other spice blends. Used generally in rice, stews, soups, marinades and other dishes, to which it brings a golden tint, turmeric is said to contain anti-inflammatory properties.


A versatile Middle Eastern spice blend, za'atar generally contains thyme, sumac, oregano, marjoram and sesame seeds. It goes well with roasted vegetables and as an appetizer, dip or a snack when served with pita bread. Za’atar is said to enhance skin health, improve circulation, clear the respiratory tracts, soothe inflammation, increase energy and improve mood.


A fiery Yemenite sauce popular in Israel and the Middle East, zhug includes hot peppers, coriander or cilantro, garlic, caraway seeds and black cumin. It can be red or green, depending on the peppers used, and adds a kick to falafel, soups, grilled meats, stews and sauces, and as a spread for sandwiches.

As chefs continue to explore new culinary vistas through the use of spices, herbs and condiments, this trend is expected to gain more traction with time. “American diners are continually seeking new food and flavor experiences, and chefs are helping American diners explore the world through these ingredients,” Miller says.

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