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This year's tasty trend: Superspices

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From left to right, cayenne pepper, ginger root, cinnamon, fennel seed and turmeric are among the so-called superspices making their way into mainstream restaurants. (Photo by Alex Sundby)

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From left to right, cayenne pepper, ginger root, cinnamon, fennel seed and turmeric are among the so-called superspices making their way into mainstream restaurants. (Photo by Alex Sundby)

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From left to right, cayenne pepper, ginger root, cinnamon, fennel seed and turmeric are among the so-called superspices making their way into mainstream restaurants. (Photo by Alex Sundby)

Stuffed with lump crab salad and accompanied with a sweet pea risotto and crispy sage, the roasted wild Alaskan halibut attracts many hungry diners in Detroit's Rattlesnake Club.

But it’s the addition of the fennel to the halibut's stuffing and risotto that gets the attention of Maria Caranfa, director of Mintel Menu Insights, a national restaurant-tracking service. This year, based on data Caranfa has been collecting, the use of the slightly licorice-flavored spice and other such seasonings will permeate into more mainstream commercial kitchens across the country.

Last year’s popularity prize went to what Mintel calls superfruits--antioxidant-rich fruits such as pomegranates, blueberries and acai berries. This year, it’s “superspices” like fennel, cinnamon and ginger that are showing up in more menu items nationwide. Superspices, also rich in antioxidants, appeared in 1,805 menu items during the first nine months of 2007, according to data collected by Mintel. That’s up from 1,516 dishes during the same time period of 2006.

Caranfa believes that superspices appeal to diners curious for more global flavors just as superfruits drew in people eager for their supposed health benefits.

“There’s an interesting conjunction between the medicinal and the delicious,” said Annemarie Colbin, founder of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York and author of a book on healthy dieting. “There’s going to be a meeting between the healthful and the tasty.”

Although Colbin doesn’t follow restaurant trends, she’s not surprised by the new popularity of spices. She said ginger is becoming fashionable in restaurants where it’s not traditionally used, such as places specializing in French cuisine.

Rattlesnake Club’s executive chef, Chris Franz, marinates steaks with the pungent spices cumin and turmeric, each of which appear on Caranfa’s list of superspices. The spices add a nutty flavor and enhance the flavor of the marinade’s other ingredients, said Franz, who's actually been using these spices for most of his 10 years at the restaurant. Their inclusion on the menu is unusual because cumin is normally associated with Spanish dishes and turmeric is a common seasoning in Indian cuisine. Rattlesnake Club offers many mainstream steakhouse standards such as short ribs, rack of lamb and chicken in addition to its steaks and seafood.

“We don’t necessarily use it in the traditional sense,” said Franz. “We do a lot of experimenting here.”

In addition to Rattlesnake Club, other restaurants to feature these spices include Elizabeth on 37th in Savannah, Ga; Janos Restaurant in Tucson, Ariz.; and the national Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery chain.

Cinnamon was the most popular superspice used by restaurants, according to Mintel’s research. Janos Wilder, owner and executive chef of Janos Restaurant, said he now uses cinnamon more often. Adding it to something like butternut squash, he said, can give a dish a warm, autumnal feel.

Cinnamon’s healing properties have contributed to its popularity, said Colbin, who holds a doctorate degree in holistic nutrition. Added to tea with lemon and honey, for instance, the spice can help fight colds and the flu, according to Heinerman’s Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables and Herbs. Ground into food, it can soothe an upset stomach, Colbin said. Research has shown that when it is used regularly, cinnamon reduced glucose levels in diabetics, said Jo Ann Weinrib, a New York nutritionist who owns a health spa named Body Central.

Many spices help the body digest food. For instance, people with a gluten intolerance have found that sweet cardamon can help them process food made from wheat, Colbin said. She added that ginger can help battle nausea, especially the kind caused by morning sickness. She also treats colds and chest congestions with ginger.

Spices are a great addition to diets, but they're not a cure-all, said Marissa Lippert, a registered dietician in New York who owns Nourish, a nutrition and lifestyle counseling business. While spices may be a source of antioxidants and ease digestion, they have to be used frequently and be part of a well-balanced diet, she said.

“Sprinkling cayenne pepper on french fries isn't really going to do much for you,” Lippert said.

The rising use of spices “makes a lot of sense,” said chef Christopher Burgos, culinary chairman for Career Academy of New York. “People are getting more health conscious and getting back to the natural way of cooking.”

That’s not news to Elliott Prag, a culinary instructor at New York's Natural Gourmet Institute, a school that teaches its chefs to cook healthy meals.

“We’ve kind of been doing that in the kitchen since ’78,” Prag said.

Many of Caranfa's superspices have long been used in dishes served in ethnic restaurants. With the increased popularity of ethnic cooking, recipes from Africa, India and other parts of the world are showing up on the menus of mainstream restaurants.

“It’s not something new that people just discovered; it’s been around for a long time now,” Colbin said.

Colbin has been using natural remedies to treat minor medical problems for 30 years. When her children were young, she never gave them antibiotics, and she used cayenne peppers to heal small cuts, she said.

“There are a lot of grandmothers who have used this over time,” said Colbin, now a grandmother of three. “It's nice to catch up with what the grandmothers did.”

E-mail: ajs2170@columbia.edu