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Bombay Spice: A Conversation with Floyd Cardoz

[Note: This interview originally appeared in the Fall, 2004 issue of SpiceLines Newsletter. (To see the entire issue on black pepper, please go here.) At the time of the interview, Cardoz was executive chef/partner at Tabla, a much admired New Indian restaurant in Danny Meyer's empire which closed in 2010. He is now executive chef/partner at North End Grill.]

Tabla chef Floyd Cardoz tells us how black pepper is used in the cooking of Goa and in his New York restaurant.

Tabla chef Floyd Cardoz tells us how black pepper is
used in the cooking of Goa and in his New York restaurant.

Crabcakes appear so regularly on New York restaurant menus that you could probably eat a different rendition–for better or worse–every day of the year. But the Goan Spiced Maine Crabcake at Tabla, the city’s most intriguing Indian restaurant, is the one we’d devour anytime: A disk of succulent lump crabmeat, delicately crisped to a golden brown, it bursts with the zingy flavors of ginger, coriander, chiles and other spices that enhance yet never overwhelm the sweetness of the shellfish. Eaten with bites of tart tamarind chutney, Tabla’s crabcake is thrilling, a bit like a rollercoaster ride through the flavor spectrum.

Tabla is not actuallly an Indian restaurant, but rather, a wondrous cross cultural kitchen manned by Floyd Cardoz, whose inventive way with Indian flavors creates dishes that owe as much to French or American styles of cooking as to the subcontinent. At 43, Cardoz is a gentle, softspoken man whose round face radiates a genuine sweetness, a rare quality in a chef. When he talks about India and the spices of his childhood, his eyes begin to glow.

Cardoz was born in Mumbai (Bombay). While studying to become a biochemist, he ran across Arthur Hailey’s novel Hotel and realized that he could get paid to do what he really loved: cooking. He enrolled in catering school, a move which stunned his family and friends, then took an entry-level job at the Taj Majal Intercontinental Hotel, where his first day’s assignment was to peel a 200-kilo bag of onions. After more culinary schooling in Switzerland, he worked at restaurants in Zurich and New York, before becoming executive sous chef to Grey Kunz at Lespinasse. During the next five years, with Kunz’s encouragement, Cardoz developed his own style of cooking, in the process increasing the Indian spices in Kunz’s kitchen from four to 25. In 1999, he joined with restaurant impresario Danny Meyer to open Tabla and in 2001, its more casual offshoot, The Bread Bar at 11 Madison Avenue. His first cookbook is due out in 2005.

We talked with Cardoz one blustery November afternoon about spices and the food of his native Goa:

Q. You spent your childhood in Bombay. What is the food like there?

A. The flavor tradition in Goa is influenced by the Portuguese. Pork, beef, and alcohol are all part of the cuisine. We used vinegar in our food, which is not common in Indian cuisine. We ate Western style bread instead of Indian flat bread. There are dishes like bibinca, a custard made of egg yolks, flour, coconut milk and nutmeg. Egg yolks are not normally used in Indian cooking. We have pork roasts and choriz, which is similar to chorizo [spicy pork sausage]. You’ll find bacalau [salt cod] cooked in olive oil and garlic, just as you do in Portugal.

Q. Did this tradition influence the kind of cooking you do at Tabla?

Almost everything I do draws on the Goan tradition. The crisped skate with pickled onions and yoghurt curry that you had for lunch is coated with salt, pepper and cream of wheat or semolina. We used to eat fish with cream of wheat at home. In India, the wheat is soft, not hard, so you can use it like breadcrumbs. I grew up up eating skate and it’s been on every menu I’ve ever had.

I borrow from Indian cuisine too. I might stretch the spice palate a bit, but I never force anything. For instance, fennel seed is used a lot in Indian cooking. It has a licorice flavor, so I might use spices with a similar flavor profile like anise, star anise, ginger, rosemary and tarragon to create layers of flavor. It’s subtle, but I like the way they play off each other.

Q. What was your family’s kitchen like?

A. It was modern. It had a gas range and an oven with a broiler. Our spice mixes were ground daily for each curry or marinade. We had a blender or coffee grinder for spices, but our cook would only use a traditional stone grinder.

Q. Did you spend much time in the kitchen as a boy?

I was in the kitchen all the time. I would catch fish and clean and cook it. I’d clean shrimp. I’d make omelets. I loved food so much, and I discovered that I had an aptitude for cooking.

Q. Are there dishes in Indian cuisine that use black pepper as a predominant spice, or is it usually blended with other spices?

A. There are some dishes that are based on black pepper. Murgh Kali mirch is chicken with black pepper. Potatoes are prepared with garlic, ginger and black pepper. My father used to eat watermelon sprinkled with black pepper and salt. My wife, Barkha, always eats fresh fruit with freshly ground black pepper. We drink lassi [ chilled yogurt and water] with black pepper. There is rasam, which is a sour, sweet, spicy soup that has a predominance of black pepper. The heat does help to cool down the body in the hot climate.

Q. How do you like to use black pepper at Tabla?

A. We tend to blend it with other spices, but sometimes black pepper is the strongest note. We’ve done skate with black peppercorns, lambchops seasoned with black cardamom and black pepper, and a black pepper shrimp salad with watermelon and lime. Tandoori quail in a black pepper glaze. Foie gras with black pepper and pear compote. For dessert, we have a vanilla bean kulfi, which is like ice cream, in a pomegranete-black pepper consomme. A lot of chefs use white pepper, but I prefer the nice aroma you get with black peppercorns.

Q. Do you use it whole or grind it?

A. I like to toast black peppercorns in a pan before grinding them. It gives them a nice citrusy aroma. The flavor almost sings when you eat it. If you bite a peppercorn, it’s fiery, but toasting balances the heat. I personally love peppercorns whole, so when I cook at home, I tend to use both techniques.

Q. There are different types of black pepper. Can you tell the difference between them?

A. The main difference is in the aroma, but unless you have a very trained palate, it’s hard to tell one from the other when they’re combined with food or other spices. We use Tellicherry peppercorns at the restaurant. The most important thing is to keep your spices fresh.

Q. How do you keep your spices fresh?

A. It’s all based on turnover. We go through $10,000 worth of spices a month, mainly coriander, cumin, black mustard seed, turmeric and black peppercorns. We keep our spices in sealed containers in a room separate from the kitchen away from the heat. We call it the spice room. It’s my favorite part of the kitchen.

Tabla, 11 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010. Telephone: 212/889-0667. Fax: 212/889-0914. Web: www.tablany.com

To see Floyd Cardoz’s recipe for Black Pepper Shrimp, Watermelon and Lime Salad, please go here.

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