Keane got home from Dubai yesterday with a paper bag stuffed full of spices. Aside from the giant squidgy vanilla pods and hot dried chillies, most of these ingredients aren’t on my regular shopping list, so I thought I’d spend a little time getting re-aquainted with common uses for my flavoursome bounty… Particularly that bag of dried olive leaves, surely I can’t cook with those?
Well I’m off to a good start, who knows what my baharat is made up of. Most widely used in Syria and Iraq, baharat is Arabic for ‘spice’ and is a generic name for any number of seven spice mixes. It is commonly made from a base of black pepper and paprika with cumin, coriander seed, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom. In her book Veggiestan, Sally Butcher recommends using baharat as a dry rub for grilled fish, meat or vegetables, or adding at the frying stage in soups and casseroles.
Again, I can’t be certain as to what makes up this ras el hanout, a spice blend that originated in Morocco and is used throughout North African cuisine. The name translates as Arabic for ‘head of the shop’ and traditionally each seller will have his own signature blend, made up of between 12 and 50 different spices. A typical ras el hanout blend would include cardamom, cloves, ground chilli, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, black pepper and turmeric along with powdered extracts of regional plants such as rosebuds or orris (iris) root.
I’m not sure what tempted Keane to bring me back these dried olive leaves but I asked the aforementioned Sally Butcher on Twitter, who told me helpfully, ‘people I know use it as tea to lower cholesterol. I don’t think they’ve much culinary use’. To make olive leaf tea you steep the dried leaves for a few minutes in boiling hot water. ‘Really?’ I hear you cry. Yes, really, and olive leaf tea is very rich in antioxidants, as I now recall being told by the friendly folk at Oliveology.
Lemony flavoured ground sumac is a reddish-purple spice widely used as a garnish for salads and meze dishes in Turkish, Arab and Syrian cuisines. Sumac is also used as a seasoning for rice and meat in Persian and Kurdish cooking and as a component in regional versions of the herb blend za’atar, along with oregano, thyme, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds and salt.
Dried pomegranate arils or anardana are much more sour than the fresh fruit. They are used in Indian, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines to add a distinctive tang to chutneys and tagines as well as spice rubs, salads, cous cous and breads. My culinary sage Sally Butcher says dried pomegranate arils work really well in kufte and dolmeh.
And last but not least, is this little box of Iranian saffron, a precious spice made from the stigmas of crocus flowers. Saffron is, as you may well know, widely used in Indian, Persian, Southern European, Arab and Turkish cookery. It has a ‘hay-like’ fragrance and sweetness, and lends an opulent and appetising deep yellow colouring to dishes. Go lightly with the saffron as it is expensive, and take the time to infuse the stigmas for a few minutes in hot water before cooking with them.
If you are hankering after any of the spices I mention here, I highly recommend visiting Sally Butcher’s Peckham-based deli Persepolis which stocks a broad range of sometimes hard-to-get ingredients for middle Eastern and North African cookery. For those not so close to the capital, Persepolis also has an online store.
Do you like to use any of these ingredients in your home cooking? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments.
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