Many culinary traditions and single recipes tout the power of spice combinations. turmeric and black pepper; Chinese five-spice; cumin, coriander, and fennel tea. I’ve personally benefitted from the nutritional and flavor boost that eating certain foods together affords. To break down just one example on a chemical level, the turmeric-black-pepper combo enhances the benefits of each because the peperine (in pepper) slows down the metabolization of the curcumin (in turmeric) for better absorption (also called bioavailability). That means you get even more of the anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial (like those that cause ulcers), and antioxidant power of turmeric than you would eating it on its own. Synergistic pairings like these are not only applicable to foods, of course. Take me and my best friend: together, any dinner or tea date is infinitely better when we’re together, because we feed off of each other’s strengths and compensate for our weaknesses like a finely tuned machine (or, like chemistry). Alone, my turmeric latte (don’t forget the peppercorns) or Buddha bowl would have been just as tasty, but missing that extra dash of friend-spice.
There’s something to be said, though, for what a single spice or flavor can do to an eating—or living—experience. While strategic combinations can make something bigger, better than the component parts alone, they also set you up for a potential overload. I confess to having become a bit of an over-spicer these days. When it comes to food, I can blame the fact that one of the fundamentals of good, satisfying vegan cooking is spice; without added flavors and nutrients that things like turmeric, fennel, and even salt and pepper provide, a diet of strictly plant-based products could become extremely boring extremely fast. I’m also what we in the yoga community call a “sensation junkie”; blessed and cursed with hyperflexible joints, I push past my healthy range of motion in order to feel any sort of sensation or stretch, which leads to injuries and other long-term problems. When it comes to spices specifically, the warming flavors of turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, etc. are my sweet spot. (I’m also a fall girl, if you couldn’t tell.) My love for them is such that I dump them all on top of nearly everything I eat, from oatmeal to roasted root vegetables, with abandon. To my mind and my belly, the more spice I get the better—especially when they’re all packed with benefits enhanced in each other’s presence.
I became aware of this tendency the other morning when preparing my usual breakfast of overnight oats with apples. My hands grabbed for the jars with choreographed precision, twisting open the small lids, shake-shake-shake-shaking depending on the size shaker-hole I’d memorized each one having, returning each to its spot, rotating to the next. I’d gone through four of my five usuals when I realized I had run out of cardamom. For an instant I felt extreme loss about not having that spice in the mix. Cardamom is neither sweet nor savory, and I’ve come to rely on it as a kind of neutralizer that also makes my tummy feel good. But in the next instant, I looked down and saw I already had so many other brown-beige powders. They formed a neat little pile on the top of the food I could no longer see. It was a spice avalanche, and while I knew that I enjoyed all these spices together in the past, I couldn’t have said what any of them tasted like individually, or why I was adding them to the meal other than “because that’s what I do.”
In that moment I realized how much over-spicing was occurring in the rest of my world. Piling on work and appointments and educational opportunities and socializing, all of which tasted good and I thought would lead to an even better-tasting life, I didn’t have time anymore to savor these things individually or even know if I still liked them on their own. Adding the crush of attention-grabbers and seekers in our twenty-first-century life to the mix, I rarely even made a meal for myself without thinking about how I could “share” it with all the friends–the friends with whom I was not eating in real life, but maybe could join me for dinner vicariously and all at once via the internet. The present of my needs or desires was buried under that taupey pile, resembling not a magical sprinkle of fairy dust but rather a muddy quagmire.
When I went to make dinner that evening, I decided to test my reaction to not only fewer spices, but one spice. I chose salt. Because, salt.
A healthy pinch of sea salt went into the brown rice bubbling on the stove, which I’d presoaked and wound up cooking to perfection indeed despite numerous prior failures (likely due to lack of salt); more Pink Himalayan for the spinach and mushrooms I sauteed in olive oil and sliced garlic. Layering the ingredients in my bowl, each so earnestly itself and unmasked by wild colors and “super”-ness, I felt calmer than I had all day. Whereas I normally take time to thoroughly mix these kinds of bowl meals before eating, today I kept them all separate. They seemed to want their space. I sprinkled a few flakes of Maldon just for good measure. Tasting the first bite, comprising a bit of each balanced between the tines of the fork, I simply tasted. The foods were what they were, nothing too extraordinary, plus salt. United by this one common denominator, they had a new kind of synergy that kept their identities discrete but ever so slightly enhanced. It wasn’t just rice or spinach or mushrooms, but well-salted rice and spinach and mushrooms.
In Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter, about a young NYC-transport who gets initiated into the elite restaurant world, the narrator Tess describes her education of salt as:
Salt: Your mouth waters. Flakes from Brittany, liquescent on contact. Blocks of pink salt from the Himalayas, matte gray clumps from Japan. And endless stream of kosher shalt, falling from Chef’s hand. Salting the most nuanced of enterprises, the food always requires more, but the tipping point fatal.
This fine balance between wanting, even needing, more and knowing when is just enough is something some people, including the best chefs, know by feel and instinct. They learn from having gone in both extremes, settling in the Goldilocks-just-right center. They realize the tremendous power that one ingredient alone can have on its own—as long as you’re able to taste it.
This week I’m sticking to a (mostly) one-spice diet to reacquaint myself with the power of one. Here are some my favorite, simplest savories and sweets:
Cornmeal-Thyme Cookies (sub eggs and butter with flax and olive oil)
Roasted Sweet Potato and Farro Salad (minus cheese)