Look, let’s face it, cooking without spices isn’t really an option for me and since I’ve already covered salt and pepper recently, I’ll continue in this vein & go spice shopping. Spices have been used since before recorded history (thats around 7,000 years ago) long before Greece and Rome were countries in the modern sense of the word. The Greeks weren’t nuts about them because they were fastidiously healthy but they certainly imported it before the Romans did since they mastered the monsoons!
Mastering the monsoons was vital for travel to India because it saved sufficient time to enable them to get to the land of spice. The Greek beat the Romans to it & they heard about these routes from the Phoenician traders who were old hands at travelling to India. Merchants from all over the world thronged the markets of Southern India buying shiploads of exotic foods. Spices were the subject of strife & wars and it’s probable that the Romans were ‘inspired’ to fight the Parthian wars to keep the trade routes to India open.
There’s little doubt that spices influenced the Crusaders decisions to travel to the East. “As long ago as 3500 BC the ancient Egyptians were using various spices for flavouring food, in cosmetics, and for embalming their dead. The use of spices spread through the Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. Spices from China, Indonesia, India, and Ceylon were originally transported overland by donkey or camel caravans. For almost 5000 years, Arab middlemen controlled the spice trade, until European explorers discovered a sea route to India and other spice producing countries in the East”.
A spice is a strongly flavoured or aromatic dried seed, fruit, root, bark, leaf or vegetative substance used, nutritionally, in significant quantities as a food additive for the purpose of flavour, colour or as a preservative that kills harmful bacteria or prevents their growth. India produces more spices than any other country in the world with the best quality spices come from Kerala, an Indian state. Today around 2.75 million tonnes valued at approximately $4.2 billion is exported from India (the biggest spice producer and exporter in the world).
This is the king of spices, no contest. It belongs to two genera of the ginger family: Zingiberaceae (Elettaria and Amomum). Both varieties look like small seed pods, triangular in cross-section and spindle-shaped, with thin papery outer shells & small black seeds. The Elettaria pods are light green in colour and the Amomum pods are larger and dark brown. Cardamom has a very strong taste, is intensely aromatic and can be used in just about everything.
- 200 ml evaporated milk
- 200 ml condensed milk
- 200 g double thick cream
- 2 tbsp full cream milk
- ½ tsp Maizena (cornflour)
- Seeds of 10 cardamom pods, crushed
- 1 tbsp honey
- Crushed pistachios
- Mix the Maizena with the milk and set aside.
- Bring the evaporated milk to a boil and then add the condensed milk, the double cream, the cardamom and the Maizena mixture to this, stirring well for a minute and then remove from the heat and allow to cool down.
- Put the creamy mixture in a food processor and blend for a couple of minutes to smooth out any lumps (or use your hand-held blender).
- Pour into a plastic container with a lid and freeze for at least 6 hours or overnight until the ice cream is quite firm – it’s rich so 2 small scoops for one person is sufficient.
- Garnish with crushed pistachios.
The black cardamom (also known as fat cardamom, Amomum, brown cardamom, Java cardamom, Bengal cardamom, Siamese cardamom, white or red cardamom) is definitely the more astringent, without being bitter; if you bite on it, there’s a mint like coolness. It’s often used in Indian food, in Scandinavian cakes & breads (Finnish pulla or Swedish julekake), to make garam masala or as a garnish for basmati rice. Individual seeds are often chewed in much the same way as chewing-gum and it’s also been used in the production of gin. The green cardamom (also known as Elettaria or true cardamom) is one of the most expensive spices by weight. Only a little is needed & it must be stored in pod form because the minute the seeds are exposed or ground they lose their flavour. Never buy ground cardamom. Ever. Grind them each time you need to use them or to remove the little seeds from the pods each time you need to use them. In the Middle East it’s often used for desserts and cakes, ground with coffee beans or tea and used in a host of different savoury dishes.
Cumin is the dried seed of the Cuminum cyminum and is a member of the parsley family; the seeds look like caraway seeds, are oblong in shape, longitudinally ridged and yellowish-brown in colour. (Black cumin is actually the Nigella sativa & is a different spice altogether also known as fennel flower, nutmeg flower, Roman coriander, blackseed,black caraway or black onion seed). Cumin seeds have been in use since ancient times. Seeds that were excavated in Syria dating back to 2,000 BC and were also found at many ancient Egyptian archaeological sites. References to cumin are found in the Bible in the Old Testament (Isaiah 28:27) and in the New Testament (Matthew 23:23). It was used in ancient Greece and Rome; the Greeks kept cumin at the table in separate containers as we keep salt and pepper at the table today. In Morocco the practice continues to this day. Use continued during the Middle Ages in Spain and Malta but not in the rest of Europe. Today cumin is cultivated in Indian, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Southern America.
