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

  • 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 – www.seasonedpioneers.com –  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.

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  • 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!


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  • 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!


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