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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

On spices

Alternative title: Spice up your Life

The other week there was a really interesting article in the Guardian about out of date spices. 

“We called it the “Ottolenghi effect”. Where once our spice cupboard was really just dried basil and mild curry powder, suddenly it was playing host to harissa and sumac and saffron. And then we forgot all about them. According to a recent survey, there are £240m worth of unused spices languishing in UK kitchens. And 13% of us confess to owning jars of spices more than four years out of date. (Paraphrased)

I have always wondered about out of date spices. There are many family stories about jars of spices older than various family members, significant world events etcetera. It was reassuring to read that it isn’t just us.

Spices are brilliant, adding flavour and depth without extra fat or sugar. A good way to ensure that you don’t end up with four-years out of date spices is to incorporate more of them into every day cooking. Especially during these dark winter days, spices can add exoticism, and a kind of festive familiarity.

The history of spices is really fascinating, their usage spans so many different aspects of our history, discovering civilisations and causing wars. There is archaeological evidence of spices being traded since ancient times, from the Maluku Islands (Spice Islands) in Indonesia spreading throughout the ancient world. From around 1600, spices had such high value in Europe that the Portuguese, Dutch and English fought to gain a monopoly over the trade. The fighting was so intense in the 17th and 18th centuries that the Dutch gave the island of Manhattan to the British in exchange for the tiny island of Run in the Spice Islands, giving the Dutch full control over nutmeg production. Many of islands’ populations were killed off during the so-called ‘Spice Wars’.

Here are some words and recipe ideas about some of my favourite spices.


Green cardamom is native to India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. The seed pods look a bit like lemon pips, with a few black seeds inside. There are references to cardamom in the Bronze-Age Mycenaean Greek Linear B tablets (incidentally, I wrote an essay on Linear B for my masters, in case you are interested), and in the New Testament.

They can be used whole, lightly bashed, or split open and the seeds ground. They are intensely fragrant, and work really well in sweet and savoury dishes. If using whole pods, make they are removed after cooking. Cardamom is a common ingredient in Indian and South Asian cooking, used in curries, traditional sweets and masala chai. It is used in Scandinavian pastries, to flavour coffee and as a botanical in gin. Cardamom seeds can also be chewed, like chewing gum to freshen breath.

Green cardamom also has a lot of medical uses. It has been used to treat infections in teeth and gums, to treat throat issues, lung congestion and tuberculosis, digestive disorders, kidney stones and gall stones. It has also reportedly been used as an antidote for snake and scorpion venoms.

Here is my interpretation of Ottolenghi’s pistachio and cardamom shortbread recipe. It makes the most perfectly crumbly, short (positively tiny) biscuits, and the dough freezes well too. 


Cloves are the flower buds of a tree native to the Spice Islands, and have been found in archaeological remains going as far back as 1721 BCE. Cloves are used in the cuisine of Asian, African, and the Near and Middle East, flavouring meats, curries, rice, and sweet dishes.

Cloves are used in Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine and dentistry, where their essential oil is used as a painkiller. This oil can also be used to anesthetize fish (I’m not sure how that was discovered), and repel ants!

Many Ashkenazi Jews use cloves as part of the ritual to mark the end of Shabbat, and for years that was all I thought cloves were for – getting stale in silver little boxes, brought out on Saturday night for a quick sniff, and put away for another week. While now of course I use cloves for so many other things, for me they always smell of that particular time.

Cloves are a key ingredient for my seasonal favourites, mulled wine and cranberry sauce. I genuinely don’t know how I would get through winter without them. My favourite recipe for cranberry sauce comes from Delia Smith, it is zingy and delicious. When cooking with cloves, be careful to count them, so you know how many to remove; nobody wants to bite down on a clove.

Coriander seeds

I absolutely love coriander seeds, and probably get through more of them than any other whole spice. They taste completely different from coriander leaf: when toasted and crushed they are lemony citrus, nutty and warm, with none of the leaf’s soapy tang. Coriander grows wild through most of the Near East and southern Europe. Traces have been found in the Pre-Pottery Nahal Hemar Cave in Israel, which may be the oldest archaeological find of coriander in the world. A lot of coriander was also found in the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Whole and ground coriander seeds are used widely in Indian curries, in its ground form used to help thicken curries as well as flavour them. Outside of Asia, coriander seeds are widely used when pickling vegetables, making sausages, brewing beer, or making rye bread.

