American chef Jeffrey Sa’ad likes to play with flavours from around the world and liven up soups, sandwiches and everyday food with Asian and Middle Eastern spices and sauces.
In his first book, Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders, the 45-year-old co-owner and executive chef of The Grove restaurant in San Francisco provides recipes inspired by his travels and influenced by the traditional Lebanese meals cooked by his grandmother.
Sa’ad, who grew up in a suburb outside Chicago, speaks about must-have spices, favourite meals and the versatility of eggs.
What is your idea of global cuisine?
To me, global cuisine is how people are eating now. It’s not about I want Thai food and I’m going to a Thai neighbourhood to have Thai food ... I think the difference between global cuisine, or what I call cooking without borders, and fusion is not mixing two cuisines together to come up with something new. It’s borrowing from the different cultures and trying to create a signature profile.
In my book, for example, in the Mexican chapter, you use cumin, coriander, ancho chillies, dried chillies and tomatillos. There is no doubt you are tasting Mexico. You are going to get the essence of Mexico in your mouth. Obviously, Mexican cuisine is much deeper than that. That’s the beginning point, and a way to have that flavour stamp. Now you could apply those things to recipes and everything you’re cooking and eating globally. You are having the flavours of another country by tweaking the comfort food you normally eat.
What is your approach to maintaining the integrity of a cuisine’s flavour profile?
People could mix cuisines, and they turn out great. My endless joke is fusion cuisine could insult every country involved with something muddled ... What I do in my restaurant, The Grove, is classic comfort food with a twist.
Compare the way people are eating now with when you were growing up.
When I was growing up, my grandmother would make these very traditional Lebanese foods. When we went to her home, I felt like we were leaving the country. Looking back as a kid, that was my first real global experience. I would be having chick peas, grape leaves and the magic of rosewater in the baklava with the phyllo dough and groundnuts. It was so authentic.
But ... if you wanted Chinese, it would be hard to find anything but egg foo young, at least in the Midwest. These things that were sweet and sticky, or sweet and spicy, or sweet and sour, they felt very one-dimensional. I’m sure it made sense at the time. Now people really want the essence and what those cuisines are about more than just the shadow of itself.
What are the must-have spices in your pantry?
I have this power-wheel of flavours. I have five to six spices I tend to reach for. One of them is Herbes de Provence. That’s like a bouquet of herbs from the South of France, which has been dried out. It’s great to add to simple tuna salad and omelette. That’s quick flavour in a multiple of formats.
If you want Chinese, all you need is five-spice. You could add it to shrimps. You could sauté them or stir-fry them. You could bake them or roast them as well. You would get this nice, sweet kind of crust.
I also recommend having soya sauce, hoisin sauce, sriracha or any kind of chilli paste you like. When you mix them in equal parts, you make a great instant Chinese-style sauce. I also love smoked paprika. It colours and flavours. When you put a bit of smoked paprika in oil, it just lights up. Whole fennel seeds add a great texture and flavour to tomato sauce.
Why did you devote a whole chapter in your book to eggs?
I call them my 12 little sous-chefs. When you have a dozen eggs in the fridge, you are guaranteed a meal. I have [not] yet met a spice, an herb, a protein, a flavour that doesn’t taste great with eggs. They are super-versatile and inexpensive.