a spice renaissance


I’m still amazed by the new car phenomenon…you know….when you buy a car and all of a sudden you go from hardly noticing that Volkswagons exist to seeing them everywhere…. but the crazy thing is that I’m finding that this phenomenon extends beyond cars…. even food seems to be susceptible….

Last week I was lucky enough to dine at one of my favourite Indian restaurants: Nilgiri’s in Crows Nest. Dining at Nilgiri’s is always a treat in itself but on this occasion there was the added bonus of two guest speakers: the gorgeous master brewer Chuck Hahn and the passionate spice man himself Ian ‘Herbie’ Hemphill.

Chuck entertained with tales from the brewery which made me painfully aware of how little I know about beer and brewing. This was peppered with a tasting to demonstrate how well beer goes with food and I must say that in the case of Indian cuisine he has a very strong point. We then sat down to the superb Nilgiri’s mini masala dosa (deliciously light and crisp lentil and rice pancakes wrapped around spiced potato and served with a fresh coconut chutney). These were followed with a selection of entrees the highlights of which were the intriguingly spiced lotus root and crispy spiced fried cauliflower.

After having our tastebuds whetted with such fragrant offerings we were the perfect audience for Herbie.  It’s always a pleasure to listen to someone who is passionate about their subject matter and on this occasion it was pure bliss to listen to Herbie speak about spices and their potential. As I sat there mesmerised, my mind was drawn to my recently neglected spice box.  For some reason over the last few months I’ve been tending to cook more Italian and French based dishes and have been missing out on the joys of cooking with spices. With Herbie’s infectious enthusiasm I decided then and there to make an effort to rediscover spices.

Ajoy Joshi and his team outdid themselves with the main courses.  I normally try to avoid buffets like the plague but at Nilgiri’s the buffet is the perfect way to experience Indian food. I have previously experienced Nilgiri’s bargain $25 sunday night buffet and was pleasantly surprised when they decided to serve our rather large function from the buffet. With the lightest handkerchief chapatis we were treated to a selection of currys: lentil and chickpea, an incredibly fragrant chicken and tomato, stuffed hydrabadi eggplant, succulently spiced lamb. Along with rice spiced with ajowan…an Indian subcontinent native spice that I hadn’t even heard of before.

The evening concluded and we headed out into the night with a generous sample bag provided by Ajoy containing Nilgiri’s tandoori marinade, lemon pickle and garam marsala.

Little did I know but the very next day I was to continue my spice encounter. At our monthly team breakfast, this time at the Book Kitchen cafe in Surry Hills, I was about to order my customary skim flat white when my eye was caught by the menu….marsala chai… the spices beckoned so I quickly changed my order. And I was not disappointed, the chai deliciously sweet and creamy with fragrant cinnamon, cardamon, and cloves…a treat for the senses.

My spice discovery continued on Thursday when I decided to capitalise on my treasures from Nilgiris and cook dinner for my dear friend Missy Helgs. The tandoori lamb cutlets were spicy perfection. Served on a bed of wilted beet greens flavoured with sauted onion, garlic, fenugreek, cumin and chilli and sprinkled with crumbly low fat ricotta… an approximation of the famous Indian palak paneer, the cutlets were by far the best tandoori I had ever made.  The lemon pickle provided a refreshingly lemony counterpoint to the lamb and beet greens….somewhat like an Indian version of the fabulous Moroccan preserved lemons….yum.

Friday provided an unexpected continuation of my spice voyage. After a few drinks at The Tilbury in Wooloomooloo it was only logical that we concluded the evening with an Indian feast at the very modern Aki’s on the finger wharf.  Aki’s managed to live up to the expectations created by the recent favourable review in the SMH. Highlights of the meal were the dosa (on par with Nilgiri’s) and the crunchy okra and chickpea curry.

It was only fitting then that when planning the menu for dinner with my freshly parented friends Craig & Juanita that I based the meal around my renewed love of spices. Both are big fans of Mexican food and Craig was brave enough to eat the hottest thing I’ve ever cooked (a firery harissa chicken with 75 unseeded birdseye chillis in the marinade). With some help from Herbie and from Karen Martini’s spice world article in this week’s Sun Herald. I decided to go with an Indian inspired menu with lamb vindaloo as the focus…All good things….

a spicy dinner for craig & juanita
roasted spiced almonds
lambshank vindaloo
cucumber raitia
cabbage with mustard seeds
chapati bread
chai marsala poached prunes with burnt honey icecream

roast spiced almonds
serves 6
adapted from karen martini’s recipe in the sun herald.
I’ve added some chilli flakes for a more firery spice hit. Karen uses whole blanched almonds but I found that raw almonds work just fine.

