The Original Spice Girl: Zhug

Zinging with Zhug

I get a real kick out of roasting, pounding and grinding spices, taking deep breaths of the intoxicating aromas. It’s like therapy and I probably need a lot of that!   With some of my new challenges  – creating whisky experiences with spices along with the global food pairing for a new whisky; writing my latest book, Spirit and Spice; working with Seasoned Pioneers – –  as one of their travelling ‘Spice Pioneers’; and the spice and recipe development with the chefs at the award-winning Mountain Café in Aviemore – I am in my element.

So here is Zhug (zhoug), both the dried and fresh versions. Zingy and fiery combined with the warming notes of cardamom, caraway or cumin, and spiked with garlic, this paste conjures up the characteristic flavours of Yemeni cooking.  Usually it is served with bread and eaten as a snack or appetizer but it is also used as a condiment for a variety of grilled and roasted meat and vegetable dishes, or combined with pureed tomatoes and fresh coriander and served as a mezze dish. Popular in Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, it is a versatile chilli paste like harissa.

Dried chilli Zhug
8 dried red chillies (Horn or New Mexico varieties)
4 galic gloves, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon salt
seeds of 4-6 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
a small bunch fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
a small bunch fresh coriander, finely chopped
3-4 tablespoons olive or sunflower oil
Put the chillies in a bowl, pour boiling water over them and leave them to soak for at least 6 hours. Drain them, cut off the stalks, squeeze out the seeds, and roughly chop them.

Using a mortar and pestle, pound the chillies with the garlic and salt to a thick smooth paste. Add the cardamom and caraway seeds and the peppercorns and pound them with the chilli paste – you want to break up the seeds and peppercorns but they don’t have to be perfectly ground as a little bit of texture is good. Beat in the parsley and coriander and bind the mixture with the oil.

Spoon the spice paste into a sterilized jar, drizzle the rest of the oil over the top and keep it in a cool place, or in the refrigerator, for 3-4 weeks. When serving as a condiment or a dip for bread, mix the layer of oil into it and garnish with finely chopped parsley.

Fresh green chilli zhug
A big handful of fresh coriander leaves, roughly chopped
A fistful of fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1-2 green chillies, stalks and seeds removed, and roughly chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
half a teaspoon cumin seeds
half a teaspoon sugar
2 tablsp olive oil
juice of half a lime
2 tblsp water
sea salt

Put everything into a blender and blitz to a smooth or coarse paste. Zhug should be very fiery but you can adjust the amount of chillies to suit your taste.