A Touch of Alchemy, A Dash of Instinct

by Inga Yandell

The magic of creating a feast rich in aromas and vibrant colours, both satisfying to the mouth and belly is the aim for most who dabble in the culinary arts. But for some, the spice rack remains a herbal curiosity—a mysterious collection of powders and twigs reserved for an alchemist with knowledge of the botanical. Heston Blumenthal for one would know what to do with exotics like: Kala Jeera (a member of the parsley family) or Anardana (the dried seed of wild pomegranate) and the magically named Grains of Paradise (related to both ginger and cardamom).

For a considerable many (myself included) our list of ingredients (those we are familiar and confident in administering) is typically far less extensive—perhaps some garlic, basil, salt and pepper…and when we are feeling adventurous chilli or cumin. This go-to selection of staples will work in a pinch, but hardly reflects the fabulous diversity of herbs and spices that our world has to offer.

Enter our gastronomic guide, not a five star chef but a curious dabbler and DIY cook unafraid to follow her instincts in the kitchen.

Devyn Sisson, a self-taught chef and self-declared foodie extraordinaire, teaches you how to cultivate a mindful approach to eating—getting acquainted with your body’s nutritional needs, your palate’s likes and dislikes, and the emotional elements that shape your cravings and deep satisfactions with meals. Sisson elegantly chronicles her personal journey of healing her body through healthful eating, and how you can build health, confidence, and self-esteem from intuitive cooking that transfers into all other areas of life. Grab a copy of her first book Kitchen Intuition and follow her @KitchenIntuition.

What does it mean to be an intuitive cook?

Being an intuitive cook is learning to use your body, senses, and gut-feeling, to prepare food in the kitchen. Intuitive cooking is getting in touch with your likes and dislikes, being willing to TRY new things, to accept failure as a lesson, and to understand and love your relationship with food. Intuitive cooking is literally asking yourself and your body what to eat and how to prepare it. Intuitive cooking implies creativity, experimentation, and awareness.  

How does this style of cooking fit alongside carefully planned performance nutrition?

Carefully planned performance nutrition can absolutely include intuitive cooking. Using your intuition to try new spices, new combinations of flavors and new ways of preparing food all require your intuition (and willingness to create, experiment and learn). Something as simple as exploring new ways to season your chicken breast and broccoli florets, can benefit greatly from getting in touch with your gut. Science is useful when it comes to food but the body knows best, understanding your relationship with food can help to maximize performance and JOY when it comes to nourishing the body.    

How universal is this approach—will it work for never-cooked-before or can’t-boil-an-egg cooks?

This approach is universal, you only get to experience confidence in the kitchen when you’ve given yourself the opportunity to TRY. How do you know you don’t like cooking (or aren’t good at it) when you haven’t given yourself the freedom and fun to mess up? Ideally, this approach helps to increase the awareness and success in the kitchen for those who already know how to cook and love doing so, but also helps to peak interest and open doors for those who haven’t even boiled an egg.  

Can you share your vision for the Primal Kitchen and Intuitive Cooking movement?

My visions for the Primal Kitchen restaurant and Intuitive Cooking movement are different in some ways but converge in others. I want to continue to grow this community of health-conscious mindful individuals. The Restaurant provides a space where people from all different lifestyles and diets can come to eat good quality, quickly prepared, DELICIOUS, nutrient-dense food. The restaurant will give healthy eaters a place to rest easy eating clean yummy food, while opening the doors for unhealthy/picky eaters to come and experience (and hopefully learn to love) healthy dishes. My vision for my intuitive cooking movement is to do the same….To provide a way for cooks/chefs to loosen up and expand their awareness, while hopefully introducing new techniques and ideas for those pizza-delivery-eaters to prepare BETTER food and have fun doing it. Both go beyond athletes, chefs, foodies and food-lovers, I want children to love spaghetti squash and for their parents to get them sitting on counters tossing a colorful salad.

What has influenced your understanding and passion for food the most?

My passion for food has been influenced by my relationships. As I have learned more about people, social psychology, health, and relationships, I have learned to understand how much I love people and how much I love enjoying food with them. Historically, families/communities have connected each night at the dinner table, romantic relationships often begin on a first dinner date, a baby’s connection to its mother often revolves around feeding time/direct eye contact (nursing), work meetings happen in coffee shops, children are treated with ice-cream, we use food to celebrate life. Not only is the act of eating what keeps us physically alive, but the act of eating socializes humans. I have fallen in love through the act of cooking, met some of my greatest friends, and survived break-up because of food. We use food to celebrate life and noticing that has influenced my love for food.

Top three takeaways from the book?