One of my favourite ways to use coriander seeds is with roasted vegetables. Toast the seeds in a dry frying pan, and then roughly crush them in a mortar and pestle. Mix the crushed seeds with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and coat lumps of sweet potato, butternut squash, or cauliflower, and roast in a hot oven until cooked through and caramelised, with crunchy bits. This will take around 30-45 minutes for the sweet potato and butternut squash, and about 20 minutes for the cauliflower. Serve with a drizzle of tahini sauce.

Toasted coriander seeds and peanuts, crushed for this aubergine curry recipe
Mustard seeds

Mustard seeds, funnily enough, are the seeds from mustard plants! They range in colour from pale yellow to black. Despite having such a strong flavour, they seem to be a really multi-purpose spice. I love the zing they give to dishes, and the fact that they always try and jump of the pan when being toasted, like they know what is about to happen.

When researching mustard seeds (on Wikipedia), I found that they are mentioned in quite a few religious or mythological texts*. Clearly mustard seeds have for centuries inspired people to think about their place in the world, and I think that is really special.

The earliest reference to mustard seeds comes from the Indian story of Gautama Buddha in the fifth century BC. Gautama Buddha told the story of the grieving mother and the mustard seed. When a mother loses her only son, she takes his body to the Buddha to find a cure. The Buddha asks her to bring a handful of mustard seeds from a family that has never lost a child, husband, parent, or friend. When the mother is unable to find such a house in her village, she realizes death is common to all, and she cannot be selfish in her grief.

In the New Testament, the mustard seed is used by Jesus as a metaphor for ‘the Kingdom of God’, which starts small, but grows to be the largest of all garden plants.

He said, “How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? It’s like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow.”
    Mark 4:30–32

Jewish texts compare the knowable universe to the size of a mustard seed, demonstrating the world's insignificance and teaching humility. The medieval Jewish Scholar and philosopher, Nahmanides (the Ramban) writes that the universe expanded from the time of its creation, in which it was the size of a mustard seed.

Mustard seeds work incredibly well in curries and Middle Eastern style stews. Make a quick and refreshing carrot salad to accompany an Indian meal by combining julienned or shredded carrots with toasted mustard seeds and a little lemon juice. Whole grain mustard is also a fantastic ingredient, making a wonderful vinaigrette or as a surprising addition to cheese sauce. 

*Religious as mythological?? Look into Karen Armstrong if you are interested.


I wasn’t sure if I should include sumac, because it has become a bit of a cliché. But it really is one of my favourite spices, tasting a little bit like a cross between lemon and paprika. I seem to be adding it to pretty much everything these days.

Sumac is a dried berry of any one of 35 species of plants (Rhus genus), and is found throughout subtropical and temperate regions in the world, especially in Africa and North America. The berries are ground into a reddish-purple powder, used a lot in Middle Eastern cuisine. I had no idea that they had a history of usage in North America, so imagine my surprise when I came across ‘sumacade’! Like lemonade, but with sumac! Apparently Native Americans also used to combine sumac with tobacco and smoke it!

Sumac is a lot easier to get hold of here than it used to be, and it can often be found in most decent ethic corner shops, and many supermarkets. Nothing is as fun as getting huge red baggies of the stuff in middle-eastern markets.

Add a heaped teaspoon of sumac to a salad of chopped tomatoes, onion and parsley for that surprisingly authentic kebab-shop taste, or use it to roast or fry courgettes


Sunshine yellow turmeric is a rhizome, similar to ginger and galangal, native to southeast India. It has been used in Asia for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, as a remedy for stomach and liver ailments, as well as to heal sores. As of December 2013, turmeric is being evaluated for its potential efficacy against several human diseases, including kidney and cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, Alzheimer's, and irritable bowel disease.

Turmeric is considered to be highly auspicious and holy in India, and it is used extensively in Hindu ceremonies. In the mythology of the ancient Tamil religion, turmeric was associated with the sun (Thirumal). The solar plexus chakra is yellow, which in traditional Tamil Siddha medicine is the energy centre relating to the metabolic and digestive systems.

As well as its many culinary, spiritual and medicinal uses, turmeric is also used as a colouring. It is used in canned beverages, baked products, dairy products, orange juice and popcorn.

Turmeric is used widely in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking. As well as its fabulous, joyful colour, it also adds to flavour profiles helping create depth and overall flavour. I really like it because eating bright yellow food just makes me happy. At the moment I am using buckets of turmeric making celeriac sofrito, my delicious (if a bit farty) winter staple. Turmeric, along with cloves, coriander seed and cardamom also come together to make perfect pilau rice (to be blogged soon).

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