As the Pandemic Continues, the Allure of Spice Blends Rises

During the home-cooking renaissance of the early aughts, “from scratch” was the bar at which every kitchen endeavor was set. To be a real home cook, the kind who put love and attention into each dish, was to make everything yourself. It was rejecting the microwave dinners and canned vegetables of your foreparents, making double stock from leftover roast chickens instead of buying broth in a carton, and eschewing pre-cut fruit and instant rice. And when it came to seasoning, you’d best not keep company with the likes of Mrs. Dash.

At least in the white-washed world of home-cooking-as-identity, premixed spice blends were considered lazy shortcuts rather than the key to coaxing out flavor. They were salt-packed and full of “preservatives” and that ghastly enemy, MSG, but more than anything, they were the tools of cheats. A cook who cared would use only the freshest whole spices, or at least mix their own blends for rubs or marinades. McCormick’s “all-purpose seasoning” did not a gourmand make.

However, a decade-plus later, these are novel times. As the pandemic continues, we’re losing the energy to keep our sourdough starters alive, and with that fatigue, the allure of the spice blend is rising. Spice companies like Penzeys and Spicewalla, as well as restaurants, have been selling more mixes than ever. Home chefs are trading intel on who makes the best adobo and why Old Bay is good for more than just crab boils. Everyone is looking for more flavor — and questioning why spice blends were derided in the first place.

“Our biggest growth area has been our blends at Spicewalla, and you can pretty much time it to the pandemic starting,” chef Meherwan Irani, who started Spicewalla in 2009, told Eater. “Our business quadrupled since the pandemic started, and the majority of that business has been blends.” He basically attributes it to home cooks realizing that if they wanted the varied flavors available to them at restaurants, they’d have to up their spice game. Chef Eric Rivera of Addo in Seattle has also seen a boost in sales of his personal blends of Puerto Rican adobo and sazón, though that had as much to do with the backlash against food giant Goya’s CEO praising Donald Trump. “I’ve been pushing it for years and nobody was really buying it, then all of a sudden the Goya thing happens and people are buying it all the time now, which is dope,” he says.

Rivera understands the ease that blends can provide. Especially for budget-tight chefs who may be doing more home cooking than ever, blends impart flavor without the cost of buying all the ingredients individually. “I’ve engineered it to be an easy button for people because I want them to put that shit on everything,” he says. And through that, people who were previously unfamiliar with Puerto Rican flavors might start to understand them a bit more. In his adobo and sazón, Rivera wanted to highlight all the culinary influences of Puerto Rico. “I have annatto in it, which ties back to Taino and Indian. There’s stuff in there like cumin and then comes the African culture and experiences,” he says. “In Puerto Rico, [sazón is] not just one branded thing.”

Sometimes, buying all the ingredients individually isn’t even possible. Jing Gao, founder of Fly By Jing, says her mala spice mix was inspired by a Sichuan chicken dish she made at private dining events, and that her whole company started as a way to bring the best flavors of China to America. “The best-quality stuff wasn’t making its way out [of China],” she says. “Wherever I traveled, I had to bring suitcases full of the chile peppers that we were using, and all the different spices, because ingredients make up everything in a food product.” The mala spice mix uses ingredients that would be hard to come by commercially in America, so even if a home chef wanted to make their own blend or use whole spices, they wouldn’t be able to match the flavor.

These chefs have heard all the complaints about spice blends being cheats, but for them, that diminishes the very real place spice blends have in a number of cuisines. “In America in a Western-centric environment, people think of blends as shortcuts,” says Irani. He notes that most commercial blends are full of salt or sugar, and are sold under blanket terms like “blackening” or “steak rub.”

It’s not just in America that spices mixes are considered cheats — ras el hanout is apparently nicknamed the “lazy wife spice” in Morocco. But looking outside Western paradigms can show chefs how integral blends can be. “In Indian cuisine we use whole spices and blends, often in the same dish,” says Irani. It’s not uncommon for a dish to start with turmeric, red chile, cumin and coriander, and be finished with garam masala. It’s not a shortcut, but an ingredient that makes the dish what it is. Just within the realm of Indian cuisine, Spicewalla has a number of blends; tandoori masala, garam masala, chaat masala, and panch phoron all have different flavor profiles and specific uses. As Irani puts it, there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” blend.

Many customers probably decided to pick up garam masala and Sichuan spices for the first time because, bored with the recipes they already knew, and longing for the flavors that restaurant food used to provide, they decided to make something they’d never attempted before. Which raises the specter of appropriation, or at least of stolen valor — you are not an expert in Mexican cooking just because you sprinkled ground beef with “taco mix.” But rather than looking at spice blends as the path to mastering a culture’s cuisine, the blends’ creators see their mixes as a gateway.

Irani hopes customers approach his blends with curiosity, but he also tries to educate people on the origins of the spices and why they go together. In Spicewalla’s “Taco Collection,” which comes with three spice blends, he takes care to explain the regional herbs and chiles that make the al pastor rub different from the pescado verde seasoning. “There’s a little bit of work on the consumer’s end that needs to be done,” he says, but presumably, if they’re buying blends like berbere or za’atar to begin with, they’re hopefully interested in doing that work.

Rivera calls adobo and sazón the salt and pepper of Puerto Rican cooking, and he wants his customers to use the products exactly like that. Gao also says that putting her mala spice mix on a non-Sichuan recipe would actually be totally in the spirit of Sichuan cooking. “Sichuan cuisine has always been a fusion cuisine because it’s incorporated so many influences over thousands of years, because of this location along the Silk Road,” she says, noting even the chile pepper wasn’t introduced into Sichuan cuisine until a couple of hundred years ago, when it came from South America. “I’m not worried about it. I don’t think you can culturally appropriate a food product unless you’re profiting off of it.”

Whether it’s a curry powder made by an international conglomerate or an exact replica of a mix used by a renowned chef, Irani hopes that spice blends will inspire some deeper curiosity. At this point, a dish asking for black pepper doesn’t tell you much about who invented it, “but when you look at a blend, and the things they chose to put in that blend, it lets you know about the people, the way they cooked, what grew there … what immigrant influences arrived there that brought with them these new types of spices, and how it all came together,” he says. “A really good blend, to me, is a melting pot of cuisine that lets you understand, when you look at it, the history of that region and that food.” And also it probably works on popcorn.

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