From adobo to za’atar, seven ways to spice up your food

Prior to the foodie revolution beginning just after the dawn of the new millennium, think about what comprised the typical Western meal. What adjectives would you use to describe it? Would ‘plain’, ‘bland’ or ‘greasy’ come to mind?

One of the beauties of the times we are living in is that people are incredibly receptive to trying new foods, and indeed creative chefs are more than happy to oblige. Bland, non-aromatic dishes that are overly heavy or salty just don’t cut it anymore. This means that most people are no longer intimidated by foreign ingredients, and our collective palates have likewise adjusted so that we aren’t revolted by such wild and potentially hair-raising flavor introductions.

While you will always have the ‘meat and potatoes’ sad sacks that are stuck in their ways and quite conservative with their meal choices, these individuals are rapidly becoming the exception rather than the rule. To capitalize on this trend, you must offer the adventurous foodies as well as your average patrons something to get excited about. With your competition already experimenting to improve its F&B approach and offer guests bold, new takes on familiar options, so too must you push the envelope if you are to survive.

With that in mind, I would like to highlight a few Old World spices or spice mixtures in vogue or nearing widespread acceptance. The aim for all of these is to give you some pungent (fragrance differentiation) and colorful (visual stimulation) options in terms of ‘buzzy’ additions you can make to your menu options.

  • Za’atar – Originating from the Levant, this blend of ground oregano, thyme, marjoram, savory and sesame seeds is a lush forest green and provides a deeply herbal umami note when drizzled over anything from fresh pita bread to sliced steak.
  • Adobo – Of Iberian origin, this marinade of paprika, garlic, soy and vinegar has been incorporated into the traditional cuisines of numerous Latin American countries as well as anywhere else in the world where the Spanish or Portuguese colonized, including the Philippines.
  • Turmeric – A pungent, fire-orange powder made from the root plant of the same name, this spice is highly sought after for its proven anti-cancer properties.
  • Garam masala – An age-old concoction of the bazaars throughout the Indian subcontinent, this mixture contains most of what you have come to expect from the region with pepper, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, mace and cinnamon.
  • Berbere – A staple of Ethiopian cuisine just entering the limelight, it combines chili, garlic, fenugreek, ginger and a few other seasonings not commonly available in your average Western supermarket.
  • Sichuan pepper – This ground spice varietal helps to differentiate its namesake province’s culinary offering through its palate-numbing effects.
  • Furikake – Sure to make any dish feel authentically Japanese, this blend comprises ground seaweed, dried shrimp, sesame and sugar for a nicely balanced savory zing.

Undoubtedly there are many others that could be included in this list and the world is yours to explore. Your mission is to sit down with your team to see which of these will fit the current theme of a given restaurant and not cause too much of a headache with your existing vendor budget while also providing enough verifiable X factor to move the needle and not elicit a apathetic response from customers. It’s not easy, but then again nothing worthwhile ever is!