Padma Lakshmi Wants To Teach You About Spices and Herbs

So she wrote an encyclopedia.

The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

Admit it. You don’t know what gomasio is. Or borage. Or radhuni for that matter. And you certainly don’t know how to cook with them. Most people don’t, which is why Top Chef host, author and model Padma Lakshmi created The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World.

On sale today, the book is a reference volume and user’s guide to a wide range of spices, herbs and blends. Padma wants home cooks to keep the book in their kitchens and to bring it in their bags when they travel overseas so they can always use it as a reference.

We sat down with Padma and got all the deets on the next spice trend, her absolute favorites and the biggest spice mistake she sees on Top Chef.

What do you think the next big spice trend will be?

I am hoping that the combination of coriander seed and cumin seed will catch on because those two flavors, while similar, are very different and complement each other very well. They’re both warming and spicy without being too hot. They don’t have heat. Having both those spices in your cupboard will give you a limitless array of choices. For instance, if I’m finishing off something with a brown butter, I’ve started doing a crushed coriander seed and/or cumin brown butter. It’s delicious. There are these warm notes of cumin, especially for fall, that pair beautifully with brown butter. Try drizzling that on your roasted potatoes or sautéing spinach in that kind of brown butter and you don’t really need much else. And theses are spices you can find in any grocery store. They're not exotic. They've been under our noses all along and we haven’t really thought about them in that way—taking them out of whatever culture that we first learned about them from and applying them to the foods that we cook and eat in our homes everyday.

Pumpkin spice is overwhelmingly popular in fall. What blend do you love in the fall and how do you use it?

I really love za’atar. It’s such an easy spice to use and it has a beautiful herbaceousness that comes with something like an herbes de provence because of the thyme in it, but it also has a wonderful nutty richness to it because of the sesame seeds. I think it’s easy to use, for instance, I did steamed artichokes with my daughter and I didn’t want to do a butter dip, so I made a yogurt dip for me with za’atar, sumac and salt—that’s it. And she did the same with sour cream because she has the metabolism of a hummingbird, and both of us won. It’s a really great spice to keep in your larder to use in myriad ways. If you’re frying tortilla or pita chips, you can just sprinkle that on them.

What’s the biggest spice mistake you see on Top Chef?

That they don’t roast their spices before cooking with them. A lot of spices are raw and when they’re not cooked out enough, they can hurt you. They can upset your tummy. You have to wake up the flavors in that spice by heating it and releasing the oils. It’s not even just the winter and fall spices, it’s not just cumin or black pepper or coriander, it’s also oregano. My pet peeve is when they don’t cook the oregano enough because I can taste the difference.

What is your daughter’s favorite spice?

Cinnamon. Bar none. When she was teething I would give her whole cinnamon sticks to chew on. In the olden days they would give licorice sticks. She loves loves loves cinnamon. There’s nothing she loves more. I can’t even think of a second one that comes close.

What is the one ingredient you can’t leave Kalustyan’s without?

Sambar powder because it’s the one thing my grandmother and my mother after her reached for everyday. It’s what makes me think of home cooking.

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