Recreating these flavors on an industrial scale, however, poses some technical challenges. Flavor suppliers "cannot easily duplicate the homemade preparations and methods used by vendors to create the flavor nuances in foods and beverages found in many geographic locales," says Sprovieri. But his company's flavorists blend essential oils, oleoresins, botanical distillates, extracts and other flavor ingredients to achieve the desired results.
Spices are carefully sourced
Spices and spice blends are not the result of laboratory tinkering; they require artful sourcing and careful transportation, often from far-flung corners of the globe. For home cooks, chefs and even food processors, ethnic spices are the keys to delivering or developing an authentic ethnic experience.
"There clearly is a demand for ethnic flavors," says Jeff Troiola, corporate chef in the R&D department of Woodland Foods, Waukegan, Ill. "The consumer market is more sophisticated and adventurous thanks to travel and the Food Channel."
Throughout its 25-year history, Woodland Foods has specialized in spices and spice blends – "procuring and providing ‘difficult to find' dried and frozen specialty foods from around the world," as the company says in its marketing materials. It sells to food processors and foodservice, and also creates consumer-sized packages it private-labels for club stores.
"We currently have 1,100 products in our catalog, and it's always growing," Troiola boasts.
Lemongrass powder and tomatillo powder have been available for years and are nearly mainstream, he says. Recent focus has been on spice blends to appeal to very specific and more discerning tastes. They include:
- Baharat – The word simply means "spice" in Arabic. It's a common North African spice mix in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. It's a mixture of paprika, peppercorns, cumin, clove, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg and cardamom. "This blend is often used to season lamb but is an all-purpose flavor enhancer useful for fish, chicken, beef, tomato sauces and soups," says Troiola. "It's a great addition to lentil dishes, pilafs and can even perk up plain old meatloaf. It is great for anything on the grill."
- Berbere – An Ethiopian all-purpose seasoning containing Hungarian paprika, coriander, sea salt, cumin, cayenne, fennel, Aleppo pepper, fenugreek, peppercorns, ginger, ground Ajwain (looks like small cumin seeds with a taste similar to thyme), mace, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice and cloves.
- Kabsa – A version of a classic Arabian spice mix used in the ancient Saudi Arabian dish called Al Kabsa or Al Kabsah, a chicken and rice dish which is fragrant and lightly spiced -- and is thought to originate from the nomadic Bedouin tribes. The spice blend depends upon chile powder, cayenne, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cardamom, nutmeg, coriander, ginger, saffron powder and turmeric.
- Ras el Hanout – A general-purpose Moroccan seasoning, "it's loosely translated from Arabic to mean ‘top of the shop,' referring to the best spices a merchant has to offer," says Troiola. "It's hand-blended from coriander, cumin, cardamom, fennel, black pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, and paprika."
Curry is an increasingly common flavor – actually several -- and Woodland offers blends that will help create the traditional hot and sweet curries. But the company also has developed Vadouvan, a masala curry that gets its French influence from roasted garlic and shallots, and Garam Masala, an Arab-influenced curry powder.
A trip to the local grocery store, for either the spices or a well-executed packaged ethnic meal, is a lot cheaper than an airfare to Casablanca.