STORY AND PHOTOS BY ANNA MINDESS
Vinita Jacinto arrives in a sparkly blue blouse, fuchsia skirt, and intricately embroidered shawl. Jingling pink and green bracelets trim her wrists and a red bindi adorns her forehead. Like a colorfully attired Indian Mary Poppins, she efficiently gets down to business, removes a multitude of items from her bag, and lays out more than a dozen tiny tins and boxes, each containing a different aromatic spice.
Her client today, a recent college graduate now living on her own, wants to learn which spices she should be eating, both for flavor and for addressing her digestive concerns. “Spices are the missing piece in my cooking,” she tells Jacinto.
Jacinto, an El Cerrito resident who is a chef and former instructor at the California Culinary Academy, has recently found a new calling as a “spice whisperer.” “Some people read auras,” she says, “I read spices.” Born in Mumbai and raised in Kolkata, Jacinto vividly remembers how her grandmother’s homemade remedies always came from the kitchen.
“Every culture uses herbs and spices. Food and especially spices forge a powerful emotional connection,” she says. “Spices are also a reminder of selflessness. You can roast them, toast them, chop them, pound them, fry them in hot fat, and selflessly they give up their flavor, like Mother Nature’s unconditional love.”
Jacinto’s spice whispering began with making spice blends for friends. One of her former employers, who later became her friend, remembers when she, Jacinto, and two other chefs were working on a program to encourage low-income women to buy fresh produce for making quick, healthy meals. “At our second meeting,” reports the former executive director of the Central San Francisco YMCA, “Vinita presented us with a spice masala blend she had created that she said represented the energies of the four of us together.”
At each spice whispering session, Jacinto arranges nine to 15 different spices in a spice mandala and instructs clients to open, smell, and touch the contents of the intriguingly shaped spice tins and boxes.
“My spice whispering is not necessarily a scientific pursuit,” she clarifies. “When I meet with people, we connect on a deeper level. Sometimes a certain spice will bring back a strong memory or even make someone cry. One client rubbed a few fennel seeds in her palm and when she tasted them, she suddenly sobbed: The licorice aroma reminded her of her grandmother.” For another client, who was coming out of a long relationship, Jacinto blended a particularly soothing mix of spices.
Jacinto has spice whispered couples as well as individuals. “Young couples, families, weddings inspire me very much, as it feels like the spices will grant blessings to new beginnings,” she says.
Among her past clients are a local Jewish couple in their 30s, who talked about their love for Indian food and desire that their wedding emulate their passion for multisensory experiences. After a few meetings, Jacinto came up with a wedding blend that she felt reflected their sweet and sparkly nature. As wedding favors, the couple gave out 160 little bottles of the blend—which included spices often used in Indian celebrations—and they posted recipes on their wedding website for cooking with the spices. The wife recently commented, “It’s three years later and our guests are still talking about that amazing spice blend.” For another cross-cultural wedding, Jacinto combined flavors from each family’s culinary traditions (Italian and Indian) to celebrate the new union.
Jacinto explains that she goes home after each session and mulls over the conversation to come up with a personal spice blend to fit what she has learned about that particular person or couple. But that’s a blend for the moment. “Six months later, if we did it again, they may be in a completely different place.”
An old friend who writes grants for nonprofits confirms that Jacinto presents her with a novel spice blend every few months. “The seasons change; the body changes. Vinita is a magical, intuitive woman. Her most recent spice blend featured a turmeric paste for the pain I was dealing with. I am Indian, too, but I always learn something new about spices from her.”
As her clients examine seeds of fennel and fenugreek, threads of saffron, and powdered turmeric root, Jacinto explains the properties of each spice. A certain small, golden, orb-like seed is unfamiliar to today’s client, so Jacinto has her grind it with a mortar and pestle. “Mmm . . .” murmurs the young woman, nodding in recognition of the aroma. “That’s coriander,” says Jacinto. “Coriander and cumin make a marvelous marriage.”
In a mango-shaped black tin, the client discovers another unfamiliar spice, ajwain: oval shape seeds that resemble caraway seeds. “Ajwain is in the thyme family and often called bishop’s weed,” Jacinto explains. “The seeds are a good digestive and go well with cauliflower or cabbage.”
The client, who is in a yoga teacher training program, has been learning about Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that has its roots in Jacinto’s native India. Food choices are important in the Ayurvedic approach to balancing physical and emotional energies, and one finds Ayurvedic influence in India’s cuisines. Although Jacinto is not a licensed Ayurvedic practitioner, her work is deeply tied to it. “I grew up with the elders in my family following Ayurvedic principles at home. Like a fingerprint, no two people are alike; each person has a specific combination of elemental energies that they need to respect [in order] to achieve balance. A family of six, for example, could all eat the same food but use different spices or condiments to tweak the dishes.”
Picking up a tiny red chili pepper, Jacinto’s client holds it gingerly and, shaking her head, recounts an Indian meal made by a good friend’s mother. “It was so spicy it almost made me cry,” she confides. Jacinto asks other questions about her eating habits and exercise routine, and after more examining, smelling, crushing, and tasting through the array of spices, Jacinto observes that the woman seems to be drawn to those that aid digestion.
Fast-forward two weeks. Jacinto brings the client a small bottle holding a custom-designed spice blend. The mixture of ground cardamom, cinnamon, clove, fennel, mustard, cumin, ginger, and asafetida is designed to “help her balance her gut and preserve warmth.” Instructions are to use the spice blend in cooking or sprinkled on foods, which need not be Indian recipes.
Some time later, the client reports that she has been enjoying the warming and earthy nature of the spice blend. “I especially like it on roasted vegetables, sautéed with kale, or sprinkled on fried eggs,” she says. “It gives what I eat depth. I enjoy using it because I know it was made especially for me.”
Find Vinita Jacinto at spicewhisperer.wordpress.com.
The Spice Whisperer’s Coriander and Fennel Spiced Cabbage
This rustic dish is common in North India, where cooks might vary the spices according to the seasons or Ayurvedic needs. Cumin seeds might be used instead of fennel, and red chile powder and/or green chiles could be added to generate heat. Jacinto created this particular combination to honor summer, as it features the cooling spices, coriander and fennel. Spiced cabbage is traditionally eaten as a vegetable accompaniment to curried lentils (dal), rice, and flatbread (rotis).
Serves 2 to 3
1 small green cabbage, chopped into small pieces (about 5 cups)
3 tablespoons ghee (or olive oil)
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoons water
Salt to taste
Juice of 1 lime or 1 lemon
3 tablespoons freshly chopped cilantro
Heat the ghee (or olive oil) in a large frying pan over low to medium heat. Add the fennel seeds and cook for about 2 minutes until lightly brown.
Lower the heat, then add the coriander, turmeric, and water and fry the spices for about 2 minutes, stirring continually until you see bubbles forming as the water evaporates. When the spices emit a nutty aroma, add the chopped cabbage and stir well to coat with the spice mixture. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally until the cabbage is slightly wilted, then season with salt. Turn into a serving bowl and mix in the lemon or lime juice and the cilantro. May be served hot or at room temperature.