The Original Spice Girl

The story of spices is a fascinating one of great voyages, exploration, conquests and colonization. The ancient trade routes by land and by sea carved up the culinary world from China and Southeast Asia to India, Africa, the Middle East and Europe, introducing cinnamon to our baking, vanilla to our puddings, and black pepper and salt to the common table. Chillies, on the other hand, came later and took a slightly different route from the New World and at a later date in history, but they have been so effectively absorbed into the cooking of many different cultures, you would think they had always been there.

My interest in spices is not solely related to food – their medicinal and cultural uses are just as important – and, for over 30 years, I have researched and written about them and how they are used in different cultures. I have been dubbed ‘the original spice girl’ by Scotland on Sunday and I regularly talk about the origins and uses of spices on Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Café but, at home in my kitchen, I love bringing them to life – roasting and pounding, dreaming of journeys through India, Southeast Asia, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa – the warming aromas and flavours transporting me from busy street markets to sundowners in the bush. Happy memories, wanderlust and nostalgia!

Sundowners in Samburu

  • A Spoonful of Turmeric

    Those of you who know me are well aware that I am not a follower of trends – of any kind! But, for once, I’m well in there as turmeric is the new trend – everyone is talking about it as if it has just been discovered!

    I mean, it would be a little unkind of me to burst the bubble of some young foodies and fill them in on the last 2-3,000 years. I actually had a young chef ask me recently if I knew what turmeric was and then proceeded to tell me how to use it. It made me feel as ancient as the rhizome itself!  To the followers of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine the healing and colouring powers of turmeric are not new  – it has been used as a natural dye for food and cloth, an antiseptic for open wounds, a remedy for indigestion and as a cleansing agent for the blood, bladder and liver but the current research into its curative properties for strokes, dementia and Alzheimers is new and that is well worth keeping oneself informed about.

    If you are not well acquainted with turmeric already, a spoonful is going to be beneficial whatever way you look at it, so add it to your pickles, curries, even your baking or the mayonnaise for your sweet potato fries (another trend!). Fresh or dried, its earthy flavour is versatile for both savoury and sweet things, but don’t be too liberal with the powdered version as too much can make things taste chalky.

    The fresh rhizome contains essential oils and plenty of bright golden-orange juice that stains yours fingers but it is deliciously healthy grated over eggs or porridge and added to smoothies; cook it with lentils and vegetables to enjoy its unique flavour; or simmer it in boiling water with fresh ginger, honey and lemon to make a body-warming, cleansing tea packed with vitamins, minerals and gentle goodness.

    The dried, powdered spice has a knack of getting everywhere, staining clothes and surfaces, but it is easy to combine with other spices and can be added to almost everything you make. I have a couple of turmeric spoons in my kitchen, a turmeric board, and tea towels covered in stains – that’s just the way it is with turmeric. If the spice can heal and cure, it’s going to get special treatment in my kitchen!


  • My happy homemade harissa!

    Like a true hermit, it’s not often I come out of my shell and do some live cooking – although I have an inkling it is going to become a ‘thing’ in the future – but the persuasive powers of the charming and creative ‘froglady’ chef, Lydie Bocquillon, www.auld-alliance.com, the director of Food on Film, www.kingussiefoodonfilm.co.uk, and the urgency of the charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) forced me to come out from the hills to participate in a cook-off with Chris Trotter, www.fifefoodambassador.co.uk, the legendary chef and Food Ambassador for Fife (probably Scotland too!) and, amazingly, with my extremely laidback Singapore Laksa, I won! It was all a bit of good fun and could have gone either way but the point was that the winner would contribute the fee to a local charity so I donated mine to CRY – Chris would have done the same!

    It was a great event with a superb turnout of Scottish food producers, some of whom I will revisit in the future when broadcasting, but I also managed to sell all my jars of harissa.

    To be honest, there is nothing quite like the homemade stuff – it is oily and fruity, aromatic with roasted spices and tinged with a spark of chilli heat – a little goes a long, long way, making it a versatile, economical and utterly delectable spice paste.

