interview with a spice master + butter chickpeas [5 ingredients | 10 minutes]

Ian 'Herbie' Hemphill butter chickpeas

In the first installment for Spice Week here on stonesoup, I went through a long-awaited spring clean of my beloved spice box and cut my collection down to a list of essentials and nice to haves.

Today I have an big treat for you all. I was lucky enough to interview Ian ‘Herbie’ Hemphill, Australia’s premier purveyor of all things spice. On his Twitter profile (@herbiespices), Herbie professes to be obsessed with spices which I think means he’s more than passionate about them. If you’d like to learn more about Herbie’s Spices, I highly recommend checking out their website and online store. I’m pretty sure they ship internationally.

And before we get into it, I have a wonderful 5 ingredients 10 minutes recipe and a video to share today. It’s a minimalist curry I’m calling butter chickpeas. So don’t forget to scroll to the bottom for the recipe.

butter chickpeas from jules clancy.

JULES: I understand your family had a culinary herb and spice business and your mother wrote several books. What was it like growing up in a world of herbs and spices when most of Anglo-Australia was eating very bland food?

HERBIE: Like most kids I must have taken the flavours of home for granted, and never thought that the reason I liked Mum’s cooking the best was due to the herbs and spices. On the downside, when she was testing recipes we might have the same dish 4 nights in a row!

JULES: I’ve been procrastinating about cleaning out my own spice collection and would like to reduce it down to about 10. My cooking tends to be mostly Mediterranean / North African. Do you think I’m missing out on anything if I narrow down my spices to the following: ground cumin, ground coriander, garam marsala, smoked paprika, black pepper, cinnamon quills, fennel seeds, vanilla beans, dried chilli flakes, and za’atar?

HERBIE: A good selection, however you must also have a sweet paprika as the smoked paprika is quite strong and should not be used instead of a good sweet paprika. Think of it as that “extra” something to add to dishes.

JULES: And what would be your own desert island spices if you had to narrow it down to 10 favourites?

HERBIE: I’d have to say; coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, cinnamon & cassia, cloves, chilli, ginger, cardamom, paprika and star anise…………and I’d smuggle in turmeric, nutmeg, saffron and vanilla!

JULES: What’s the biggest mistake that people make when cooking with spices?

HERBIE: Sometimes cooks don’t think about the importance of balance with spices, so they need to smell them and think how the vast range of flavours and flavour strengths will combine harmoniously. Lots of information on this in my book Spice Notes & Recipes.

JULES: I’ve read in numerous locations that it’s really best to grind your own spices, but as a minimalist I’m also trying to keep my kitchen equipment to a minimum. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting rid of my ‘spice’ grinder and focusing on buying small amounts of good quality, fresh ground spices from specialists like yourself. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of grinding your own.

HERBIE: I suggest grinding your own if it is a spice you use rarely, as once ground the shelf life is reduced from about 3 years to about 18 months. If it is a spice you use regularly and you use a lot, eg. cumin, coriander, fennel seeds and cinnamon, there is no need to be a slave to the spice grinder. Buy ground that’s well within its best before date and it will do the job just as well.


JULES: I was reading Niel Perry’s book Food I Love recently and he mentions that he only adds pepper just before serving as he finds the cooking process can produce bitter flavours from pepper. Have you come across this yourself? What are your thoughts about the optimum time to season with pepper?

HERBIE: Depends a lot on the dish and the other flavours. Indians for instance only add pepper to the cooking and never add it at the end. Neil’s dishes tend to have lots of very light fresh flavours, and a good dose of chilli heat. In these recipes, typically also in Thai and Japanese, I’d suggest the same as Neil.

JULES: You’ve been incredibly successful as an author. Which of your books was the most fun to write and which would you recommend as a must-have for stonesoup readers?

HERBIE: Definitely Spice Notes and Recipes. I’ve packed as much information in as possible and our eldest daughter Kate (who trained at Leith’s in London) contributed most of the recipes. Recipes that even Damian Pignolet has commended for their structure and originality.

JULES: I know you and Liz have been running spice tours to India and Sri Lanka and that travel is a key part of your business. I’m very jealous of all the wonderful places you must get to visit in the name of ‘work’. What are your favourite travel destinations for business? And where do you like to visit for pleasure?

HERBIE: Business and pleasure are the same for us. When you are on business you are not like a tourist looking in on a scene through a window, you are part of the scene, meeting farmers, traders, cooks and all kinds of characters. And believe me, the spice trade is still full of them. Our favourite place is still India for all it’s culture and enormous range of spices. We are off to Hungary next week to attend a paprika festival, so that will be as much fun as the saffron festival we attended in Spain several years ago.

JULES: For those of us lucky enough to live in Australia, where are your favourite restaurants to eat out in Oz?

HERBIE: Spice Temple is one of my favourites, along with Tetsuya’s, Lochiel at Kurrajong Heights (we’ve known Monique since she was in primary school with our daughters) and for a relaxing meal after work on a Friday, the Three Weeds at Rozelle is hard to beat.


JULES: And finally, thanks for taking the time to talk to stonesoup. What can you tell us about what’s next for Herbie’s Spices? Do you have any new products or books in the works? What are you hoping will result from the growing success of your business?

HERBIE: While we have been successful, we are still a small artisan business that has only been a success as a result of the support we have had from our customers, and the specialty retailers who sell our spices. New products tend to emerge as a result of customer requests, so we have just brought out a butter chicken spice mix. This has none of that dreadful artificial colour you see in supermarket pastes, and many restaurants, and is so easy to make at home.

We are always seeking to demystify the use of spices, and as long as we continue to help people make good, natural, wholesome meals to be eaten with family and friends, we’ll feel we are meeting our objectives.

butter chickpeas

[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
butter chickpeas

serves 2 with rice

If chickpeas aren’t your thing feel free to use chicken, pork or even tofu.

I like this hot so tend to go for the 2 teaspoon quota of chilli flakes, but it’s probably safer to start out with 1 teaspoon or even less if you are feeding people with heat-sensitive taste buds.

2 tablespoons garam marsala
1 – 2 teaspoons dried chilli flakes
1 can chickpeas (400g / 14oz), drained
1 can tomatoes (400g / 14oz)
2 – 3 tablespoons cream

1. Heat a few tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan. Cook garam marsala and chilli over a medium high heat for about 30 seconds.

2. Add drained chickpeas and cook for another minute or so.

3. Add tomatoes and their juices and bring to a fast simmer.

4. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring every now and then and breaking up the tomato with a fork.

5. When the sauce has reduced a little stir in the cream. Taste and season.

butter chickpeas

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