Sichuan peppercorns, chilis and ginger top Kwei Fei’s Sichuan Beef | Photos by Rūta Smith

Spicing things up

Winter ingredients like butternut squash and sweet potatoes can transform a meal into a cool weather comfort dish. But deep, rich, earthy spices take seasonal fare to a whole new level — and may even have added health benefits. 

Plant-based chef Louise Rakers, owner of Nordic Cooking, incorporates spices and superfoods into her cooking classes, catering and at-home meals.

“Right now, everything we’ve been doing has been on the heavier side,” she said, “like using cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cardamon — spices like that. It’s been heavy on those spices because of the season.

In the superfood world, we’ve been using chaga and reishi mushrooms and turmeric, because turmeric has such a warm flavor.”

The detoxifying power of spices

Chef Louise Rakers educates people on the health benefits of spices and superfoods in her cooking classes

Though Rakers’ year-round goal is to educate people on the benefits of healthy, plant-based eating, she said incorporating spices and superfoods is particularly important in the winter months. Many of these ingredients help reduce inflammation, which she said strengthens the immune system, making it less likely you’ll get sick.

“There’s so many ways that you can use these spices and superfoods to detoxify your body [especially] after the holiday season when you might have had a little bit extra fat, extra alcohol — a bit extra everything,” Rakers said.

The chef, who grew up in Copenhagen before moving to St. Louis with her husband and together relocated to Charleston four years ago, said she is teaching a cooking class in January and March focused on incorporating naturally detoxifying ingredients.

She recommends cinnamon, turmeric, clove, curry and chaga or reishi mushroom powder to help capture a warm, delicious flavor in a winter meal while also reaping the health benefits. 

An easy way to incorporate these into your diet is by topping off your coffee with cinnamon.

“Cinnamon is known to be a powerful spice to add if you feel sick or if you want to make sure your body is working extra fast. It helps you burn your metabolism.”

Rakers said adding reishi or chaga mushroom powder to coffee can have health benefits

If you’re feeling adventurous, Rakers said adding reishi or chaga mushroom powder to your coffee is a way to help your body digest the caffeine without changing the flavor much.

One of her go-to home meals is a simple curry filled with vegetables, garlic, curry and turmeric. But, she said, be sure to add black pepper alongside turmeric as it helps your body absorb the turmeric.

You can find locally grown turmeric from Johns Island farm Spade & Clover, which also grows ginger and galangal.

“Ground ginger. That one can be added to so many dishes. You can make homemade curry with that and clove and cinnamon and really put some power in there,” she said.

Spice for spice’s sake

While some cooks use select spices for the health benefits, others use them to create unique flavors and fragrances to enhance a dish. 

At Sichuan restaurant Kwei Fei on James Island, Sichuan peppercorn is the star spice. 

“A Sichuan peppercorn isn’t even actually a peppercorn,” said David Schuttenberg, owner and chef. “It looks like pepper and so it’s kind of given that name, but the part that’s used is actually the hull for the seeds of a [prickly ash] bush, which is in the citrus family. That’s why you get a lot of the citrus notes both in flavor and fragrance.”

Schuttenberg incorporates this unique spice into many of his dishes, but it plays a role in perhaps Kwei Fei’s most essential asset — the chili crisp.

This aromatic condiment with a kick can be generously added to any dish. Schuttenberg’s recipe includes Sichuan peppercorn, dried chilis, shallots and garlic amongst other ingredients. 

Schuttenberg’s spicy chili crisp sauce adorns house made ice cream at Kwei Fei

Though the chili crisp is typically used on savory dishes, Schuttenberg adds this spicy sauce to house made vanilla ice cream for an interesting dessert. Kwei Fei’s chef de cuisine, Greg Kurtzman, adapted his candied peanut recipe for the dish, layering additional Sichuan flavors. 

“The chili crisp is just such a savory hit,” Schuttenberg said.

Sichuan peppercorn is spicy, but the ingredient isn’t added to dishes just for the sake of making you sweat. There is a compound in this spice that causes a numbing sensation, which can impact the flavor profile of a dish.

“I think it can be confusing sometimes because the Sichuan peppercorn reads 

that way to the uninitiated,” Schuttenberg said, “whereas really it’s just that numbing quality. People don’t expect that, so they assume that it’s just so spicy it’s making their mouth go numb.”

Some dishes, like the Sichuan Beef, are topped with Sichuan peppercorns, chilis and ginger and covered in a hot oil wash to release flavors and smells. For other dishes, like the Shui Zhu Yu (catfish), Shuttenberg uses a house made eight-spice oil wash.

La Zi Ji (fried chicken with Sichuan peppercorns, Tianjin chili and ginger), also known as Chun Chang chicken, incorporates vegetables, fried Tianjin chilis and whole Sichuan peppercorn. 

“The benefit of toasting all those spices in the wok is that the oil is now infused with that flavor profile, be it the spice or the numbing quality of the peppercorn and that transfers into the chicken,” Schuttenberg said.

Sichuan peppercorns, chilis and ginger top Kwei Fei’s Sichuan Beef

Though Sichuan peppercorn is mainly used in Chinese cooking, in the Sichuan region specifically, Schuttenberg said it actually grows all over the world — including here in the Lowcountry on Bulls Island.

And, in Schuttenberg’s own backyard. Three pots of Sichuan peppercorn that were growing in McCrady’s rooftop garden were given to Shuttenberg after McCrady’s closing.

“One little peppercorn, you take a bite of it, and it will shut down your whole mouth,” he said of eating the fresh version of the spice.

But the many dry spices incorporated into his restaurant cooking brings interesting flavors to the forefront.

“The dry spice pantry in Chinese cooking is exciting. It’s interesting. It’s different.”

New applications

For Joel Lucas, owner and chef of Edison James Island, experimenting with new spices and flavors is what he likes to call “playing with food.”

“I love introducing new flavors and spices and inventive dishes,” he said. “Just taking a classic dish and turning it around.”

Which is exactly what he did with one of Edison’s star dishes — green curry meatballs. Lucas uses jalapeños, Thai green chilis, fresh ginger and garlic to create a base for the curry sauce, which is poured on top of the meatballs. 

Joel Lucas, owner and chef of Edison James Island, created these green curry meatballs while experimenting with different flavors | Courtesy Edison James Island

When working with spices to create innovative dishes, Lucas said fresh spices are key to enhancing flavor.

“Don’t use ground spices if you can. Just grab your coffee bean grinder and grind up some of these seeds and spices, things like that,” he said. “The amount of flavors that burst out — you can’t compare it.”

The fromage and fig appetizer is another popular item on the menu. In fact, Lucas said it is “hands down our best seller.”

Lucas and his cooks create a jam from dried figs that are cooked down with star anise, cinnamon and cloves to create deep, sweet flavors to balance the earthy whipped goat cheese. 

Lucas said he finds inspiration in new food creations, and while he said he’s not a huge fan of TikTok, he loves to see the food trends that emerge on the platform and how people are inventing adventurous new combinations. 

“I think people are really finding the knowledge of different cuisines and doing things differently with them,” he said. “It makes me happy, because that’s exactly what I like to do — introduce people to different ingredients that they’ve never heard of before.”

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.