Amid this year’s bumper crop of Israeli cookbooks, Miami-based Yaniv Cohen has found a new angle. The Israeli-born chef, who bills himself as The Spice Detective, just published My Spiced Kitchen, his first collection of recipes; every dish comes with a breezy treatise on the spice it features. Cohen, who runs Miami’s Jaffa by the Spice Detective restaurant along with a corporate catering business, shared some spicy talk with the Forward from South Florida.
The introduction to My Spiced Kitchen is full of food, family, and spice memories — including turmeric that stanched a serious cut when you were a kid. Is there one dish that captures your childhood in Kiryat Malachi?
Wow, that is a hard question. But if I had to choose one, I would choose the turmeric noodle chicken soup my grandma Rachel served after the Yom Kippur fast. She would add cilantro right before serving it, and that combination of scents would travel all the way down the street. Imagine coming to her place after not eating for 25 hours… That is a powerful and beloved memory connected to my childhood and food.
The book lays out the history and properties of spices in vivid detail. Where did you learn all of it?
Much of my early knowledge came from our family talk around the dinner table. It was knowledge that was passed from generation to generation. We spoke about the power of garlic and onion, as well as spices and herbs. So naturally as I grew up, I was trying to eat as healthy as possible and consumed every article about food as medicine. Later on, I did my own research online, with regards to spices as tools to fight off disease and bacteria. These days more research is coming out about turmeric as anti-inflammatory, for instance, and I’m also hearing about new waves of doctors prescribing herbs and spices, as well as conventional medicine.
Do you think most people understand the power of spices? My Spiced Kitchen seems like it’s an effort to educate as well as share recipes.
I don’t think that the Western audience really understands the power of spices as a health property or as a flavor and aroma agent. My mission as “The Spice Detective” is to introduce and share my passion and knowledge, and make spices more approachable.
Can you talk a bit about the visual power of spices?
I always think about presentation when I think about dishes, but first and foremost I make sure the flavors and the spices complement the ingredients. Once the flavors are set, you can use the right spice to add garnish and vibrancy.
There’s a huge difference in how Sephardi and Ashkenazi cuisines use spices. How would you characterize that difference? And are they ways you’d suggest mashing up traditions — say, Sephardic spices in matzo ball soup?
I write in my book that traditionally hot, steamy regions around the world have always been using potent spices and flavors first in order to preserve the food longer, and colder climates didn’t have to. So Ashkenazi Jews who lived in Europe developed a less spicy cuisine. The flavors of Sephardic cuisine are intense, bold, and the use of spices is front and center. Now in Israel we have a beautiful mix of cultures, languages and food. And it’s beautiful to see the fusion.
It’s not that hard to mix the two. My mom and I love to make matzoh balls with turmeric and cilantro in the soup. My aunt used to make gefilte fish, but instead of sweet she would make it spicy and add cumin. And also I can think of latkes sprinkled with zaatar; kreplach stuffed with Baharat scented ground beef; kugel with feta cheese and sumac, just to name a few.
Do some of the recipes in the book make their way onto JAFFA by The Spice Detective’s menu?
Yes absolutely, some of the weekly specials are from the book. And the turmeric cauliflower is a staple at Jaffa. We make dozens each day.
For a home cook who’s intimidated by spices, or sticks to supermarket staples, what are some baby steps you’d recommend to start exploring the power of spices the way you do?
I always say, don’t be intimated. Explore, explore, explore. Get a few spices you’re curious about. Use your senses. Smell it, taste it, get familiar with the flavor. Then start adding it to a new or old recipe. But never use too much.
Some spices are an acquired taste. Sprinkle some turmeric when you scramble your eggs in the morning, or use a little zaatar as a topping for your pizza, and let your taste buds take over.