Herald.com -- Emeril may have his ''Essence,'' but North Africans knew how to kick it up a notch long before superstar chef Lagasse did. Today's home cooks can roam the grocery store aisles and create their own repertory of spice mixes to give a boost to ordinary meals -- whether by replicating foreign dishes or inventing their own.
Conquest and trade in the seventh century brought unfamiliar and wondrous South Asian spices to Morocco and Tunisia -- cumin, turmeric and nutmeg among them. When the culture of the invading Muslim crusaders was superimposed upon that of native Berbers and others, the food could only get better.
Spice blends often were born out of the need to preserve meats at a time when refrigeration wasn't even a dream. Centuries later, practical concerns have faded. The mixed spices have become essential to the dishes they enhance -- and to national identity. You can't think ''curry'' without India, ''jerk'' without Jamaica or ''mole'' without Mexico.
The flavors of Ethiopia are potent -- made more so by the addition of berbere, a blend of spices that adds fire, smokiness and a hint of sweetness conveyed by spices most American cooks save for baked apples and pumpkin pie.
Berbere is used as a powder or a paste with spiced clarified butter as the binder. It's the principal seasoning in Ethiopia's national dish, doro wat, a spicy chicken stew. The smoldering mix combines small amounts of coriander, fenugreek, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and allspice with a lot of paprika and cayenne. The spices are toasted first, which develops their flavors even more.
In her scholarly volume, The Peppers, Cracklings, and Knots of Wool Cookbook (State University of New York Press, $19.50), Diane M. Spivey notes the link between the origins of many spices and their eventual destinations: Berbere, she says, ``can certainly be compared to the spice blends sambaar podi, or other masalas, prepared in India.''
Try adding some to a favorite chicken stew and see what happens. Or put a little in some canned cannelini or kidney beans.
Harissa is both an essential ingredient and a condiment that blazes through the cuisines of Tunisia. The red-hot chile paste is flavored with cumin, caraway and coriander. Cooks who add more than ¼ teaspoon to their stew pots (unless cooking for a crowd) do so at their peril.
Though also used in Algeria and Morocco, harissa is to Tunisia what salsa and ketchup are to the United States -- beloved and ubiquitous. It is added to stews and relishes, soups and lamb sausage.
Supermarkets and ethnic groceries carry ''Indian,'' ''Mexican,'' ''Thai'' and other spice blends packaged in bottles or tubes that have been on the shelf for who knows how long. Though he peddles his own line, Emeril knows that nothing surpasses a homemade spice mix or he wouldn't put recipes for his Essence of Emeril blends in his cookbooks.
There are as many versions of berbere and harissa as there are home cooks in North Africa. There, too, spice vendors sell their own proprietary mixes, while home cooks make their own blends and pass them down in the family. Follow their example, the better to adjust the flavor and heat level to your own taste.
Harissa is used on its North African home turf to season a variety of dishes. Definitely try it in couscous, but don't be afraid to use it in pasta sauces. (They do in Tunisia, which is just across the Mediterranean from Italy.) Put some in chicken salad or potato salad. Spread a little on bread when you're making a sandwich.
Invention is the key -- but watch the heat!
Nancy Ancrum writes biweekly about the culinary legacy of the African diaspora.
Stir half a tablespoon -- or to taste -- of berbere into fish and seafood dishes, meat stews and canned beans.
• 1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
• ¾ teaspoon each ground coriander, fenugreek, cardamom and nutmeg
• ½ teaspoon each ground cloves, cinnamon and allspice
• ¼ a small onion, finely chopped
• 1 stick ( ½ cup) butter, softened
• 1/3 cup cayenne
• 1/3 cup paprika
• 1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground pepper
• 3 tablespoons salt
Toast the first eight ingredients (ginger through allspice) together in a saucepan over low heat. Shake and stir constantly for a few minutes until the mixture becomes fragrant.
Combine the toasted spices, onion and butter in a blender or food processor. Process until the mixture is a smooth paste.
Combine the cayenne, paprika, pepper and salt in the same saucepan and toast over low heat, stirring and shaking the pan, for 10 minutes. Stir into the spice paste. Thin if necessary with water, adding a tablespoon at a time, until the desired consistency is reached. Cool completely and store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to three months. Makes about 1 cup.
Source: Adapted from The Peppers, Cracklings, and Knots of Wool Cookbook by Diane M. Spivey (SUNY Press, $19.50).
Note: Nutritional content in amounts used is negligible.
Dishes at Sunlight, including this vegetarian combination, are served on a spongy, tangy bread known as "injera." (photo courtesty: baltimore sun.com)