What Exotic Ingredients Are Chefs Reaching For?

2941 chef Bertrand Chemel gets his octopus from South Africa or Greece.
2941 chef Bertrand Chemel gets his octopus from South Africa or Greece.

When it comes to fine dining, it’s not all about local and farm-fresh, as much as we might like to believe it. Truffles don’t grow in our backyards. Tropical fish aren’t a line cast away. To compensate, chefs often find they have to scour the globe to find a fancy fruit, a rare spice, or an exotic cephalopod. In an effort to wow our palates, these three toques tap sources as prized as their local farmers to bring us authentic ingredients from elsewhere.

Chef: Eric Ziebold, CityZen

Ingredient: Szechuan peppercorn (also called ma peppercorn).

Why it’s so unusual: Unlike those found at spice emporium Penzey’s, Ziebold’s peppercorns are shipped from abroad with the help of a former customer. “When the box arrived from China, it smelled of yuzu, pine, and lemon before I even opened it,” he says. Once it’s on the tongue, “It will flood your nostrils. Then it numbs your mouth,” he says. Just one by itself tastes bright, punchy, and alive.

What he uses it for: Salt-crusted Mediterranean dorade; shaved-fennel-and-red-onion salad with Szechuan vinaigrette.

Cesare Lanfranconi, Spezie

Ingredient: Chestnut flour.

Why it’s so unusual: Chestnut flour is used primarily in the Ligurian region of Italy, an area known for its chestnut trees and truffles. The flour’s nutty character calls to mind many dishes from the region.

What he uses it for: Trofie, a hand-rolled pasta rope served with potato, green beans, basil pesto, and aged pecorino.

Chef: Bertrand Chemel, 2941

Ingredient: Greek or South African octopus.

Why it’s so unusual: “It has this gelatin between the meat and the skin, which makes the meat very tender,” says Chemel. When it’s available, which isn’t often, customers fawn over the dish made with the delicacy, which chef Chemel says there’s no magic to making.

What he uses it for: Poached octopus: “We poke tentacles with a needle and slowly poach it in water with red-pepper flakes, bay leaf, and thyme.” 

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