A number of years ago, whispers started to swirl in the culinary community about Lior Lev Sercarz, a spice master whom chefs rely on for custom blends known to ignite a dish, transforming it with just a pinch of one of his creations.
Having tried to track down the in-demand dealer at La Boîte, Sercarz’s lab, which is part store and part studio, to no avail, this man was starting to feel like a myth. More than a year later when we would finally come face to face, standing on opposite sides of a table stacked with spices, I had the rare opportunity to place a custom order: a spice that tasted of Jerusalem’s bustling outdoor market, Machaneh Yehudah—where people from nearly every part of the city come together to buy produce, grab lunch and gossip. A child of a kibbutz in Northern Israel, Sercarz knew exactly what I meant.
La Boîte is home to hundreds of spice varieties
A capsule of earthy cumin, golden turmeric, warming cinnamon and numerous other ingredients in hand at long last, I mixed it sparingly into marinades and rice dishes, afraid of running out—at times pulling it out of the cupboard just to inhale the scent and be transported back to the market, getting jostled by fellow shoppers and listening to the vendors bellow out the day’s specials.
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Spices “take you places without going anywhere,” Sercarz said at his shop on the far western edge of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen on a recent morning.
“Scent, it’s a tricky thing,” he explained. “It’s basically recorded in our brain for good, for life. There’s no way of deleting that hard drive.”
Sercarz is more than a dealer of spices; he’s a master of capturing a scent and translating it into a reality, a skill that has been honed over a decade of experience. And in his new book, The Spice Companion, he shares some of that wisdom.
Somewhere between a bible and dictionary of more than 100 spices, from familiar paprika to lesser-known mastic, the book explains to readers where each spice originated and what it pairs with, smells and tastes like. It also offers an introductory primer to creating spice blends, with helpful suggestions like, walk away from your spice blend after you’ve made it. “It’s a bit like making art: Sometimes it is better to take a break and come back to it. You’ll see it and smell it in a fresh way,” he writes.
Breaking up cinnamon for toasting
For Sercarz, his take-me-back-to-the-market transportive scent is rain. “What makes [rain] smell different is what it touches, if there’s dust in the air or the way it touches the ground”—especially around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which starts at the tail end of this weekend and stretches into the beginning of next week. When the first rain after a long, dry summer hits the ground in Israel, the scent is stronger, more intense, Sercarz explained.
“I joke that if I can ever make a rain blend I will retire, because that will be the ultimate scent,” he said. Later, he conceded that he won’t even try for fear of the “What’s after?”
When asked to create a custom blend for the holiday to give that undeniable bump to a dish of chicken with apples and carrots (see the recipe), he chose to combine flavors from the two main branches of the Jewish diaspora: Ashkenazic (Jews who settled in Eastern Europe) and Sephardic (those who settled in Spain and ultimately beyond). “You’re either from [one] camp or from the other . . . but I never understood why you couldn’t combine [the two],” he said. The result is a blend (see the recipe) that kicks off with an intense citrus note and warms up, thanks to cinnamon, savory mace and cumin, and finally pops from whole nigella and mustard seeds.
The last thing left was for Sercarz to name the spice, and he seemed unsettled until he decided. “Some names don’t work,” he said. They should make you curious. “We’ll call it Sweet Nigella,” he announced and breathed a sigh of relief.
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