Savor: Spice of Life

BY Lucy Huber

Tired of oysters shrimp and grits and buttered biscuits? Probably not. And why should you be? Here on the Azalea Coast we love our seafood and down-home cooking; no argument there. But sometimes just sometimes you have to take a walk on the wild side and try something new. Who knows tonight may be the night. So put down those lobster crackers and leave your hushpuppies behind (at least until tomorrow); its time to try some world cuisine.

Spices make the world go round at least as far as food goes. From culture to culture people have been searching for new flavors for as long as theyve been eating. Take Columbus. The famous explorer bumped into North America by accident. Our country was really just a roadblock on his journey to find the fastest trade route between Spain and the East Indies. And what was Spain looking to trade? Thats right: spices.

Most people think “flavor” first but cuisines rich in spices like Jamaican Moroccan and Indian foods have been known to provide cancer-fighting antioxidants reduce seasickness and even act as powerful aphrodisiacs. Perhaps the reason that these health benefits are (almost) overlooked is because these cuisines are some of the tastiest foods on earth.

Valerie Lingo co-owner of Jamaicas Comfort Zone (JCZ 417 S. College Road) is not a native Jamaican but loves to eat like one. “We want to re-create our customers Jamaican experiences ” says Lingo. “People come home from the island eat here and say that it totally recaptures the food they ate in Jamaica.” Jamaicas Comfort Zones chef Nigel Wood is a native Jamaican. He learned all of his recipes from his grandmother so staying authentic is important to him. “Nigel remains faithful to his culture in his cooking ” says Lingo. The results speak for themselves.

For those who havent been to Jamaica it may be hard to imagine what authentic Jamaican food actually is. Well its a reflection of the islands mixed heritage including African French Indian and Spanish influences. Dishes like curried goat chopped goat simmered in a mild yellow curry or escovitch chicken fried chicken sauted with red yellow and green peppers onions and carrots in a sugar/vinegar base make the menu at JCZ enticing unique and traditionally Caribbean.

“Jamaican cooking is all about spices ” says Lingo. “Not necessarily spicy but very flavorful.” When the staff at JCZ cant find what they need here in the states they go straight to the source: Jamaica. “We get about 30 pounds of Jamaican spices every year ” says Lingo. “We just have to have the real stuff.”

Four years ago Shai Shalit an Israeli native opened Nagila The Kosher Moroccan Caf (3314 Wrightsville Avenue) Wilmingtons first and only completely kosher restaurant. “The menu is a blend of Moroccan Israeli Mediterranean and Egyptian foods ” says Shalit. “And as for how keeping kosher works well thats very complicated.” Its true. The Jewish dietary laws that define what is kosher and what isnt are involved but here is a quick crash course to get you going.

The main concern with kosher food is cleanliness. Meat must come from an animal that does not have split hooves and is slaughtered humanely with a clean blade and the blood must be removed by either boiling or soaking in salt. Vegetables must be washed in a certain way and dairy and meats must remain separate. A Rabbi must inspect kosher restaurants and food preparation facilities to confirm that those handling the food are holding true to the rules.

Nagila is a strictly meat and pareve (food that is neither meat nor dairy) restaurant which means there is no dairy at all. But despite the limitations Shalit thinks that keeping his restaurant kosher is what makes it delicious. “I take a lot of pride in my food ” he says. “People are addicted to it. Kosher food may take a little longer to prepare and cost a little more but its worth it. It has been shown that people who eat kosher are healthier and live better.”

Some of his dishes include falafel a fried chick pea dish shwarma a gyro-like wrap with chicken and lamb and lamb couscous and vegetables. “I grind all of my own spices ” says Shalit sipping tea made from his own hand-ground tea leaves. “Fennel cumin saffron bay leaves these are all very flavorful spices that I use in my cooking.” With all the flavors spices and skill that go into each dish at Nagila it may be hard to choose just one thing so bring friends and have everybody order something different. “If you ask me what my favorite dish is ” says Shalit “its everything.”

India may be the second most heavily populated country in the world (China is first) but while Chinese restaurants can be found from coast to coast many Americans have yet to experience Indian food. Amarjit Singh is the owner of India Mahal (4610 Maple Avenue) Wilmingtons only Indian restaurant serving specifically North Indian cuisine.

Like America different regions of India have very distinct cuisines. “North Indian cuisine has a lot of spices and a lot of breads South Indians eat much more rice and the flavors are very different ” says Singh. At India Mahal Singh cooks meals that rely heavily on an assortment of spices like turmeric powder cumin coriander and ground chili and can be eaten with Indian flatbread called naan baked fresh every day in India Mahals clay oven.

“Lamb is our specialty here ” says Singh “its very popular. We cook it with ginger tomatoes and garlic.” Singh a native of Punjab India makes sure his food stays traditional and says that all the dishes you find in his restaurant are exactly what you would find if you were eating in Northern India.

He insists that all Americans would like Indian food if they gave it a try and hes adamant about the health benefits that come from eating an Indian diet. “There is very little fat in my food ” he says. “It is much healthier than many American foods. The turmeric spice is good for your heart and chest and the other spices are good for you as well.”

And they taste great too.