Spice It Up!

Three of Honolulu’s best chefs share culinary tips for easily adding some flavors from afar to your kitchen repertoire.

For years now, chefs have been showing off their knowledge of, to us, esoteric spices—with everything, from achiote to zaatar, popping up on contemporary menus. And home cooks are following suit. With the ranks of self-proclaimed foodies stocking their pantries with every new flavor and gadget, the number of gourmet spice companies is exploding.

“Curated” spice labs, such as La Boite in New York City and Le Sanctuaire in Santa

Monica, offer custom blends of herbs you’ve likely never heard of. And even supermarket staple McCormick’s has stepped up its game: In 2012, for the first time in its 123-year history, it opened a retail outlet in its hometown of Baltimore that’s a sort of amusement park of seasonings.

But, it can be hard to move on from what you know. When you roast chicken, do you automatically reach for that generically titled, “poultry seasoning”? (What’s in it anyway?) Or, do you not even go beyond salt and pepper? We asked three of Honolulu’s top chefs for tips on how to easily spice up your home menu. Time to clear out those bottles of cinnamon and bay leaves that are as old as your fourth grader, and make way for some new flavors.

But before you go off half-cocked with your fenugreek and peri peri, do your homework.

“Spice can really enhance a meal, or turn it into something you hate for the rest of your life,” warns Vikram Garg, Halekulani executive chef, who is from India: ground zero for spices. “It’s not about the spice; it’s about the handling of the spice. If you don’t know it; don’t mess with it.”

Still, to know your spices, you’ve got to start somewhere, and Garg recommends mace. ~ is spice comes from the same tree as nutmeg.


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The aptly named spice, star anise.

“It’s the most underutilized spice, and has the most effect on flavor. Nutmeg is the stone of the nutmeg tree fruit. Mace is the weird, web-like skin of the nutmeg, and a sliver of that web is called a blade.

“Take just one blade, and drop it in your favorite stew as it’s cooking, and the mace gives it a whole different dimension of flavor,” Garg says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking Indian or a French stew with red wine.”

Be sure to limit to one blade—more than that, and it becomes bitter. And you’re in luck: Wailea Agricultural Group, on Hawai’i Island, grows it, and Garg says it’s some of the best mace in the world.

Chris Kajioka—former Vintage Cave Honolulu chef, who is opening his own restaurant this spring—loves using spices on poultry and lamb (“It’s really, really good.”), and not so much on seafood. He recommends buying whole spice and grinding your own: “Because good, freshly ground spices are so much more potent than pre-ground, out-of-a-public tub spice at a discount store.”

Kajioka’s early career focused on French food, which uses little spice, which is why he went to work for San Francisco chef Mourad Lahlou, the king of contemporary Moroccan cuisine.

“There were a lot of spices I wasn’t familiar with. Knowing how to work with spices gives you another instrument in your repertoire. To get a really deep flavor, spices are awesome.

If you add cumin, coriander and fennel seed to charred eggplant, it’s so good. It’s all in that tasty Mediterranean wheelhouse.”

As a first step in spicing, Kajioka suggests one of his favorite combos … Mix oregano, cumin, salt and pepper together, and rub it on a whole chicken, and roast it. Cumin may be the world’s most-ancient spice—Sumerians used it 4,000 years ago, and now, it’s a must-have in cooking from Mexico to China.

“It’s easy to do, and it is awesome.”

Like Garg, Kajioka stresses that you need to know what you’re doing.

“If you use cumin the wrong way, it has that dirty sock taste.”

His favorite spice blend is berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix that can include coriander and cardamom—though, as Kajioka explains, “Every family has a different blend.”

You can taste it in traditional Ethiopian cooking at the restaurant Ethiopian Love in Chinatown, and soon, you can see how Kajioka uses it in a contemporary dish at his soon-to-open Senia, which is also in Chinatown.

“I love to use berbere on duck, and what I’m working on now for the restaurant is a whole roasted duck with berbere and honey, with the crispy skin in scallion crêpes—a hybrid Moroccan-and-Chinese dish, served family-style. It’s reaaaaally good, aromatic and crispy.”

These days, says Kajioka, most spices are readily available. “You can buy a berbere mix at Whole Foods, and most gourmet grocery stores.”

George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro is bemused by the mini craze for vadouvan, a spice blend that has shown up on highly lauded menus, from San Francisco’s Saison to Eleven Madison Park in New York City.

“I was using vadouvan on my menu at La Mer 27 years ago,” he says. That’s because, as a Marseille native, vadouvan is in his culinary blood. He explains that Pondicherry, India—now known as Puducherry—was a French colony for more than 200 years.

“The French love to drink wine with food, but they couldn’t with Indian curry, so they created their own curry, vadouvan, which is very smooth, and can pair with wine. And all the spices from India and Vietnam used to go to Marseille, when everything used to be transported through the Suez Canal.”

Now on the Chef Mavro menu is a lamb vadouvan curry, which he makes with almond milk instead of coconut milk.

“It’s even smoother, and we can pair it with a Châteauneuf du Pape … beautiful.”

At home, Mavrothalassitis likes to use the Indian spice mix garam masala, which is heavy on the cumin.

“I like it with seafood. Something easy that any cook can do is grill oysters, [and] then sprinkle them with garam masala; you get 10 times the oyster flavor. It’s totally delicious.”

Make this! Chef Mavro’s Vadouvan


2 lb. onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 lb. shallots, halved
12 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh curry leaves (optional)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
3/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves


1. Preheat oven to 350 F with rack in middle.

2. Pulse onions in three batches in a food processor until very coarsely chopped, before transferring the pieces into a bowl. Repeat with shallots and garlic.

3. Heat oil in a 12-inch deep, heavy, nonstick skillet over high heat until it shimmers, then sauté onions, shallots and garlic until golden brown, for 25 to 30 minutes.

4. Grind fenugreek seeds.

5. Add to onion mixture along with remaining ingredients—1 T. salt, and 1 tsp. pepper—and stir until combined.

6. Transfer to a parchment paper-lined, 4-sided sheet pan, and spread as thinly and evenly as possible.

7. Bake, stirring occasionally with a skewer to separate onions, until well-browned and barely moist, for approximately 1-1 1/4 hours.

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