Every two years, the Culinary Institute of America hosts its World of Flavors conference in its castle-like Napa Valley compound.
Some of the planet’s best chefs show up, along with food purveyors from across the globe, and the endless meals, spread out in a massive hall lined with wine casks the size of Spanish galleons, each revolve around a single educational theme, so that the attendees — institutional food vendors, manufacturers, restaurant chains, journalists — can deepen their understanding about one aspect of food, and in turn use that knowledge to impress, entice and engorge you, the ever-hungry consumer.
Last year’s subject: spices.
I went — first, because I knew I would get to eat some of the world’s best food and wine in the company of great chefs over two crisp fall days in Napa, and second, because the World of Flavors is a stealth United Nations. It quietly, consistently, draws chefs from countries and cultures that otherwise are in conflict, if not active warfare. I scanned the roster and found chefs straight from, or originally from, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and, yes, Israel.
World of Flavors is a kind of chefs sans frontiers, where cooks come to cook and learn from other cooks—and they bat away questions about politics from people like me. It’s a cliché—but one that I never get tired of– that food can break barriers. But in Napa, I actually began to see how, and it had exactly to do with the subject of this particular conference.
Chefs from Italy, Sri Lanka, Iran and Israel, divided by culture, religion, distance, and even by cuisine, nevertheless all share a common language — spices.
It turns out those fragrant ingredients haven’t just inspired cooks, they have shaped history and culture. We are the beneficiaries of an ancient spice trade that started millennia ago, with no concern for modern borders. The arc of flavor began in the far-off, exotic spice-producing countries and spread to Europe, China and the New World.
Not that the process was always pretty. The Dutch decided to take over the West Indies clove and nutmeg trade, and in doing so massacred entire islands full of people. The Spaniards plundered tropical America and returned to Europe with chilis and chocolate.
But the upshot was the beginnings of Tom Friedman’s flat world. Most of the world’s basil, which is indigenous to India, now comes from Egypt’s Nile River valley. Most herbs come from the Mediterranean, home to 17 species of oregano. Dutch food is inflected with Indonesian spices.
“The ramifications of the spice trade are that the world came together through food,” according to Michael Krondl, author of “The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice,” who was a featured speaker at the conference.
On the second floor of the CIA’s Greystone headquarters, a historic castle-like property in St. Helena, chefs from around world took over the stations of a gleaming, cavernous kitchen and proved Krondl’s point, dish by dish.
I was most curious, for obvious reasons, about the Middle Eastern chefs. I wandered over to demonstrations by cookbook author Joan Nathan and the Israeli chef Erez Komarovsky.
“From Thailand to Israel every dish begins with onion, garlic, and chili,”Komarovsky said.
For a dish of baby cauliflower stuffed with lamb, he added spoonfuls of cumin, cinnamon and clove, all of which he ground by hand. The room filled with fragrance.
Fragrance, rare and familiar, was everywhere. Singaporean Indian chef/author Devagi Sanmugam brought kapok blossoms and stone flower, a lichen that grows inside wells, from Singapore. Musa Dagdeviren—the Turkish Emeril Lagasse– made a lamb and eggplant dish flavored with cumin, lamb fat—loads of it — a slab of butter and a sun-dried Turkish chili called marash. Marash, mark my words, will be the chipotle of 2014.
In another room, Khulood Atiq, one of the first professional female chefs in the United Arab Emirates, was preparing a typical Emirati spice blend: dried lemon, cumin, coriander, and fennel. Outside, Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou prepared a rub for lamb shoulder: saffron and cumin blended with soft butter.
“In Morocco,” he said, “food and cooking is about memories, looking back more than looking forward.”
Back inside, Yotam Ottolenghi, chef and author of the best-selling “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” made a kind of shakshouka with ground lamb and harissa — yes, there was a lot of lamb everywhere — while chef Greg Malouf, whose family is Lebanese, looked on, and traded notes.
As the dishes piled up, the conflicts that bedevil cultures seemed to whither under the relentless sensual assault of fragrance and flavor. The chefs ran from their own classes to taste dishes prepared by their fellow chefs.
I stood beside a Thai chef as we sampled Djerba chef Abderrazak Haouari’s chickpea sous vide egg, harissa, olives, capers and croutons. It was the best breakfast dish you’ve never heard of. “I want to hug him,” the Thai chef said.
Spices, so often acquired in conflict, now serve as a bridge among cultures. If only we all understood what chefs do: It would be a dull world, indeed, without the strange, the new, the different.
“You almost think,” Ottolenghi said, “a little lemon juice would solve all the world’s problems.”
Read my last column on the 2009 conference here.
There is a ridiculously small fee ($7.99) to watch the videos from the conference. They are 1000 times more educational than the Food Network. The link is here.
Chef Abderrazak Haouari uses this Djerban version of harissa on sous vide eggs, served with chickpeas, capers, croutons and olives. It is brick red and warmly hot: great with fish, eggplant, chicken.
Makes 1/2 cup.
1 medium onion, very thinly sliced
Pinch of turmeric
2 tablespoons kosher salt
4 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and seeded
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pinch of cinnamon
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
In a shallow bowl, toss the onion slices with the turmeric and salt. Cover the onion with plastic wrap and let stand overnight at room temperature.
Meanwhile, heat a cast-iron skillet until hot to the touch. Add the anchos and chipotles and toast over moderate heat, pressing lightly with a spatula until the chiles are very pliable and fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer the chiles to a work surface and let cool completely, then tear them into 1-inch pieces. In a spice grinder, coarsely grind the chiles.
Drain the onion slices in a strainer, pressing hard to extract as much liquid as possible. Transfer the onions to a food processor and pulse until pureed. Add the ground chiles, coriander, caraway, pepper and cinnamon and process to a paste. With the machine on, gradually add the olive oil and puree until fairly smooth.
The harous can be refrigerated for up to 6 months.