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


  • thanks wei wei – the cream is really what butter is before it becomes butter. you could use butter instead actually but you wouldn’t need anywhere near as much.

  • I have made “butter chickpeas” before,using a commercial “butter chicken” sauce, but I had no idea it could be this easy! And it looks absolutely delicious. Looking forward to cooking it myself over the weekend.

  • Nice interview. Glad to know about Herbies website. Your chick-peas looks quite restaurant styled! :) I use red-chilli powder in the place of flakes. It incorporates and blends nicely. This is my suggestion though. I’ve also posted the chick-peas (We call it ‘Chhole’) recipe on my blog too but it certainly doesn’t fit in your minimalist mantra. :)

  • Ooooh, I have recently fell in love with butter chicken! I can’t wait to try butter chick peas! I am also surprised about the cream…but even more surprised that it isn’t a LOT of cream! Score! Will be trying this very soon.

  • What a great interview! Since I started cooking and learning from my mum and grandma. I loved using many Asian Indian and middle eastern spices along with some culinary friends and one of my friend has turned me in to Chinese and Thai spices, and I am loving it. I guess I will not be minimalist with my spices and that is okay with me!

  • I just made this tonight — the flavor was great, but holy crap that was a lot of garam masala! It was quite grainy as a result…did you not encounter that?

  • hey robert
    thanks for your concern but I mean 2 tablespoons – because it’s the only spice we’re using here I think it needs it.
    but you’re more than welcome to try it with less

    no I haven’t found the texture to be overly grainy – wonder if my garam marsala is more finely ground than yours? sounds like a particle size issue to me.

  • I just made this and was also going to ask if the 2 Tablespoons was supposed to be 2 teaspoons. Mine was grainy too and seemed just like too much. Tonight I diluted the leftovers with more tomato and a few diced fingerling potatoes and cooked that all for about 20 minutes and I loved it.

  • I enjoyed that interview immensely. I have been on their site a few times, scouting around for stuff, although I don’t think I’ve bought from them yet.

    Did your spice box come from them as part of a set?

  • I love your blog and your videos but I cannot stand how often you say um!

    i counted 37 times in this video and it took away from the food.

  • hi majeeda
    no the box is an old wine box I got from a winery I used to work with

    thanks for the feedback. I know, I could do with ALOT less ums

  • Nicky I can’t believe you actually counted!! Lol.

    Jules I’m sure ‘ums’ will decrease with time (again, lol) as it probably takes a bit of time to relax in front of the camera…at least that would be the case for me. The wine box is a very cute idea. I have a masala daba which stores the usual 7 spices but then I have to have another container with lots of little jars for the rest. It’s easy to remove from the cupboard though, like yours would be. I think that is the key: being able to get to them easily.

  • I tried this out, but I think I may have burned the garam masala. It made my whole dorm smell delicious, though, and had other students popping into the kitchen to see what was cooking. It was delightfully easy (and cheap) so I’ll probably try it again soon.. this time on lower heat.

  • michaela
    glad to hear you had your fellow students curiosity piqued. It can be super easy to overtoast spices so you’re right to try a lower heat next time.

    thanks majeeda
    it was good to get the feedback though so now I have something to work on

    welcome to stonesoup delaney
    if you like what you see I’d love to have you as a regular reader.

  • Hi there, I was wondering what you would reccommend as a vegan alternative to the cream? Cheers!

  • Haha, just watched the video through, I see you mentioned coconut cream, do you think the same amount of silken tofu might be a good option?

  • I’ve made your recipe as written a few times now. Really like it. Tonight I tried adding a mashed can of white beans to the sauce instead of the cream. Boosted the protein content and made it vegan. Bonus.

    Thanks so much for this!

  • I’ve just made this dish and it’s divine and so quick!! So buttery and lovely. I used passata instead of tinned tomatoes and low fat greek yoghurt instead of cream. Thanks so much for sharing. Leftovers for lunch tomorrow :-)

  • When I make butter chicken at home I use tomato paste instead of tinned tomatoes. And a can of evaporated milk and a tablespoon of cornflour instead of cream or butter. This is a fantastic idea using chickpeas in place of meat. I can’t wait to give it a go. And I want to try serving it with quinoa which I haven’t tried yet.

  • I tried this once a while ago with butter and wasn’t really impressed. But last night I used plain, full-fat yogurt – YUM! The texture and flavor were both much smoother. I used 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes and it was perfect for me, but too spicy for my husband to eat. I think my garam masala might be on the spicy side.

  • Absolutely delicious, totally cheap and really easy. A winner! Thanks.

  • Just made it after reading the comments! I only added 1 tsp of red pepper flakes. To me, this 1 tsp = medium/hot level at an [American] Indian restaurant. I can’t imagine 2 tsp., LOL. I added 3 T of 1/2 and 1/2 (would heavy cream make a difference?). Tasted it. Then I added 2 T of coconut cream. Now it’s toned down a bit enough for me to enjoy. It was just too strong for me. Next time, I’ll probably use 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes and 1 to 1 1/2 T of garam masala. Just my personal preference. And, I’ll put it over brown rice! But the recipe is so easy and fast, I love it! Thank you!

    • Thanks for sharing Jen!

      Cooking with chilli is so tricky because everyones palate is different AND different chillis vary as well. Good idea to add more cream / coconut cream if you find something too hot – serving with greek yoghurt has a similar effect.


  • This is one of my favorite recipes. I make this at least a couple times a month. It’s super versatile — I usually do chickpeas and chicken, but I’ve made it with other main ingredients, and imagine it would work with almost anything — pre-cooked lentils, potatoes, cauliflower, mushrooms, whatever. It’s easy to make vegan with coconut cream or cashew cream, or use sour cream or yogurt or whatever you have. The only tricky part is keeping garam masala in the house — it’s not in my local grocery stores, so I order from Penzy’s. I’ve recommended it to friends, including folks who don’t think they can cook, because it’s so simple and delicious.

    • //so glad you’re enjoying Karen!

      You could use a mild curry powder in place of the garam masala if you run out :)

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