Adding unusual spices from South America, North America and the Middle East can add adventure to your prepared foods section.
By Joanna Pruess
Tell customers that there is merquén (or merkén), sumac or dill pollen in their food and they’ll probably look at you with a blank stare—yet these mysterious seasonings can turn everyday fare into exceptional offerings.
Merquén is one of the most exciting seasonings I have encountered. This paprika-like blend from Chile, is made with dried, smoked aji cacho de cabra (horn of the goat) chiles—similar to Mexican guajillos—that are ground together with coriander, cumin and salt. For centuries, the coppery-colored blend has been prepared by the Mapuche Indians, in south and central Chile. Its intense smoky taste and mild heat, enhances soups, salsas, fish, pork or chicken without overwhelming other tastes.
Moving to the Middle East, the almost-ripe, reddish-purple berries of the sumac bush are dried and ground into a powder that has an astringent-lemony taste. I have sampled dishes from Turkey and Lebanon to Jordan and Iran with the ground berries used in rubs and marinades for grilled poultry and meats in rice pilaf, and as a seasoning for salads.
Dill pollen comes from the U.S. but is considered exotic to many. Meg Whitlock, of Vanns Spices, in Baltimore, Md., explains that the herb is hand harvested from organic dill flowers. It has a flavor that is brighter and more complex than dillweed, with subtle hints of fennel, hay and honey. Use it in the final stages of cooking or as a garnish to maintain its intense complexity. It imparts a fragrant, elegant flavor to sautéed fish or shellfish in a butter sauce.