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What is vadouvan, and why is it showing up on so many menus?

Convivial’s squash vadouvan, inspired by the French take on Indian curry, features a slice of acorn squash atop an olive cake, with mustard greens and coconut. (Lavanya Ramanathan/The Washington Post)

What: Vadouvan [pronounced vah-doo-vahn]

Definition: A French spice blend similar to Indian curry powder

On the menu at: Convivial, Mintwood Place, the Dabney, Vidalia, Kapnos Taverna, Brasserie Beck, Westend Bistro

Curry powder is most often associated with Indian food, but its French relative has been making an appearance at a number of Washington restaurants.

Like curry, vadouvan is a spice blend with variable ingredients. Ivan Fitzgerald, co-owner of spice shop Bazaar Spices in Union Market and Shaw, said it typically consists of 10 to 12 ingredients, including onion, garlic, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, mustard seed, thyme, coriander, fenugreek and red pepper. Historically, oil was included in the mix as well for preservative purposes, he said.

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Vadouvan originated with French colonization of Pondicherry (also known as Puducherry) in southeast India, said chef Cedric Maupillier of Convivial in Shaw. The French brought back with them the idea of a curry blend, but one that ended up milder than the Indian version.

Maupillier, a native of France, grew up eating his mom's lamb curry made with vadouvan. When he moved to London to work and learn English, he was surprised to see how trendy French curry was in England. Only then did he realize his home country wasn't the only place that appreciated a good curry.

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At Convivial, which he opened last fall, Maupillier serves a squash vadouvan. To make the vadouvan, spices such as cumin seed, black mustard seed, turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, chipotle, cardamom, cloves and madras curry powder are toasted overnight at a very low temperature. The spice mix is combined with jammy shallots and onions, plus squash trimmings, pineapple, green apples and bananas. The end result is a bright orange sauce plated with an artful stack of olive cake, acorn squash, mustard greens, coconut and pistachios.

At Mintwood Place, where Maupillier retains the title of executive chef, vadouvan flavors a pumpkin potage, or thick soup.

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"It's generally a pretty versatile blend," Fitzgerald said. He's had customers use it to make curries, of course, but also popcorn and bread.

"I've seen it used on every protein or vegetable you can imagine," Maupillier said.

His fellow chefs have proven his point. Vadouvan is a favorite of George Pagonis, executive chef and partner at Mike Isabella's three Kapnos restaurants. "It offers a really unique flavor profile," he said. "I try not to use it everywhere." At the new Kapnos Kouzina in Bethesda, Pagonis works vadouvan into curry lentils served with a dish of bifteki, or Greek beef patties. A vadouvan-spiced sunchoke puree -- he made something similar on "Top Chef" -- accompanies a salmon mezze at Kapnos Taverna in Arlington.

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At Westend Bistro, another French-accented eatery, vadouvan enhances a dish of skate wings. On the frequently changing menu at Jeremiah Langhorne's the Dabney, it was paired with lamb. Robert Wiedmaier's Belgian Brasserie Beck uses the blend in a Brussels sprouts and squash salad, and Jeffrey Buben's Vidalia incorporates it into a foie gras appetizer.

Chef Jonathan Dearden plans to put vadouvan-spiced olives on the menu at the pending Radiator in the Mason & Rook Hotel. Dearden gets his vadouvan from California purveyor Le Sanctuaire, whose mix includes sun-dried garlic and shallots. The resulting sweetness plays well against the saltiness from the olives and preserved lemon Dearden also includes. In his former gig at Ardeo + Bardeo, Dearden used vadouvan in a summer snapper dish, and it may reappear at Radiator.

He likes that it might spark a conversation with diners who ask what it is. "It is certainly something that looks great on a menu," he said.

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