Spices are important. Wars have been fought over them, fortunes gained and lost by speculating on them, and many a great dish made – or ruined – by their use. The author of the Bible’s Song of Solomon compares his lover to spices, saying: “Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits… with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices.”
As a chef, the author of 660 Curries, and arguably the state’s reigning authority on Indian food, Raghavan Iyer has had some serious skin in the spice game for quite some time now. But with the launch of his hand-roasted line of spice blends, Iyer has taken that commitment to a new level.
We caught up with Iyer at Midtown Global Market, where he walked us through the creation of his blends and shared with us the awe- and fear-inspiring fact that each individual spice can present up to eight distinct flavors.
“When it’s used raw as is, you get one flavor,” says Iyer, who speaks with the precision and clarity of a veteran instructor. “When it’s ground, you get a second flavor. When it’s toasted, you get a third flavor. When it’s ground after it has been dry toasted, you get a fourth flavor.”
He pauses for a moment, and then presents the remaining options.
“When it’s sauteed in some kind of a fat, you get flavor number five,” he says. “If it’s ground after it’s sauteed, you get flavor number six. If it’s soaked in some liquid while it’s in the seed form, you get flavor number seven. If it’s ground after it has been soaked in liquid, you get flavor number eight.
“These are not subtleties, these are very distinct flavors,” he adds, emphatically. “All of a sudden… you take that and multiply it by the hundreds of different spices out there, and you’ve peeked into the world of Indian cooking. It’s that sophistication of flavors that come through from using the same ingredient in different ways.”
The Subtle Power of Roasted Spices
It’s that profound capacity for complexity that led Iyer to embark upon his latest project: an affordable line of roasted spice blends produced by his own labor at the Kitchen in the Market at Midtown Global Market. The four blends are collectively known as Turmeric Trail — sold online, they retail for $7.50 for a generous 2-oz. package, except for the much more potent Chai Masala, which comes in a third-of-an-ounce size.
Iyer says the idea for the spice line (which shares a name with one of his books) came from his experience as a culinary instructor.
“One of the biggest challenges for my students has always been the whole concept of creating the complexity without being complex,” says Iyer. “They’ve always said: ‘I love the blends of spices, but I don’t know how to do them…’ I’ve taken the mysticism out of it completely and given you the finished product.”
Iyer attributes the depth of his Turmeric Trail blends to its most unusual attribute. Rather than selling a blend of raw spices (most commercial spice blends are raw, and must be cooked during the course of a recipe, typically as the onions are being sauteed), Iyer sells a blend of roasted spices. The roasted nature of the blends means that they can be used as a finishing spice, incorporated near the end of a sauce or curry.
“With a finishing blend like this, you really in essence could take your ’60s concept of taking mayonnaise and adding curry powder like they used to, which had this raw flavor… but you can add these blends and they have a finesse and sophistication to them,” he says.
We took him at his word, and made turkey sandwiches with chickpeas and parsley with a mayonnaise spread liberally blended with Mumbai Masala (the spice blend we watched Iyer make, which is depicted in this story). Mumbai Masala is a blend of roasted chiles, coriander, cumin, shredded unsweetened coconut, black mustard seeds, peppercorns, sesame seeds, fenugreek seeds, and bay leaves — it doesn’t lack for depth of flavor.
The Mumbai Masala spread brought a nutty richness and depth to what would’ve otherwise been a terminally dull lunch, and, as Iyer suggested, it didn’t impart any sort of harsh or jarring notes — it was smooth and mellow, a pleasing supporting player in the overall pageant of flavor.
The deep flavors of the spice blend leave little doubt that they’re a fair reflection of the complexity and appeal of Indian cuisine.
“People always say: ‘660 curries, really?’ Well, there’s more, I just got tired after that. You look at some of the blends that existed [in India] around 4500 BCE, they have some really sophisticated blends and you think: ‘Oh my gosh, how did this come about?'”
The Kitchen in the Market Connection
Iyer makes his spice blends in one of the Twin Cities’ most intriguing collaborative spaces, the Kitchen in the Market. “I love that here you’ve got a myriad of small operators and vendors who are using this commercial space to create their dreams,” says Iyer. “All of us, we’re all so different.” He points over at a young woman who has just walked up to the Kitchen space. “There’s a woman from a food truck, who’s just starting today [Hoa Nguyen from YumMi].”