EXPERIMENT: allow yourself to create, and also to mess up.
TRUST: your body get your hands dirty and listen to your gut.
LAUGH: don’t take life OR cooking so seriously. Find ways to enjoy what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. 

Circling back to the opening topic, here is Devyn’s advice on herb and spice…

A Brief Breakdown: Spices are the aromatic parts of plants used for flavoring and coloring food. They are the seed, fruit, bark, berry, bud, or vegetable parts of plants and include the spices cinnamon, nut- meg, garlic, turmeric, cumin, and onion powder, to name a few. Herbs are the leafy green, often aromatic parts of plants used as medicinals or for seasoning. Examples of herbs include rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, and parsley.

A Short History: We’ve come to identify certain regional food with particular flavors and seasonings. Curry, cumin, and turmeric underlie many Indian recipes. Oregano, basil, and thyme inform many Italian and Mediterranean dishes. Cardamom, five-spice, and certainly cinnamon flavor fond memories of many favorite Asian dishes. But human migration and the spice trade spread the use and cultivation of herbs and spices across cultural boundaries. Many of these ingredients, as we studied in elementary school, originated in China and Asia, and thanks to Marco Polo and other explorers along the spice trade routes, then spread into the Roman Empire and beyond. There were no hard and fast rules about how to use these new, fragrant spices and herbs—people experimented and incorporated them into their own regional dishes. Many touted some ingredients’ medicinal benefits. Ginger originated in China and was used to counter gastrointestinal concerns and motion sickness. Horseradish was used in ancient Greece to treat food poisoning, among other things, and as a cough expectorant in Europe in the middle ages. Many of these natural herbal remedies are still used today.

Devyn’s Herb and Spice Rack

The following list of herbs and spices are ones I use regularly when experimenting in my own kitchen. Learning how different cuisines combine different spices and herbs and which ones work best in their particular dishes gives me a great starting point to jump off and explore.

Rosemary: Mediterranean shrub in mint family; the narrow gray-green leaves are great for grilling or roasting meat and also in soups and casseroles.

Thyme: Eurasian herb or low shrub, also in mint family; leaves used as seasoning (though not much is needed); goes well with lamb, chicken, and pork.

Oregano: Eurasian herb, also in mint family; leaves used as seasoning in tomato sauces, Mediterranean, Italian, and Greek dishes.

Basil: native to Asia and Africa, also in mint family; leaves used as seasoning, but should be added to sauces near the end of cooking to preserve their flavor.

Parsley: Eurasian herb; leaves used as seasoning or garnish; try in soups, sauces, and salads.

Cilantro: the fresh stems and leaves of the coriander plant; a nice balance to the spicy ingredients in Mexican dishes.

Dill: native to Eurasia; leaves and seeds are often used as seasoning in seafood dishes, salads and dips.

Turmeric: strong, bitter flavor, used for color in mustards and curries, but can be added to many dishes.

Nutmeg: nutty, sweet flavor often used to make desserts like pies, puddings, cakes, and cookies.

Cinnamon: described as a sweet-spicy taste, it partners with chocolate and apples and works well in some vegetable and fruit dishes.

Allspice: tastes like a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg; good in savory dishes and with beef and lamb.

Garlic powder: less strong than fresh garlic, with sweeter undertones.

Onion powder: good substitute for onions in some soups and dips; 1 teaspoon is about the same as a small onion.

Cumin: slightly earthy, nutty flavor; used in curries and in taco seasoning.

Cayenne: the spiciest of chili pepper powders (after paprika and chili powder) Paprika – a milder, sweeter, and often smoky version of the chili pepper powders.

Curry: a mix of spices generally including cumin, coriander, turmeric (for the yellow color), pepper, mustard, ginger, clove, cardamom, bay leaf, and fenugreek; the spiciness of the curry depends on the level of hot pepper used in the powder.

Pine nuts: the seed of the Mediterranean stone pine; used in Spanish and Italian dishes, such as pesto.

Distinctive Flavours of Other Cultures

The spice trade forever opened borders and minds to new cuisines and cultures, yet even today there are distinctive flavors that underlie many regional dishes. These are just a few, but certainly not all the flavors you might recognize in some of your favorite dishes from abroad.

Mexican: chili (many varieties), chipotle, Mexican oregano, cumin, cilantro, coriander, and clove.

Italian: oregano, parsley, garlic, pepper flakes, basil, thyme.

Greek: dill, parsley, saffron, lemon, thyme, rosemary, sage.

Asian: ginger, garlic, cardamom, fenugreek, five-spice, turmeric, cloves.

Indian: cumin, turmeric, coriander, curry, garam masala (usually a blend of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, and peppercorns).

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
Inga Yandell

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