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Sage Ways With Spice

Exotic whole spices and fresh-picked herbs— plus their intoxicating fragrance—fill Cardoz’s workplace.
Chef Floyd Cardoz
Neuman's Kitchen
Neuman's Kitchen

There was a time when wars were fought, continents discovered, and fortunes made all in the pursuit of spices. This is what it is like in Chef Floyd Cardoz’s kitchen. His kitchen is a veritable court of flavor, spices gain a fine measure of their former glory, as well as much of their old-world appearance.

Exotic whole spices and fresh-picked herbs— plus their intoxicating fragrance—fill Cardoz’s workplace. Noticeably absent are any of those foodservice-friendly, screw-top jars of pre-ground, powdered spice. Such convenience would be sacrilege, where Cardoz and his chefs use only unprocessed spices and herbs, which they grate, bruise, slice, or shred by hand to render each seasoning’s quintessential taste. Spice grinders whir everywhere, sometimes two or three at each station, as they efficiently pulverize the myriad spices used each day. Rustic mortars and pestles, positioned along-side the electric grinders, are also in use when a coarser texture is desired.

“We grind all the spices fresh every day, because once spices have been ground they go stale very quickly and lose their flavor,” explained Cardoz. “Some people think that you can just add more spice to make up for this lost flavor, but you can’t. What happens is that you lose the top and bottom notes of the spice, right along with the complexity.”

Although Cardoz’s cooking defies neat categorization—it’s been called New Indian cuisine, Indian fusion, and Haute Indian—his reputation as a spice master is unqualified. Using his artistry with these potent seasonings, Cardoz creates dishes of finesse and complexity that have wowed food critics for years. But despite winning numerous “Best Indian Restaurant” awards, Cardoz will tell you in his courteous, cultured manner: “I borrow from Indian cooking. . . . There are 29 states in India and each state has its own cuisine.” Different religions, climate, and geography have combined to influence the food of each area as its cuisine developed. “Consider that each state has about 100 recipes for curry,” remarks Cardoz. “That gives me a lot of regional differences to draw on in my cooking.”

The chef also employs his own traditions. Born in Mumbai (Bombay) to Goan parents, Cardoz says his cooking style reflects Goan tradition with its many Portuguese influences. Add to the chef ’s multicultural heritage some French training from culinary schools in Switzerland and five years with Grey Kunz at Lespinasse, and the result is a kitchen finely tuned to French technique but one that produces a cuisine unto itself, a crisscross, global voyage of flavor. And much of it is steered by Cardoz’s fastidious ways with flavorings.

“It’s so important that spices don’t get old,” Cardoz points out, “and for that reason we choose purveyors who are reputable and who also have a high turnover. When a spice delivery is made, Cardoz scrutinizes it thoroughly, checking its freshness by gently rubbing it between his fingers to unmask its essential oil, then smelling. Because he demands whole spices, he will reject deliveries with too many crushed pieces.

Photo by Pratiksha Mohanty on Unsplash

Cardoz's spice inventory is kept in airtight containers, stored in their own specially designed room just off the kitchen, away from the heat that would eventually rob them ofpotency. Neatly stacked and labeled, the spices—hundreds of them, with names like asafetida, kokum, and ajowain—fill the shelves. Tall bins sitting on the floor in another kitchen would hold flour or sugar but here are filled with red mustard seed, cumin, masoor dal, and coriander. A stainless-steel worktable is pushed up against a wall, and on top of it the ubiquitous spice grinders stand at the ready. At certain times throughout the day this room gets crowded with a line of chefs waiting their turn, scrawled recipe in hand, to pick and measure the spices for their mixes.

“Here, taste this one,” says Cardoz, reaching for a container filled with what looks like tufted celery seeds but is known as ajowain. It smells herbaceous but strong, like thyme on steroids. A tiny bite numbs the tongue for a moment, before turning slightly bitter. Cardoz explains that the seeds are very popular in India and work well with seafood. He uses this spice throughout the kitchen to flavor naan breads, beans, curry blends, and fish.

Cardoz toasts whole spices first to intensify their flavor and then grinds each to a certain texture depending on the dish being created. Ground spices, he insists, should never be toasted: “They will burn,” the chef warns. Another method Cardoz uses to full effect is to bloom spices in hot oil. The spice will crackle and pop, then release its aromatic essence into the oil. These spiced oils are then added hot to dishes as flavorings.

Part of the chef’s skill with spice is in creating tastes that build one on another, “so that in the mouth you get hit with one layer of flavor after another.” He accomplishes this by using different spices that have the same flavor profile. “I use not one type of chile but two or three,” notes Cardoz. “All have heat, but different kinds of heat.” For other dishes he works to “draw a line right through a flavor profile . . . for example, combining rosemary and ginger, or mustard seed with clove and ginger, I can borrow on the similarity of the profile and try to extend it.”

When it comes to new spice combinations, Cardoz says he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. “I follow the principles of Indian cooking. I don’t use mace with fish because I’ve not seen that done.” He doesn’t admit to a favorite spice but concedes to having a fondness for all types of pepper and using them freely in almost everything he creates.

Tamarind is another widely used seasoning for Cardoz. “I use it in just about everything.” A juicy fruit that grows in pods on an evergreen tree, tamarind can be eaten fresh, but most often it is dried and packaged into blocks. Cut from a dark, reddish block, it is steeped in boiling water and then strained to remove fiber and seeds. The pulp is put through a food mill, then boiled and reduced again to extract the most flavor. A quick sampling reveals a tangy taste, sweetish but sour and fruity. Cardoz uses tamarind throughout the kitchen in marinades and to flavor chutneys, curries, sauces, and even margaritas.

As both an herb and spice, coriander is popular in his kitchen. Fresh coriander leaves and whole coriander seeds taste completely different but complement each other in Indian cooking. “I love using coriander with meats,” Cardoz comments. “The citrusy, earthy flavors of coriander enhance the flavor of meat—just like orange does with duck, and mustard with pork.” Cumin seeds, when dry roasted, acquire a nutty, warm, and sweet taste. The chef concludes, “I like vegetables and fish with cumin. It is a very neutral spice that doesn’t overpower their subtlety.”

Explaining such dynamics of spice cookery to his chefs, not to mention his customers, is Cardoz’s ongoing mission. Certain basics are constantly repeated: Curry, for instance is not a powder but rather a spicy stew; “chai” is the Indian word for tea; and no, it won’t work to take home samples of his garam masala to recreate a favorite dish at home. Eager to move on to other lessons, Cardoz has published a book about spices in the kitchen, titled One Spice, Two Spice. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “season to taste.” And no doubt, the book will help sell a few spice grinders too.

Floyd Cardoz is a celebrated Indian American chef and author of Flavorwalla and One Spice, Two Spice. Chef Cardoz is owner of The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro in Mumbai, India.

You may purchase his book here: Flavorwalla: Big Flavor. Bold Spices. A New Way to Cook the Foods You Love.


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