In Search of the Spice - The Backstory

Here's the short story: Chef Tarik Abdullah (A DJ & A Cook, Morning Star Cafe) and I (Food & Sh*t) have been running our own pop-up restaurants in Seattle over the last few years, have worked in each other's kitchens, and done cooking demos together. Tarik would hip me to Moroccan herbs & spices; I introduced Tarik to Filipino ones. With this spice exchange, dishes were cooked, dinners were eaten, recipes were tested, a menu was created. Catfish Corner closed down, Fat's Chicken & Waffles opened up, and an opportunity arose to share this menu in a fresh, new restaurant in an old, familiar space. On Monday, March 14, Tarik and I will cook up a four-course pop-up dinner featuring Filipino & Moroccan dishes in a way the world has never seen before.

Or, has it?

Now, here's the longer story: The globalized world we live in today has been shaped by many historical currents, perhaps none bigger than the search for spices. Over four millennia, the spice trade linked Africa, Europe and Asia. It was dominated by North African and Middle Eastern merchants who established and monopolized the routes linking the far ends of the known world. In medieval Europe, exotic spices were consumed mostly by nobility, who paid more for spices like nutmeg and cinnamon than their weight in gold and silver. Flavored food was a luxury, and an emerging class of spice-hustling merchants started balling out--particularly in cities like Renaissance-era Venice, where they posed a direct challenge to the aristocracy, sometimes even supplanting them.

The kings and queens of western Europe, recognizing this economic shift and lamenting their under-seasoned food, ushered in the "Age of Discovery." The main drive: circumvent the emerging merchant class and the Arab gatekeepers and find new direct routes for spices trading. So Cristoffa Corombo sailed West in search of the "Spice Islands," mistook America for "India" and chilis for "peppers," and set in motion a series of events that, 500 years later, led to an African descendant and an Asian descendant meeting one another in American-occupied Duwamish land cooking food that originated on the westernmost and easternmost edges of the ancient spice trade.

Morocco and the Philippines bear the footprint of many conquerors, many of whom arrived in search of spices or fertile land (food!). Both countries' national cuisines bear the imprint of many other cuisines, and also have helped transform the cuisines of neighboring countries. On the surface, some similarities: both border a large ocean and have hella seafood. Stews comprise some of both countries' most well-known dishes, a reflection of a food culture that remains largely communal, and a perfect flavor-packed complement to the blandness of the staple starches and grains that accompany nearly every meal. 

One common relative: Spain. Or, specifically, Al-Andalus: the Muslim-conquered territory of southern Spain that would later become Andalusia, across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco. After 800 years of rule under the "Moors," the Christian kingdom of Castile reclaimed the territory and sent Columbus on his ships. Shortly after, they sent Ferdinand Magellan on an expedition that reached the islands they called the Philippines, where trade between the Chinese, Indian and Arabian Empire had already been going on for centuries. Magellan was killed there, so the Spanish kingdom sent more ships and guns, conquered the islands, and brought religion and pastries with them. One of these confections would become the Filipino Polvoron, which is a mutation of the Andalusian polvorónes, which is a descendant of North African shortbread, which originated in Persia. There's pastilla (Filipino milk candy), a cousin of Ktefa, or milk b'stilla  (بسطيلة بالحليب), Moroccan milk, both derived from Andalus. There's more, and someone someday should write a book about it.

The more Tarik and I dug into the history of the foods we've eat, cook and love, the more we saw an opportunity to tell this story, while hopefully contributing something new to it. "Fusion" is often used to describe dishes that mash different culinary traditions on one plate, usually as novelty, sometimes as irony, almost always presented in some ahistorical vacuum. That word isn't in our vocabulary. All food is already inherently "fused." Everything we've ever cooked or eaten is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of people exchanging culinary knowledge, trading spices, clashing over land. This menu, which we've titled In Search of the Spice, is a continuation of that legacy, a recognition of the history embedded in our meals, and, most of all, a delicious fucking meal you won't find anywhere else in the city.


MENU

7-vegetable Pinakbet w/ Couscous
Adobo Seafood Tagine
Ras al Hanout Kare Kare
Shortbread Duo w/ Jackfruit Sorbet