Years of culinary experimentation have taught me that the right mix of herbs and spices is key to so many dishes. The Middle Eastern lexicon of flavors, particularly from Turkey, has been essential to how I have flavored my dishes over the past years. A little sumac goes a long way.
The right spices can be used as rubs for meat, or to heat up the temperature with your morning eggs. It is even more exciting to see how these blends come to life in different countries. For instance, there are as many versions of the beloved Middle Eastern spice za’atar, as there are spellings. Some of the most common are zaatar, zahatar, satar, zahtar, zatar, za’atar.
Given my love of these spices it was fun to sit down with Ori Zohar, the co-founder and co-CEO of the New York City-based Burlap & Barrel spice company. All answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liza B. Zimmerman (L.B.Z.): When did you found your company?
Ori Zohar (O.Z.): We started Burlap & Barrel in October 2016.
L.B.Z.: Why did you create this company?
O.Z.: My co-founder Ethan and I started an activist ice cream company called Guerrilla Ice Cream, where we made ice cream flavors inspired by revolutions from around the world and donated all of our profits to charity.
He moved to Afghanistan as an aid worker and would visit New York with a few of his favorite things: dried fruits, nuts, and this variety of cumin that grows wild in the mountains of northern Afghanistan. His chef friends fell in love with the cumin and asked to buy as much as he could carry back. That was a lightbulb moment: even chefs at top restaurants didn’t have access to incredible spices. We were all used to single-origin coffee, buying our produce at farmers’ markets, and tracing our meat and eggs back to the farm, nothing like that had existed for spices.
Burlap & Barrel was named after the ways in which spices traveled the world: in burlap sacks and wooden barrels. In 2016, we were able to introduce Burlap & Barrel to the world with a handful of partner farmers. The more we grow, the more farmers we can support with our direct trade model, and today we source about 100 different spices from our partner farmers in 25 countries.
We publish an annual social impact report to track our work – and to date, we’ve paid our partner farmers around the world over $2 million.
L.B.Z.: What did you experience in your childhood that you wanted to bring spices to the people?
O.Z.: Ethan and I both grew up in families where food was culture, food was connection. My family moved from Israel to America for my dad’s work and we’d dissect and discuss what we learned about this new country over dinner every night: what customs we encountered, what this or that idiom could possibly mean. Over many meals, we learned about our new home, and what it meant to be American.
L.B.Z.: How many spices do you produce?
O.Z.: All in all, we now have around 100 spices, herbs, blends and salts. We think expansively about what counts as a spice or seasoning, and this year we added single-origin sugars and we’re working on whole chilies, expanding our lineup of spice extracts and origin blends, plus a whole lot of other surprises.
L.B.Z.: How many farmers do you work with to source them?
O.Z.: We work with a few hundred spice farmers and foragers in 25 countries.
L.B.Z.: How do you find your farmers?
O.Z.: We meet our partner farmers in many different ways: through non-profits or other social enterprises, local NGOs, our existing partner farmer network, or even chefs or friends who have family in the area.
L.B.Z.: How do spices elevate a dish’s flavors?
O.Z.: As cooks, we often lean into salt, fats like olive oil or butter, and sugar to flavor our foods, but spices can take your dishes in so many more directions.
L.B.Z.: How you use the spices also can bring out different flavors?
O.Z.: Introducing spices at the beginning of cooking can release powerful aromatics. Finish your dish with spices to add a pop of brightness, a dash of heat, or a crunchy texture. We actually put together a technique book on the different ways to incorporate spices into your cooking.
L.B.Z.: How do you have to approach a highly spiced dish differently in terms of wine or beverage pairings?
O.Z.: A good rule of thumb is to have the wine complement the food, so if you’re planning to turn up the heat, a slightly sweet wine like a Riesling can balance out the heat.
L.B.Z.: Does it become easier or harder to pair wine with intensely spiced dishes?
O.Z.: Dishes with stronger flavors are easier to pair with wine because the spices will tell you where to go and you’ll be able to really taste it when you’ve made a good pairing
L.B.Z.: Do spiced foods generally pair better with white, red or rose wines or is there no rule?
O.Z.: When it comes to pairing spices with wine, there’s no strict rule, but here are some guidelines:
Light- to medium-bodied white wines with good acidity (such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or Riesling) often work well with moderately spiced dishes. Think dishes with herbs, ginger, turmeric, citrus, or sumac to pair with a refreshing and crisp white wine.
Medium- to full-bodied red wines are a good match for bolder and more robust spiced foods, like dishes where alliums, chilies and peppercorns are dominant. Tannic red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah can match and complement the richness and intensity like grilled or roasted meats and earthy flavors. Sparkling wines like Champagne are also particularly well suited for spices because effervescence and acidity can balance spiciness and intensity.
Here are a few ways to find the perfect wine to go with your spiced dishes:
Harmony vs. contrast: Try pairings on the opposite ends of the spectrum, then on the same end of the flavor spectrum. Adjust from there.
Match intensity: Rather than thinking of individual notes, think of intensity. Typically, lighter dishes can go with lighter, more delicate wines, bigger bolder wines match up nicely with more intensely spiced, heartier dishes.
Regional inspiration: Consider pairing dishes and wines from the same region or cuisine. Traditional pairings often work well because the flavors have evolved together over time.