The Kitchen’s visibility offers an added bonus: free marketing to community members who happen to walk by. “I feel like when you’re doing something, you want to create that attention,” says Iyer. “When you see trays and trays of the spice blend laid out, people are automatically drawn to them.”
(As if on cue, about five minutes later a group of gawkers walked over to ask what was going on. Iyer was busy blending his Mumbai Masala, so we fielded their questions.)
“I think this area works beautifully for that,” says Iyer, referring to the opportunity to meet the public. “I love the energy, and the price point is great. We use it maybe five times a month. The more we become popular, the more we’ll continue to use it.”
The Spice Blends Have Left the Subcontinent
Iyer’s energy and ambition may soon lead Turmeric Trail to transcend his ability to personally produce each batch (“It’s why I’m not putting my hourly rate into the cost,” he laughs.)
But, he says, “that’s when we start bringing in people who I’ll work with to get personally trained, because I want to make sure they know at what point to stop roasting — there’s going to be a lot of hand-holding up front,” he says. “That’s maybe where my experience as a teacher comes in — I’ve got the ability to convey what I need to in a commercial situation.”
If Iyer’s recent recipes are any indication, Turmeric Trail is ultimately about crossing cultures and introducing American cooks to the power of blended, roasted spices. To demonstrate their flexibility outside of the realm of Indian food, Iyer whipped up a remarkable batch of pomegranate guacamole that sizzled with heat and depth. The light, tangy pieces of fruit in the dip helped counterbalance the rich intensity of the creamy and deeply spiced avocado.
“The avocado gives it that umami factor, the buttery mouthfeel,” says Iyer. “We’ve got the heat coming from the chiles in there… we’ve got the sourness coming from the limes, we’ve got another layer of sweet / sour undertones coming from the pomegranate.”
Another of Iyer’s crossover recipes is for a dressed up working class staple: good old macaroni and cheese.
“You look at [the] Madras Masala [spice blend], and you think about mac and cheese,” says Iyer, making an intuitive leap that many consumers might not initially come up with. “I have a recipe for that in my new book [to be published by Workman Publishing], and I call it ‘Mac and Cheese Outsourced.’ If you take mac and cheese and you’re making a cheese sauce and it’s all bubbly and gooey, throw in a couple teaspoons of Madras Masala and toss your macaroni in it, and you’ve got a very adult, sophisticated mac and cheese that is just dynamite. You can’t get more American than that.”
Chef Iyer will appear at the following event on Nov. 19 at the Kitchen in the Market in support of Turmeric Trail:
Classic Thanksgiving with a Twist
Raghavan Iyer will demonstrate how to give a classic Thanksgiving meal a fun and delicious twist while guests enjoy the following menu:
Spiced Lamb Chops with Mumbai Masala
Mashed Potatoes with Madras Masala
Cranberry Relish with Chai Masala
Spinach and Golden Raisins with Garam Masala
$35 per person, tickets are available via TurmericTrail.com/events-pg
Avocado Pomegranate Relish
On his website, Iyer writes: “I served this at our Thanksgiving table and all my friends uttered ‘sexy!’ It was, I agreed, with that light green background of buttery avocado perked up with plump, juicy, and succulent teardrops of ruby red pomegranate seeds. All it needed was a kettle-cooked potato chip for bliss and I was all too happy to provide that — a whole bagful that disappeared in eight minutes. I’m not one to keep track of time, really.”
Makes 2 cups (brimming)
¼ cup firmly packed fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
3 large cloves garlic
1 to 2 fresh green Serrano chiles, stems discarded
2 teaspoons Turmeric Trail’s Mumbai Masala
3 large ripe Haas avocados, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch cubes (see tips)
½ cup fresh pomegranate seeds or red raspberries (see tips)
1. Pulse the cilantro, lime juice, salt, onion, garlic, and chiles in a food processor bowl. Using the pulsing action, mince the mélange. Letting the blades run incessantly will create an unwanted chunky puree, full of liquid.
2. Scrape this into a medium-size bowl and fold in Turmeric Trail’s Mumbai Masala, avocado, and pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately. If you are planning on serving it later, press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the dip’s surface, making sure there are no air bubbles in between the wrap and the surface (this slows down the dip from oxidizing and turning a wee bit black). You can store it in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.