40g unsalted butter
40g olive oil
400g whole almonds
2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
3T sea salt
2t caster sugar
2t cumin, ground
1t smokey paprika
1t sweet paprika
1t hot chilli flakes

Heat butter and oil over med heat and add almonds and garlic. Cook stirring constantly until toasted and golden brown. Remove almonds from oil, discard garlic and drain on paper towel.
Combine remaining ingredients in a bowl and toss in almonds to coat with the spice mix. Allow almonds to cool on a tray before serving with drinks.

lambshank vindaloo
serves 4
adapted from spice notes by Herbie Hemphill.
I always find cooking with chilli a bit unpredictable but that’s part of the charm. I like to serve a cooling raitia with spicy currys in case I get a bit heavy handed on the chilli. Lamb shanks are the perfect meat for a rich hearty curry like this….makes me glad that the days are getting shorter and the evenings are cool enough to warrant delicious slow cooked food.

4 lamb shanks
2T Herbie’s vindaloo curry powder**
2T olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
400g can tomatoes
1 cup water
2T garam masala
2T chaat masala
3 long chillies, dried
2T tomato paste
10 curry leaves

Heat oil in a large oven proof casserole dish and brown shanks on all sides. Remove shanks and add curry powder and cook stirring over med heat approx 1min. Add onion and garlic and cook stirring for 3 mins until onion starting to soften. Be careful not to burn as this will cause the curry to be bitter. Add tomatoes and water to pan along with shanks and remaining ingredients. Bring to a simmer and then cover and remove from the heat. Cook in a slow oven at 150oC for 3 hours or until lamb is tender and almost falling off the bone. Best if cooled and stored over night in the refrigerator before heating and serving the next day.
**to make vindaloo powder combine the following: 3T med chilli powder, 2Twhite poppy seeds, 2T cumin seed, 4t hot paprika, 3t cassia bark, 3t ginger, 2t crushed birds eye chillis, 1.5T amchur powder, 1.5T black pepper, 1t cloves, 1/2t star anise.

cucumber raita
serves 4
adapted from 50 great curries of india by camilla panjabi
a cooling essential accompaniment to the firery vindaloo. camilla sweetens hers with sugar but I prefer the tangy yoghurt to shine through.

1C yoghurt
1 lebanese cucumber, coarsley grated
sea salt
1/2t cumin
pinch paprika

Place cucumber in a strainer and sprinkle with a large pinch of salt. Allow excess moisture to drain away. Squeeze dry and stir through yoghurt with cumin. Serve sprinkled with paprika

cabbage with mustard seeds
serves 4 as a side
adapted from 50 great curries of india by camilla panjabi
I prefer to serve currys with a vegetable side rather than the ubiquitous steamed rice.

1/4 large red cabbage, finely shredded
4T olive oil
1/4t mustard seeds
1 green chilli chopped
1cm chunk ginger, peeled and finely chopped
10 curry leaves

Heat oil in a large saucepan and add mustard seeds. When they start to pop add remaining ingredients and cook stirring uncovered over a low heat until cabbage is al dente.

makes 12
adapted from Camilla Punjabi.

1C wholemeal plain flour
1/3C warm water
2T olive oil or ghee

combine ingredients and knead for 5-8 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. cover with a damp cloth and rest for at least 1hr.

divide dough into 12 balls. roll each ball on  a floured surface until approximately 15cm diameter. Cook on a hot griddle until lightly golden. turn and cook other side. wrap in foil to keep warm before serving.

marsala chai prunes with burnt honey icecream
serves 4-6
the idea for the marsala chai prunes came from steven snow’s (chef from fins at boyon bay) article in this weekends smh about cooking with tea. When I was leafing through herbie’s excellent book spice notes I saw his marsala chai recipe and things clicked. The icecream is adapted from Greg Malouf. The first time I made this I chickened out when it came to burning the honey and the result was a fairley non descript icecream. This time I made sure the honey was a very dark deep golden cararamel colour and was rewarded with a deliciously complex icecream remeniscent of creme caramel.

for the prunes:
1 stick cinnamon
4 cardamon pods
6 cloves
2C water
2T brown sugar
250g pitted prunes
2 black tea bags

combine all ingredients in a saucepan. simmer for approx 10 minutes until prunes are plum and soft. best if made the day before serving.  Also good as a breakfast served with yoghurt and museli.

for the icecream:
4T water
100g sugar
3T honey
4 yolks
600mL cream
150mL skim milk
handfull sliced almonds, toasted to serve.

combine water, honey, and 50g sugar in a saucepan and stir over a low heat until sugar is dissolved. increase heat and cook until a dark burnt caramel colour is achieved. remove from heat and stir in cream and milk being careful as the mixture will spit. stir over a low heat until sugar is evenly distriuted and the mixture is almost starting to boil. 

meanwhile whisk egg yolks and remaining sugar until pale. pour in hot caramel cream and stir to combine. return to saucepan and stir over a low heat until custard has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon being careful not to boil. remove from heat and allow to cool before chilling in the refrigerator.  Churn in an icecream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions.

serve prunes topped with icecream sprinkled with toasted almonds.
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