CUMIN AND CARROT SOUP
- 400 ml homemade chicken stock (or vegetable for vegetarians)
- 6 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 tsp cumin seeds , toasted
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp soft brown sugar
- 1 bunch fresh coriander leaves, chopped
- Greek yoghurt
- extra virgin olive oil
- Fry the onion in a little oil until it softens and then add the cumin and cayenne pepper, frying for a minute before adding the carrots, the sugar and the stock and bringing to a simmer.
- Simmer for 10 minutes or until the carrot is very soft, then whizz in a blender (add additional stock if the soup is too thick and reheat if necessary.
- Stir in the coriander and check and correct the seasoning.
- Add a spoonful of yoghurt to each serving.
During the Middle Ages it was believed that “cumin kept chickens and lovers from wandering” and that a couple who carried cumin seeds on them throughout the wedding ceremony would be happy forever! It was also used to treat colds and flu if steeped in hot milk at the time. In southern Asia it’s still used to tell the difference between false labour and the real thing but I have my doubts & apart from gas, I don’t think there’s much in the way of serious medicinal properties. In in Sri Lanka, cumin seeds are toasted and boiled for stomach aches which falls into the ‘gas’ category: it’s a versatile spice and can be used in many dishes, either freshly ground or as whole seeds. It’s in combination with chilli & coriander and is common in Indian, Spanish, Italian and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Cuisine.
REALLY QUICK CUMIN CHICKEN AND AVOCADO SALAD
- 4 skinless, chicken breasts
- 3 Hass avocados, peeled and sliced
- 1 heaped tsp ground cumin
- 1 heaped tsp hot ground paprika
- 400g pack cherry tomatoes, halved if large
- 1 small onion , finely chopped
- 4 small Gem lettuces, separated into leaves
- 20g pack fresh coriander leaves
- 6 tbsp homemade Caesar salad dressing
- 410g tin red kidney beans , drained and rinsed, seasoned with salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Mix the oil and spices in a Ziploc bag and place the chicken breasts in the bag, shaking it well to coat the chicken and allow to marinate for an hour.
- Pan-fry the chicken, without the marinde, in a large non-stick frying pan for a few minutes on each side.
- Pop the tomatoes into the marinade left in the Ziploc bag, shake lightly and then add them to the pan.
- Put a lid on the pan and simmer for another 5 mins until the chicken is cooked and the tomatoes are warm and just starting to soften.
- In the meantime, toss the onion, the lettuce, the fresh coriander and the avocado slices in the salad dressing and pile onto a large platter.
- Top with small handfuls of the beans and scatter with the tomatoes, slice the warm chicken and pile on top and serve with crusty bread or crunchy tortilla chips.
Coriander has been cultivated in Greece since 2000 BC or before. One of the Linear B tablets recovered from Pylos referred to it’s use in the manufacture of perfume and both the seeds and leaves were used. It was one of the earliest spices cultivated by the early American pilgrims. The dry fruits are called coriander seeds as opposed coriander “leaves” or “fresh” coriander. The seeds have a lemony citrus flavour when crushed & are warm, nutty, spicy and orangy. Coriander is commonly found both as whole dried seeds or in ground form. They can be briefly roasted or heated in a dry pan before grinding to enhance and the aroma. Ground coriander seeds lose flavour quickly in storage and it’s best used freshly ground. Coriander seed is a spice (dhania in Hindi) and used extensively in garam masala & Indian food where it’s often mixed with cumin. Roasted coriander seeds, called dhana dal, are eaten as a snack in India; they can be boiled in water to cure colds. Outside Asia, coriander seed is used for pickling vegetables, making sausages (German wurst & South African boerewors) or in Central European rye breads instead of caraway seeds; many European dishes and Belgian wheat beer (witbier) make use of it – orange peel is added to the witbier. There’s a village In Italy that includes coriander and orange peel in their sausages with incredibly tasty results. I couldn’t resist including Ainsley Harriots recipe for Coriander & Lime Chicken here:
CORIANDER & LIME CHICKEN
- 6 garlic cloves
- 4 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, plus extra, to garnish
- 2 tsp black peppercorns, coarsely ground
- 2 tsp caster sugar
- 2 limes, juice only
- 2 tsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
- Finely chop the garlic and coriander then mix in the peppercorns, sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, soy sauce and sunflower oil until well blended. Place the chicken breasts in the marinade and set aside for 1-2 hours, turning from time to time.
- Preheat a ridged griddle pan or heavy, non stick frying-pan and cook the chicken for 7-8 minutes on each side until the chicken is cooked through and golden brown with good bar marks. Serve hot or cold, garnished with coriander leaves.
- Tip: The marinade contains lime juice, which tenderises the chicken. After more than a few hours though, the meat fibres can become so soft that the chicken literally falls apart, which means that this dish is not suitable for overnight marinating.