Two New Books to Help Our Greatest Lapse in Cooking Literacy

November  1, 2016

Cooking is easier now than it's ever been. It's easier to shop in ways that reflect your principles, from buying local to meeting farmers. It’s easier to find obscure grains and fancy vinegar. An ever-growing glut of cookbooks and resources exists to shepherd us through all cuisines, techniques, and fascinations. You can easily find a recipe for just about anything.

But does all that make us better cooks? If Padma Lakshmi’s Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices (just out) and Lior Lev Sercarz’s The Spice Companion (out this week) are any indication, the common thread in great cooking is the seasoning. The fact that these guides come on the heels of each other suggests that we're turning our attention from macro ingredients (obscure grains, hyperlocal microgreens) to those little nuts and bolts that set them into motion, whether they're as simple as salt and pepper or have names we can't pronounce.

If your pantry is littered with jars picked up once for a recipe and then abandoned, or if you reach reflexively for the same handful of spices without knowing how to branch out, Padma and Lior aim to bridge that gap by helping you use spices better (which is to say: more adventurously, more effectively, more).

In their earliest memories—Lakshmi’s in South India and New York, Sercarz’s in Israel—the authors recall spices the way you might relate to an idolized older sibling, with equal parts respect and familiarity. Over the years, that fondness has only grown: Sercarz is the founder of La Boîte, a New York City shop that is to spices what the Louvre is to art, and Lakshmi has traveled the world as a model, author, and longtime host of “Top Chef.” Conquests were led over black pepper, they remind us, and soldiers used to be paid in salt. Now they’re in cupboards across America. Oh, how far they’ve come!

It’s that weird liminal space between exotic and utilitarian where they situate their books. Neither author presumes that we know turmeric or cinnamon any better than we know piri piri or Omani lime, so they lay it all out and let you come and go as you please. Both dedicate over 300 pages to indexing a world of seasonings, including botanical names, origins, flavor, and uses.

“I have always wanted a book like this,” Lakshmi says in her introduction, “a reference guide that would tell me not only the provenance but also the uses of whatever spice or herb caught my attention.” Likewise, Sercarz “wrote this book because I have found that most people know relatively little about spices: where they are from… and, ultimately, how to use them and be inspired by them in the kitchen.” The effect is kind of like visiting a spice market with a fairy godmother or spirit guide. Unsurprisingly, they cover much of the same ground. What’s surprising is how differently you’ll relate to each.

Lakshmi's Encyclopedia

Having it in your kitchen feels like an insurance policy.

Lakshmi’s aptly titled Encyclopedia really is a compendium—comprehensive and dispassionate, not meant for reading on the couch but not trying to be. Aside from her introduction, which talks breathlessly of South Indian kitchens and Moroccan souks, there’s no editorializing (and no recipes), so the spices speak for themselves. Full-page spreads pop up occasionally, lending beautiful color and depicting the spices in all the forms you might find them. A 20-page primer on chiles snuggles up between chaimen (an Armenian blend) and cinnamon. Having it in your kitchen feels like an insurance policy, due diligence on every possible spice that could waltz into your pantry. It’s oddly comforting to know you have all that information at your fingertips.

Photo by James Ransom

But even the encyclopedic form has its limitations. Without the luxury of choosing what information to prioritize, practical guidelines like storing, grinding, and toasting spices are relegated to sidebars that you’d only find by leafing through the book (or flipping to the index). It would be more helpful if, in the service of empowering cooks to discover and use spices, these tips were placed to orient you at the front of the book. It’s hard to imagine poring over this book for culinary inspiration or wisdom any more than you’d pore over the Encyclopedia Britannica for hot takes.

Sercarz's Field Guide

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Though The Spice Companion is exhaustive, it’s not comprehensive: Sercarz chose “the 102 spices I think you should know about and use,” that “can be found anywhere and are essential elsewhere.”

Each has a 2-page spread, illustrated and photographed, with a rundown on origins, harvesting, uses, flavor and aroma, even trivia. What’s really special, though, are the other features in each entry: recommended food and spice pairings, two-liner not-recipes for you to confidently deploy the spice in your own cooking, and recipes for easy and innovative spice blends. His suggestions are actionable and inclusive in a way that could change the way you cook dinner tonight.

Salt ain't so simple Photo by Bobbi Lin

Maybe you know nutmeg from pumpkin pie or eggnog, but it also traditionally appears in French béchamel, Scottish haggis, and Indonesian soto soup. Sercarz suggests using it to “season halved fresh figs… before quickly sautéing them in salted butter and brown sugar to serve with cheese,” or sprinkling it “into a butternut squash purée… as a sauce for al dente fettuccine pasta.”

Photo by Bobbi Lin

When the information is served up this way, it disentangles the spices themselves from our immediate associations and cooking ruts. They make you free to experiment, not just to make better food but to become a better cook.

“Maybe it doesn’t work, maybe it does,” he says. “Imagine the upside of trying.”

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Fond of large dogs, tiny houses, pungent cheese, and dessert for dinner (or breakfast).

1 Comment

Lazyretirementgirl November 6, 2016
I bought Lior's book because I love his blends -- some have proven really transformative in my kitchen. I am slowly reading through it, curled up on the couch. But, then, I did read the encyclopedia as a child. 🤗