    So, here I am giving you the secrets to a successful harissa – please keep them to yourselves!

    approx. 12-16 finger-sized dried red chillies (eg. Horn/New Mexico)
    4–6 peeled garlic cloves, chopped
    1-2 teaspoons sea salt
    1 tablespoon cumin seeds
    1 tablespoon coriander seeds
    olive, argan, or rapeseed oil

    Place the chillies in a bowl and pour over boiling water to cover them. Leave them to soak for at least 2 days – generally I soak for 4 days – changing the water every day.

    Drain the chillies, chop off the stalks, and squeeze out the water and most of the seeds. Discard the stalks and seeds, and coarsely chop the chillies. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the chillies with the garlic and salt to form a thick, smooth paste – this takes some time but it is well worth the effort.

    Dry roast the cumin and coriander seeds and grind them to a powder.

    Beat in the ground spices and add roughly 2 tablespoons of the oil so that the paste is thick and moist. To this base paste, you can add fresh or dried herbs, other spices, and chopped orange or lemon peel but I prefer to stick to the traditional method and add the other ingredients to each dish I use it in.

    Spoon the harissa into a sterilized jar and cover with a thin layer of oil to keep it moist. Seal the jar and store it in a cool place, or in the refrigerator, for 1-2 months. Just use a little when you need it and top up the layer of oil when you seal the jar again.

    What can you do with harissa?

    It can be used as a condiment with grilled or roasted poultry, meat or fish, or with simple things like fried or boiled eggs; it can be stirred into oil and used as a marinade or dressing; or added to yogurt, cream cheese, and pureed vegetables or chickpeas to make a tasty dip; and it can be used as the base flavouring in any type of soup, stew or grain dish. Basically, this wonderful stuff enhances almost any dish with its depth of flavour as well as its chilli kick!


  • Dukkah

    As I’ve just finished making a fresh batch of dukkah spice for a workshop I’m running at the weekend, I thought I would share it with you – it is such a handy little mix to have in the kitchen. When discussing a new project with Claire Macdonald over lunch the other day, I was delighted to see her sprinkle it all over her restaurant-cooked food!

    Derived from the Arabic word for ‘to pound’, dukkah (duqqa) is prepared by pounding the ingredients, using a mortar and pestle, rather than grinding so that there is texture as well as flavour in the spice mix. For a quick, traditional Middle Eastern snack, you simply bind 2 tablespoons dukkah with 2-3 tablespoons olive oil and dip chunks of warm, crusty bread into it.

    As a regular kitchen spice, it is delicious tossed through stir-fried or roasted vegetables; combined with oil or melted butter it makes a fabulous dressing or sauce to drizzle over grilled and roasted meat, poultry or fish – just add a little finely chopped preserved lemon and parsley and you have the taste of North Africa in a few seconds; or simply sprinkle the dry mix over quick snacks like fried or poached eggs and fried hallumi while they are still in the pan to get the maximum flavour

    4 tablespoons hazelnuts
    2 tablespoons sesame seeds
    1 tablespoon coriander seeds
    1 tablespoon cumin seeds
    1 tablespoon fennel seeds
    2 teaspoons fine chilli flakes
    2 teaspoons dried mint
    1-2 teaspoons sea salt

    Dry roast the hazelnuts in a heavy based pan until they emit a nutty aroma. Tip them into a clean dishtowel and rub off any loose skins. Using a mortar and pestle, crush them lightly to break them up.

    Dry roast the coriander, cumin, fennel, and chilli flakes together, until they emit a nutty aroma, and add them to the hazelnuts. Crush them all together lightly so that they are well blended but uneven in texture – some almost ground to a powder, others in crunchy bits.

    Stir in the mint and sea salt to taste and spoon the mixture into a sterilized, airtight jar. Keep the jar in a cupboard, away from direct sunlight. The fresh roasted, nutty flavours will last for 4-6 weeks then they begin to fade.