World Spice Merchants and Tom Douglas Restaurants create regional blends for the way we cook in the Northwest.
THE TERM “SPICE BLEND” often evokes seasonings from around the globe — Indian garam masala, Middle Eastern za’atar, herbes de Provence from the south of France. For me, it took a trip to New Orleans to think about all the spice blends closer to home — in the United States and in our own hometowns.
Seasonings in New Orleans aren’t just listed in terms of paprika or red pepper or cumin. Instead, people swore by Paul Prudhomme’s or Emeril’s or Zatarain’s or some other premixed combination. At the New Orleans School of Cooking, where I took a fun and casual class, “Joe’s Stuff” was the magical addition, a blend invented by the school’s original owner in the 1980s.
Mixing the fragrant Joe’s Stuff powder into gumbo, our instructor told us that every part of the United States has its own particular spice mix. In New Orleans, she said, it’s those mixes of Cajun or Creole flavors. In the East Coast, it’s Old Bay, the 18-herb blend based on celery salt … and so on.
Once our food coma of jambalayas and remoulades and red beans and rice wore off, we started wondering about that “and so on.” Does America really have spice blends for every region?
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Author Aliza Green, in her book “The Magic of Spice Blends” (Quarry, $24.99), holds that North America does boast a big collection of spice blends, even though we don’t grow that many of the spices here. Immigrants from around the globe brought their own seasonings into the American melting pot, she writes, adding blends like apple pie spice and pumpkin pie spice and even pastrami seasoning (via Romanian-Jewish residents who had adapted it earlier from the Ottoman Empire).
The Ozarks, if you judge by a major dealer like Penzeys Spices, can be represented with a blend based on black pepper. Northwoods Wisconsin gets its due from a blend including coarse salt, paprika and rosemary. Penzeys’ Rocky Mountain seasoning includes Parmesan cheese and bell peppers. And of course, Southwest spice blends rely on chili peppers, and styles of barbecue rubs — Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, etc. — are as fiercely regional as it gets.
In the Northwest, spice blends aren’t as clearly defined as they are in other parts of the country. In the past few years, though, some spice mavens have given it a good shot.
At World Spice Merchants near Pike Place Market, owner Amanda Bevill has devoted considerable time to defining a regional blend. The shop has had its own Seattle Salmon Rub for ages, says Bevill, starting with Chinese 5-spice powder, toasted cumin and coriander. (Tom Douglas Restaurants also packages a “Rub With Love” salmon blend including smoked paprika and brown sugar.) World Spice also produces a Cascade Mushroom Mix incorporating ground porcinis. And, in 2016, it decided to create its own specifically Seattle spice mix.
Bevill says they tried to answer, “What are our influences, and what is our local bounty?”
Those are hard concepts to combine in a jar.
Northwest foods encompass ingredients that are foraged or fished or farmed here. They include ingredients relied on by Native American tribes, and flavors brought in by immigrants old and new.
The World Spice team experimented with blends including alder-smoked salt. They tested mixtures with marjoram and dill.
Ultimately, the “Emerald City Blend” included lemon thyme, chives and pink peppercorns. World Spice recipes use it for everything from seafood to soup to fruit salad. It’s subtle, Bevill says, designed to complement flavors rather than covering them up.
That’s fitting for the Seattle style of cooking, where many chefs say their style is just to get great ingredients and then get out of their way. And, of course, Bevill says, visitors to Seattle like to bring a taste of the city back home. They’ll carry their Emerald City blend back to wherever they’re from, just as I returned with my bottle of Joe’s Stuff and a sheaf of recipes from New Orleans.