Processed Spices, From Black Cardamom To Black Garlic
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Civilizations around the world have been processing spices and condiments since time immemorial, using techniques that range from lacto-fermentation to smoking in order to enhance and preserve flavor. These customs of yore have found new life in the last few years, with several of these ingredients increasingly appearing in dishes served in contemporary restaurants that draw inspiration from traditional fare.

Black Garlic 

Black garlic is a unique spice that originates from Korea, where it is used as a part of traditional medicine and as an ingredient in marinades. The spice is made by slow-cooking garlic in a temperature-controlled environment for extended periods of time, during which the cloves are subject to several physical and biological changes that enhance its taste, texture, and appearance. These changes can be attributed to three processes: the Maillard reaction, the enzymatic breakdown of sugars, and the action of thermophilic endophytes that are a part of the plant's microbiome. These processes occur throughout the time the garlic is in the slow cooker. The resulting product bears almost no resemblance to the raw garlic bulbs that were used for the process; black garlic has almost no pungency, or "bite," and is characterized by a subtle taste of caramel, backed by a tamarind-like acidity. The way these flavors develop depends on the size and sugar content of the cloves that were used for production; larger cloves with higher sugar content make for sweeter black garlic, while smaller cloves with low sugar content result in black garlic that is more acidic and sharp. The cloves have a smooth, creamy texture, making them easy to incorporate into a variety of products, from compound butters to cream cheese. The spice has two use cases: that of a flavorant or as a flavor enhancer, making it an ideal addition to any dish, irrespective of the inherent flavor profile.

Lacto-fermented Green Peppercorns 

Pickled peppercorns and coriander seeds are staples in the diets of Indian farming communities that grow these spices. These pickles are made with salt and distilled white vinegar and are used as an inexpensive means to flavor curries and meats. The F&B has drawn inspiration from this practice and made pickled peppercorns of their own as part of a growing trend of preserving foods with lacto-fermentation. Lacto-fermentation has long been used by several cultures in order to make preserves that were meant to be consumed as a side dish or as a digestive. The most popular lacto-fermented foods feature vegetables, such as lacto-fermented cabbage in kimchi and sauerkraut. So, just what is lacto-fermentation? Lacto-fermentation is the process by which certain strains of bacteria break down the sugars present in food into lactic acid, thereby creating an acidic medium that preserves said food. Lacto-fermenting foods can enhance flavor as a result of the acidic nature of the medium and the salt used to regulate microbial growth. Lacto-fermentation yields superior results in terms of flavor as opposed to other methods of pickling that use brine or dilute acids. This method extracts the most flavor from spices like peppercorns and chilies. Raw peppercorns make the best base because they have higher concentrations of terpenes and flavonoids, which withstand the acidic medium better than other spices like chili peppers or ginger. This makes for a potent addition to mild dishes like pasta, salads, and risotto; the green caviar-like balls bring in an array of flavors that range from pine to citrus, backed by a subtle underlying heat.

Smoked Chilies 

The practice of smoking chili peppers can be traced back to the Aztec empire. The Aztecs were the first to smoke dry chipotle chilies in order to concentrate flavor and extend shelf life. The same techniques are still in use today, alongside more modern techniques that use select woods and smokers built for the task. Smoked chilies can be used as they are, or further processed into confits or hot sauces. Chefs and pitmasters today smoke chilies for extended periods of time in special smokers, similar to how they prepare meat. These chilies are often ground and included in marinades that are to be used for slow-cooked meat dishes such as brisket, barbeque, and braised meat. Smoked chilies are an excellent addition to processed foods such as cheese, as well as a tasty topping for pizza and tortillas.

Black Cardamom 

Black cardamom is a spice that is native to India, Nepal, and China. The spice is larger and more pungent compared to the green cardamom that is more commonly used in the Indian subcontinent. There are at least two different types of black cardamom, both of which are smoke-dried over open fires and used exclusively for savory preparations. The spice is a popular addition to traditional dishes, from dal curry to masala gosht. The spice is also used in Sichuan cuisine, primarily as an addition to condiments such as chili oil and chili crisp. Contemporary Indian restaurants have long used the spice to flavor smoked meats for its ability to impart a sweet, liquorice-like flavor to the dish without competing with other aspects of the palate.