Saturday, December 01, 2007

Hook, line, and sinker

Restaurateur Ana Sortun led a small group of us on a shopping tour today of several of Watertown's Armenian groceries. (She generously donated her time as a prize in a charity auction we had attended for one of Boston's great music ensembles.) While we were keeping warm in the back of Sevan Bakery, Ana led us through her shopping list and explained the variety of spices, vegetable, dried goods, canned goods, frozen foods, dairy, and deli that we were about to see, feel, smell and taste.

First, though, she offered us a prosaic* depiction of spices, explaining that each particular mix of spices in the world's cooking provides an arrow in the atlas in terms of the food's location and culture. She also depicts each particular mix as the "source of craving" that we might have for different types of food -- Middle Eastern, Greek, Mexican, and so on.

Then, to prove the point, we were told about and got to experience za'atar, the wonderful blend of herbs -- with distinctive varieties from Jordan, Syria, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere. Za'atar also refers to one of the herbs itself, a hyssop related to thyme, but with a flavor that is a cross between thyme and oregano. It is dried and blended with sesame seeds and sumac, which itself is cured with salt. The resulting flavor, notes Ana, catches you "hook, line and sinker" and is one of those things that creates cravings ever after. There was total agreement in our group after our taste test!

That being said, my favorite was muhammara, a mixture of crushed red pepper, ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses, and olive oil. Put that on your pita bread and taste it.

Did I mention that Ana has a cookbook, appropriately entitled Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean? If you are really lucky, you live in a city like Los Angeles or Boston, where there are large Armenian communities where you can readily find the ingredients.

*Eek! See comment below and offer substitutes for this word, please!!!


Anonymous said...

I hope Ana's description of spices wasn't really "prosaic" or you must have been quite bored. Her cooking is anything but prosaic!

Anonymous said...

Egad, you caught me in a bad, bad one! Please give me a good substitute.

Anonymous said...

> Please give me a good substitute

Well, gee, Paul, it kinda depends on what you actually meant! :)

Say it in a few more words and our word experts will git to work. (I've already alerted Rhonda of Parvum Opus, a newsletter about language that's so good it counts Richard Lederer as a subscriber.)

Anonymous said...

Hmm, tough audience.

I meant something like "lyrical" and/or "expressive" and/or "evocative", and/or all three combined. Now get to work!

Anonymous said...

I haven't heard back from Rhonda yet, but how's this for starters:

"First, though, she offered us a deliciously evocative depiction of spices..."

Anonymous said...

"Poetic" comes pretty close. I'll bet that's the word you thought of first, and then you said to yourself, But it was in prose, not rhyme, so why not be more precise and literal and write "prosaic" instead?

Anonymous said...

Exactly. It is so nice to be understood. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Imagine a warm fire, on a moonlit night, at the center of a caravan carrying spices in ancient times. That's what she conjured up as she taught us the stories of precious spices.

Anonymous said...


How about "redolent"? What is it about memories of taste and smell? Proust and all that. You've hit upon two big faves of mine -- zaatar and muhamarra -- neither of which, sadly, is likely to be on the dinner menu tonight.

-- David Harlow

Anonymous said...

A superb word, indeed. One of my favorites!