The Sarma 100: Spice in Cassie Piuma's Arsenal

by Sean Kenniff
Aliza Eliazarov
April 2015



Sarma's Spice Arsenal
Ras el Hanout:
Moroccan spice blend meaning “head of the shop,” referring to the proprietary blends distinct to each spice shop. Up to 50 ingredients may be blended, including anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, galangal, lavender, mace, nigella, nutmeg, peppercorns, and turmeric. At Sarma, it’s the main spice in a flounder brik dish with lobster, crème fraîche, and pistachio couscous.

Dukkah: Usually a hazelnut- or chickpea-based spice blend, Egyptian dukkah also may contain pepper, coriander, cumin, and sesame seeds ground to a fine powder. Piuma makes a peanut dukkah and serves it with a broccoli dish, also comprised of sweet potato babaganoush, and persimmon. 

Harissa: A spicy Tunisian paste, harissa is typically made with hot chiles, caraway, coriander, cumin, garlic, and olive oil. Piuma employs harissa to spice chips for steak tartare; to enliven cranberries served with squash borek, salty date butter, and pecans; with braised lamb; and barbecue duck.

Chermoula: Comprised of cilantro, parsley, garlic, lemon, olive oil, salt, and pepper with variations including cayenne, cloves, coriander, cumin, onion, paprika, saffron, and vinegar, this thick sauce or paste is traditional to North Africa. At Sarma, it’s applied as a dressing for the tuna nayeh, which is served with beet chips, roasted beet carpaccio, candied ginger, and blood oranges.

Zhoug: A fiery condiment used throughout the Middle East, zhoug usually contains chiles, cilantro, parsley, garlic, coriander, cumin, olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper and sometimes nuts or seeds. Piuma uses it for her crab and lentil kibbeh.

Shabazi: Zhoug in powdered form, Piuma uses shabazi to finish Sarma’s mustard-cured fried chicken thighs.

Basturma: An intensely spiced, air-dried, and cured beef with Turkish origins. Piuma uses date molasses, red pepper paste, cumin, oregano, Aleppo, smoked paprika, fenugreek leaves, garlic, onion, vinegar, and salt to make Sarma’s basturma jerky, which she serves whole. For the basturma she uses to season other dishes like spaghetti squash carbonara, scallop katayifi, and Sarma’s cheese rolls (aka Lebanese cheese cigars), Piuma sources the basturma from Sevan Bakery in Watertown, Massachusetts, at $16.99 per pound.

At Sarma, Cassie Piuma is cooking a modern interpretation of Middle Eastern meze. “I like tearing down the walls of tradition. I want to pay homage to the flavors of the Middle East, while offering something different,” she says. Piuma estimates that she has around 100 spices and spice blends in Sarma’s pantry.

“I seek out the unusual. I’m always on the look out for new flavors. I really dig the flavor combinations that resonate in Moroccan cooking. They’re rich and satisfying, while at the same time bright and spicy: Harissa, saffron, ginger, honey, cinnamon … that’s my wheelhouse!”

But as bright and colorful as Sarma is, Piuma is not running a fun house—she’s running a business. “It’s a juggling act. If you’re working with expensive spices like saffron and cardamom, you might scale down the rest of your ingredients to compensate and keep the dish reasonably priced,” she says. “Spices occupy a large percentage of your food cost in a Middle Eastern restaurant, but it’s a necessary expense.” Piuma thinks about spice the same way a French chef thinks about good quality butter or an Italian chef about aged balsamic vinegar. “It’s a no brainer. If you want to create authentic tasting food, you have to start with an arsenal of high-quality ingredients that bear a strong resemblance to the original.”

Piuma discovers spices through research, cookbooks, and travel. Back home, she sources spices from Christina’s Spice & Specialty Foods in Cambridge. But Piuma is most inspired by the spice blends created by Lior Lev Sercarz at La Boîte in New York. “He creates beautiful memories inspired by the places he’s traveled and the folks he’s met along the way,” she says. “We purchase our spices in small amounts to ensure freshness and quality. Many are sourced whole and ground as we need them. We use only reputable purveyors and spend top dollar because, quite frankly, you get what you pay for!”

Here’s a peek inside Sarma’s spice pantry: The where, what, and how of some of Piuma’s most used and most obscure (and hard to pronounce) ingredients.