Beyond Salt and Pepper

November 2016 | view this story as a .pdf

Meet the wizards who awaken our palates with oils, spices, and flavors galore. If you can’t stand the heat, get out the kitchen.

By Claire Z. Cramer

Transport yourself to warmer climes via your taste buds with exotic spices and imaginative ingredients.


hungry-eye-nov16One of the most effective ways to light up your taste buds is to look to the East. Asian cuisine is all about nuance, which is why Portland is in love with pho, ramen, and hot-and-sour soups. Another easy flavor gateway is via dipping sauce.

“We just call it ginger sauce,” says Siwaporn Roberts (pictured right), the busy chef at Thai Esaan on Forest Avenue, when asked about the dark and powerful mixture she serves with her Khao Mun Gai (below).

We just call that an understatement. Khao Mun Gai is one of the specialties of the Esaan region in Thailand on the concise menu at this pristine little café, owned by Roberts’s son Ben Boonseng, which opened in February. Roberts steams and slices chicken and serves it over rice with the magical ginger sauce alongside for pouring or dipping. “I make it with sweet soy, white vinegar, garlic, ginger, and hot sauce,” she says. But this sauce is so much more than the sum of its parts, and this dish is an extraordinary cold-weather comfort.

We can’t stop dipping at Cara Stadler’s Bao Bao Dumpling House on Park Street, either. The day’s special is crispy chicken-cashew dumplings served with “a hoisin sauce we make,” says server Hannah D’Errico. “It’s nice and plummy.”

She points to small condiment containers set on every table. “This is soy, and this is seasoned black vinegar. We suggest mixing them fifty-fifty. And this”–she touches a little medicine bottle of clear orange liquid–“is our chili oil. We steep Thai bird chilis in oil and then strain it.”

Bao Bao’s chili oil is hot but not incendiary. It’s another enchanting use of hot peppers in a city that’s crazy for them. The farmer’s market is full of fresh chilis in bright colors–cayennes, Cheyennes, serranos, jalapeños, Fresnos, and the once rare and now ubiquitous shishitos. Remember when Scotch bonnets were found only in Caribbean hot sauces? Now you can get them fresh at Hannaford.


Vena’s Fizz House on Fore Street in the heart of the Old Port is a good spot to start your quest to spice up your life. Step inside and you’re surrounded by intriguing little bottles and jars of bitters and tinctures, and all sorts of classic bar paraphernalia. Step upstairs into the bar and you’re Indiana Jones pausing for a drink in Timbuktu. It’s dim, and there’s rhythmic music with vocals in faraway languages in the background. The shelves behind the bar are packed with bottles and vintage glassware.
“We call this the Kickstarter,” says bar manager Warren Murray as he shakes up a “mocktail” and strains the pretty orange concoction into a Mason jar garnished with an orange slice. “It’s made with Fire Cider, which is apple cider vinegar infused with digestives like turmeric, ginger, habanero pepper, and horseradish. Then we add blood-orange juice, fresh ginger, and some of this ghost pepper extract from Belfast, Maine. Ghost peppers are supposedly the hottest of the hot.”

You take a sip–overwhelming fizzy, citrusy, sweet-sour brightness. Two seconds later, your lungs feel warm. Despite the peppers, it doesn’t burn like hot sauce–it heats up your soul instead, and it’s a warmth that stays with you.

Vena’s comprehensive drink menu has pages of cocktails, mocktails, fizzes, rickeys, restoratives, digestives, and curatives. Curatives include an Alchemist’s punch and a Hemingway Frappé with absinthe, suggesting hangover cures. There’s food, too, including chef Stephanie Shershow’s chocolate chili fondue. “I use Urfa Biber chili salt from Vervacious,” she says, referring to another spicy shop on Commercial Street committed to making life taste better than ordinary.

Warren Murray points across the street to the Sweetgrass Winery tasting room, where the wine and spirits are fermented and distilled on a farm in Union. “We use their gin in our cocktails. And their bitters.” A jolt of Sweetgrass’s Maine cranberry bitters adds unexpected dimensions to even plain seltzer water.

“We’re trying out some new quick health shots—kind of the opposite of a cigarette break. They’re full of herbs and bitters. There’s an antioxidant shot, a digestive, and a ‘simmer down’ shot with lavender.” He strains pale green liquid into a stemmed sherry glass. “This is a Joy Tonic, with basil, rosemary, sage bitters, and lemongrass bitters.” You’ll be smiling when you leave.


“Would you like to try my Fall Tonic?” asks Sarah Richards. She’s behind the bar at her Homegrown Herb and Tea shop on Munjoy Hill, which can best be described as a tiny oasis behind a brightly painted storefront. Yes, yes, yes. You never drink tea because you’re too busy guzzling dark-roast Midnight Jazz from Coffee By Design to power through your busy day. So step away from your preconceptions.
“This is my mix of sarsparilla, nettles, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, elderberry, and fennel seeds,” says Richards. She makes up her own tea bags with her mixtures. It’s scalding, delicious, and extremely reviving, even without caffeine. “Most of my house-made blends are herbal,” she says of her teas, “but some are tea-based.”

The shop is crowded with jars of herbs, spices, peppercorns, assorted salts, dried chilies, and honey. There’s a gallon jar of pickled eggs on the bar. “I hard-boil them and put them in vinegar that’s steeped with dried mustard, chili flakes, and salt.” She also sells bulk cooking herbs and spices, and she serves “light fare, like crumpets and scones” that she makes herself.

Lest you think this little throwback-hippie cafe will be here today and gone tomorrow, Richards has over 30 wholesale tea accounts, including “Miyake, the Green Elephant, Emelitsa, the Blue Spoon, Sonny’s, Local 188, the Press Hotel, and Coffee by Design.”

“I’m celebrating my tenth anniversary,” she says, “which is why I just put a fresh coat of paint out front.”

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