'Tis the seasoning: What's behind Montreal steak spice, flavouring food for more than 70 years?
Only a man known as 'The Shadow' knows the real origins of the steak spice
At its most basic, Montreal steak spice is just a handful of spices, coarsely ground and mixed together. But no other Canadian city has its own signature spice blend.
The garlicky, peppery mix is as ubiquitous during Montreal's barbecue season as potholes are after the winter thaw.
And in the 70 years since it was first sprinkled on a steak, the spice has become an international sensation, with fans all over the world using it to bring a little something to their cuts of meat.
Credit goes to a cook named Morris "The Shadow" Sherman, who worked at Montreal's Schwartz's smoked meat restaurant decades ago, for popularizing the spice mixture.
"He thought he was a chef, being a grill man, so he decided to get a little creative," said Frank Silva, general manager at Schwartz's.
"He didn't like the idea of having just a steak on the grill and putting some salt, so he took our smoked meat spice and started sprinkling it on his steaks."
Silva said people in the restaurant soon caught on to what The Shadow was doing and began asking for it.
"All of a sudden he's sprinkling smoked meat spice all over the steaks," said Silva.
Years later, instead of selling little pouches of smoked meat spice for customers to take home, Silva figured it was better to package the concoction in nicely labelled jars.
Today, Silva says the restaurant sells 100 cases of 12 bottles each week. Countless more are sold out of numerous supermarkets and specialty shops and shipped all over the world.
And that's not taking into account all of the other producers who have developed and marketed their own versions of Montreal steak seasoning.
Watch Frank recount the tale of The Shadow:
But what's in the stuff?
Each version of the seasoning blends comes with its own special twists and intricacies.
Some recipes get a little creative, adding herbs and spices such as rosemary, thyme and cumin. Most, however, stick to the basics while varying the proportions.
There are a handful of elements that are musts for a Montreal steak spice blend: coriander seed, mustard seed, peppercorns, dried garlic and onion, paprika, the right amount of salt, and some heat.
"I think it's the amount of salt, garlic, pepper, and just a little love. That's what makes the difference," said Silva, who playfully declined to divulge what else might find its way into his best-seller.
Schwartz's version is called Steak & Beef Spice. Montreal's Joe Beef restaurant has its Butcher's Blend. The Keg restaurant chain sells its own version. Go to Épices de cru specialty spice store at Montreal's Jean-Talon Market and you can pick up a tin of Montreal spice rub.
For Ethné de Vienne, who owns the store, the "warmth" the seasoning brings to cuts of meat has made her a fan.
"When you put it on a piece of meat, a good cut of meat, then all of a sudden everything is harmonious, everything is blended properly with the juices from the meat… and that's when I see warmth, the feeling of something well done, the feeling of something comforting," she said.
The Épices de cru blend, developed by de Vienne and her husband Philippe, includes black pepper, mustard, garlic, onion, dill seed, salt, and chili. They also sell Schwartz's steak spice in their shop.
Used far and wide
Versions of the popular spice have been spotted around the world, including in the recipes that food and travel writer Karen Burns-Booth develops at her home in Snowdonia National Park, in northern Wales.
Burns-Booth was on a work trip to Canada years ago when she first came across the seasoning at the deli. She said Silva gave her a couple of bottles to take back to Wales, and that's when she became addicted to the blend.
"Not only do I use it on steak or hamburgers, I also sprinkle it on chicken, kebabs and add it to all sorts of things," said Burns-Booth.
"It just lifts [food] a bit," she said. "It's not flat, it's a very lively seasoning, and I think it's a combination of everything that gives the food such a lift."
Our steak spice, our Montreal
The various herbs and spices that go into the different incarnations of Montreal steak seasoning are a reflection of what the city is all about, Silva says.
"Diversity, all the different people, all the different spices make it a wonderful taste. I think it's just like the people in Montreal. [They're] from all over the world, like the spices," he said.
That's a sentiment echoed by de Vienne.
"The love of that spice, it says to me that this amazing city we call home has always been tuned in to good taste, and has always been open to new and different flavours," she said.
"Montreal has always marched to its own drummer ... and I think this blend is a testimony to that. We didn't wait around for the stars or the critics [to tell us what's good]."
Reporter Elias Abboud has tinkered around with his own steak spice recipe. Here's what he's come up with:
- 6 tablespoons coriander seed.
- 1 tablespoon green peppercorns.
- 1 tablespoon red peppercorns.
- 2 tablespoons white peppercorns.
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns.
- 2 tablespoons cumin seed.
- 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds.
- 2-4 dried New Mexico chilis, with seeds (these are generally mild chilis, but keeping the seeds will add some heat to the mixture).
Lightly toast each separately in a dry pan until fragrant or until they start to brown.
Grind coarsely in a mortar and pestle, or in an electric spice grinder.
- 6 tablespoons dried garlic (not garlic salt).
- 2 tablespoons dried onion.
- 3 tablespoons (or to taste) coarse sea salt.
- 2 tablespoons smoked paprika (some like the hot paprika, but you should have enough heat with the chilis).
If you want, you can add a couple of tablespoons of dried thyme, and coarsely ground rosemary.
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, and then store in airtight jars.