A Modern Mastery of Spice

With Chef Mohammad Islam of Chateau Marmont – Los Angeles, CA

By Heather Sperling

October 2006

From pungent black pepper seeds to aromatic strands of saffron, few foods have as romantic and varied a history as that of spices. Throughout the course of human existence they have found themselves the subject of fantasy and lore, served as the impetus for exploration and trade – even war.


For Chef Mohammad Islam, of Chateau Marmont in LA and the soon to open Aigredoux in Chicago, spice is the catalyst for elevating familiar ingredients to new levels. While there are only five essential tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami – there are thousands of different aromas that are the keys to transforming taste into flavor. Spices contain a high concentration of essential oils; when these intensely aromatic oils flood the nose and palate, they add multi-layered undertones or overtones to the taste on the tongue.

That said, a successful marriage of two very different ingredients is no easy feat, and Islam readily admits that 90% of his attempts fall flat. “Ingredients are the car and spice is the driver,” says Islam, adding that “not everyone can drive certain cars.” It often takes 10-15 tries with a certain spice; case in point is elderberry flower, an ingredient that intrigued Islam for years. He tried it powdered and mixed with orange dust as a coating on a fish, tied in a bouquet garni and steamed with young asparagus, and finally steeped in an artichoke soup. Original experiments with the artichoke didn’t work, yielding a dull and uniform flavor. Eventually he realized the artichoke needed to be braised, and settled on Riesling for sweetness; the result is a balanced, multi-layered dish that is at once creamy, earthy and acidic.

Islam's art of spicing was honed by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, an acknowledged master of the craft. In a trip to Chateau Marmont this past summer, Chef Islam created a spice tasting menu of seven dishes, each highlighting a different spice. The result was a procession of thoughtful dishes crafted to excite the palate and showcase the versatility of some of Islam’s favorites: cumin, kaffir lime, elderberry flower, goji berry, peppermint and kili pepper.

Islam slowly toasts whole cumin seeds before adding them to a salad of orange and lemon. Toasting spices in a dry pan is an ancient Indian and Southeast Asian technique that deepens the flavor of a spice by evaporating the moisture and leaving the essential oils. Islam coarsely grinds the hot seeds in a mortar and adds them to the citrus to infuse the juice with a savory, smoky flavor that both complements and cleanses the palate of the seared tuna’s richness.

» Seared Blue Fin Tuna, Jicama, Cumin Citrus Salad

Kaffir Lime (Combava)
The leaves are the most known and utilized part of the kaffir lime tree, a Southeast Asian citrus whose intensely flavored greenery and fruit rinds are common in Thai and Laotian cooking. The dense, tear-shaped leaves are rich in citronellal, a relative of citronella and sister species of lemongrass that is responsible for their fresh, verdant flavor. Chef Islam uses the dried, grated peel of the fruit itself, a bumpy citrus whose skin is imbued with a milder yet equally distinctive woody, lime citrus flavor, in a piquant gastrique paired with kampachi carpaccio.

» Kampachi Carpaccio, Combava Vinaigrette

Goji Berries
With 18 amino acids and over 20 trace minerals, goji berries, or wolfberries, are celebrated in Central Asia as one of nature’s most nutrient-rich foods. They have long been valued in traditional Chinese medicine for their benefits to the immune system. The bright red berries can be eaten raw, though in the west they commonly found dried, and must be soaked for the flavor to fully develop. According to Chef Islam, goji berries complement the tomatoes perfectly, with a hint of cumin, a hint of clove and an earthiness that marries well with the tomatoes’ acidity. The bold raisin flavor of the berries pairs well with a full-flavored fish like black bass.

» Seared Black Bass, Chinese Long Beans, Fingerling Potatos, Goji Berry Broth

In a technique he adapted from Jean-Georges Vogerichten, Islam pairs both fresh and dried peppermint with knob carrots, braising them in local, organic fuji apple cider with an herbaceous bouquet garni. He uses dried peppermint to flavor the braising liquid; it is more flavorful than fresh, with more pronounced menthol and less bitterness. The carrots are garnished with fresh peppermint, adding a cooling dimension to the dish that cuts the creamy, slow roasted wild salmon.

» Slow Baked Alaskan Salmon, Peppermint Cider-Braised Carrots

Elderberry flowers are the aromatic blossoms of the elderberry bush. Where the berries are tart and bold, the flowers’ aroma is earthy and sweet. Chef Islam steeps the blossoms in a savory stock, adding a potent floral note to the eventual base of a California artichoke soup.

» California Artichoke Soup, Elderberry Water, Nantucket Bay Scallops

Kili Pepper
The long, fleshy seed pods of the West African kili pepper are dried whole and slightly smoked in the process; it is the seed pod, not the seeds themselves, that contain the smoky, biting, black pepper flavor that Islam pairs with mustard spaetzle and lamb. The kili pepper stars in a emulsion of green apple, curry and crème fraiche. Its pungent, peppery flavor is the most prominent, echoed by curry and apple at the back of the tongue. A grapefruit salad cleanses the palate and cuts the richness of the lamb, spaetzle and cream.

» Pan-Seared Colorado Rack of Lamb, Kili Pepper Emulsion

Drying and Preserving
Aroma compounds are fleeting and volatile by nature; the same characteristics that enable spices to quickly and powerfully stimulate our noses and palates make them difficult to preserve. Herbs are best dried at room temperature, out of direct light. For faster results, use a low-temp oven, dehydrator or a microwave, which rapidly evaporates the herbs’ water molecules while leaving flavor-bearing essential oils untouched. Chefs tend to keep their flavorings in close reach, but dried spices actually fare best in the freezer, in air-tight containers brought to room temperature before opening.


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