The spice of life (and death)

 A philosophy of flavors
By BRIAN DUFF  |  February 12, 2014


PERFECT SPICE at Orchid Thai in Falmouth

In our reverence for herbs and spices  we should detect our contempt for the blander staple ingredients they are often meant to enliven: commoditized grains, big-ag produce, and the meat of factory-farmed animals. And in our taste for spice we should also perceive our contempt for the banal lives (our own) that these staple foods sustain. Long ago, humans who subsisted by itinerant foraging experienced viscerally, in the aroma and flavors of countless wild plants, the feints and facts of danger. Strong flavor and aroma meant risk, since their presence in a plant’s oils is indicative of poison and meant to discourage consumption. For the ancient forager, to engage strong flavor was to test one’s knowledge, instincts, and strength. Now, we sprinkle the alluring taste of poison on heaping plates of dull, safe foods that fuel our dull, safe existences. Ostensibly enlivening to our cuisine, herbs and spices might also be the spiritual aroma of a call to riskier living.

To explore this phenomenon I sampled various deployments of herbs and spices in local restaurants and shops: in drinks, savory dishes, and dessert.

The cocktails at Brunswick’s Tao Yuan (22 Pleasant St., Brunswick, offer a preview for Portlanders, since chef Cara Stadler will open a West End dumpling joint this summer. We tried two made with Thai basil, the southeast Asian varietal. In a strawberry-basil cosmo the fruit overwhelmed the herb’s subtle sweetness. But in the terrific beet and yuzu martini, the basil’s tangy aroma introduced each sip, and its sweet spice lingered after.

While adding spice to our alcohol enlivens the task of obliterating our unpleasant self-consciousness, tea conquers the rebellious herb with heat — extracting and mellowing its essence, forcing it to comfort us through another intolerable day. The independent tea consultant/savant Alex Campbell ( recommended Tamaryokucha, a green tea from Japan, for its resonance in line with the oceanic feeling Freud associated with the death drive. Indeed it had a wonderful briny depth, along with grassiness and lingering sourness.

Herbs and spices do harder work when we ask them to obscure the bizarre blandness that underlies the modern murder behind meat. No cuisine does this better than Thai, where dishes are often named for their blend of spices, leaving the protein interchangeable. Falmouth’s lovely new Orchid Thai (202 US Route 1, Falmouth, offers something rarer and more refined: dry curry dishes made with chicken so completely infused with herb and spice that this most neutral of meats becomes headspinningly flavorful. By mingling ground chicken directly with basil, chilies, and garlic (rather than soaking it all in a milky sauce), the Kra-Pow Gai Sub delivers a direct engagement with the herbs, along with the crunch of green bean. The Kua Kling intensified the experience thanks to the heat of crunchy young peppercorn, tangy galangal and lemongrass, and sharp pickled ginger. In both dishes a fried egg with creamy yolk cut the heat.

While spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg are commonly deployed to add interest to dessert’s simple sugars, it is less common to find a dessert that effectively engages green herbs. Portland’s Maine Pie Line (housed in the same building as the winter farmers’ market; 200 Anderson St, Portland) makes a lemon meringue version with rosemary. The baker’s approach — infusing the herb into the butter before baking — results in the subtlest suggestion of wintery flavor amidst the sharpness of the lemony tang.

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