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Spice Mix Rx

Sunset magazine surprised me this month with a big feature on complex spice mixtures that have found their way into big-name restaurant food in the past few years–panch phoran, garam masala, baharat, za’atar, ras el hanout, quatre épices, Chinese 5-spice and berbere. Sunset tends to focus on California and southwestern US travel, home decor and food styles, so it was good to see something a little more world beat and exciting…right up until I started looking at the recipes.

The opening spread showed glossy pictures of the various whole spices included in generic versions of each mixture, but the author then blithely left all of these spice mixes and their proportions out of the recipe section!

Her reasoning, if I have it right, was that these spice mixes are getting popular enough that you can find them all premade at your local supermarket. Well…not in mine. And I live in an area with a lot of Indian, Arab, Armenian and Chinese neighbors–the only ones I’m missing are French. You can get Chinese 5-spice powder next to the double shelf of soy sauces, and you can usually get a jar of unsalted generic curry powder (which Indians don’t use but North Africans occasionally do) or some Colonel Sharwood’s and Patak’s curry pastes, and occasionally some garam masala in a jar. Who knows how close they are to real, but they’re highly salted and in jars or packets, so not exactly fresh-made.

Online commenters at the Sunset web site say that the recipes the spices are supposed to be used for are good…if you can find the spice mixes in your area, which many of them can’t. Which is why I’ve done yet another longish post…I’ve decided to dig around and post general recipes for most of the spice mixes myself. Some I’ve tried personally, but most I haven’t made at home, yet, so I’ve tried to find reliable and knowledgeable cookbook authors and where I can I crosscheck with another appropriate author’s recipes–these days it’s so easy for restaurant chefs to publish recipes they can barely pronounce and claim expertise without ever having traveled to India or Morocco or Turkey, or only the tourist routes, much less lived in a village and learned to cook a traditional cuisine for any length of time.

My local favorite family-owned Armenian greengrocer’s caters to most of the Silk Road cuisines, from Morocco to Turkmenistan and even further east. The store carries a couple of brands of premixed za’atar and its own (unfortunately salted) curry powder as well as shawarma and seven spice blends, but for me the great value is that it offers bulk pricing–loads cheaper than supermarket spices–for all the whole and ground individual spices in the mixtures that the October Sunset article mentioned. And the informality of buying spices in tubs rather than little jars encourages you to use them more often, experiment a bit, and improve on what you find in all the new Turkish, Middle Eastern, Indian and Moroccan cookbooks that have come out in the past few years.

Storing spices

Freshness counts even with dried spices. One thing I really appreciate about my corner grocer is that their tubs of spices are labeled with packing dates so you know how fresh the spices are–very important especially for preground spices. I heartily wish McCormick’s and all the store brands (Kroger, Inter-American, etc.) would do the same.

From my own experience, coriander seed and green cardamom in particular should both be left whole and ground as needed at home, preferably just before using them. Both seem to lose their oomph in ground form a lot quicker than cumin or caraway or fennel, at least in my kitchen. Perhaps it’s just that Pasadena is so dry most of the year, but ground coriander can go lifeless and flavorless in a matter of a week or less here, its delicate volatile oils evaporate so quickly, and what a waste.

If you’re going to make your own blends, cloves and allspice are also better left whole, assuming you can get them at a good price, and so is nutmeg–get a ~ $4 lemon zester to grate it with and keep it in a bag with your whole nutmegs. Then just watch your knuckles.

Powdered cinnamon and ginger are usually fine for a longer time, but of course they will weaken a bit. Always, always use whole black peppercorns, not the preground rubber-flavored stuff. And hot pepper flakes? I never realized how much flavor they lose over time–not just heat but the aromatic green edge as well, so don’t buy them in huge cafeteria-scale quantities (live and learn from my mistaken enthusiasm over a $3 quart-sized container…) or your hot mixtures and salsas will be disappointingly bland.

Even some whole spices are vulnerable to flavor loss–or rancidity. Nigella seed, which tends to get used only in small pinches because its flavor expands and permeates stews and curries as they rest overnight in the fridge, should definitely be stored double-wrapped in the freezer so it doesn’t lose all its taste before you can use it up. Poppy and sesame seeds should always be stored well-sealed in the freezer–so should most raw nuts, and so should washed fresh herbs if you can’t use them up within a few days.

Anyway, here are some tested versions of the spice mixes mentioned in the Sunset article. All of them are adapted from their source cookbooks (i.e., the proportions and ingredients are the same, but with my comments, mostly in italics).

The first two are from Manju Malhi’s India with Passion: Modern Regional Home Food, which includes directions on how to use these mixtures and in what approximate amounts for a dish of 4 servings.

Panch Phoran (adapted from Manju Malhi)

Bengali 5-spice mix; good for lentil, bean or potato dishes, samosas, etc.

Malhi’s recipe says this makes 7 teaspoons of spice mix. I’m not sure how she counts that, given that there’s a total of 5 teaspoons of individual dry whole spices in the recipe. However, she says 1 teaspoon of the mix is enough to use in a recipe for 4 servings, and the whole or ground spices can be mixed to a wet paste with 2 teaspoons of water, vinegar or yogurt per teaspoon of spice mix, then tempered in hot oil or ghee (clarified butter) before adding the other ingredients in the dish.

1 t. each (or if more, then even proportions of all five spices):

  • fenugreek seeds
  • cumin seeds
  • fennel seeds
  • brown mustard seeds
  • nigella seeds

Mix the seeds together and store in an airtight container in a dark place for up to 6 months.

Alternate version: Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries specifies two parts fennel seed per one part each of the other spices.

Garam Masala (adapted from Manju Malhi)

Northern India, usually sprinkled on as the finishing touch to many curries

There are a lot of variations on garam masala. This one is Malhi’s; Iyer presents a whole section of spice mixtures in 660 Curries with too many different variations to pick just one, but he doesn’t get very detailed about how you use each mixture and Malhi is helpful that way.

  • 1 t. whole cloves
  • 3-4 bay leaves
  • 2 green cardamom pods, seeds only
  • 4 black cardamom pods, seeds only
  • 1 t. caraway seeds (optional)
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 1/2 t. freshly grated nutmeg

Heat a pan and add all the spices EXCEPT for the nutmeg. Stir 30 seconds until they start to give off their aroma, remove from heat, add the nutmeg and grind everything together to a powder in a coffee or spice mill or with a mortar and pestle. Store in an airtight container away from sunlight for up to 6 months.

–  –  –  –  –

This baharat recipe comes from Turquoise: A Chef’s Travels in Turkey, by Greg Malouf. His book features quite a number of spice rubs and mixes for different proteins–fish, chicken, lamb, lentils, kofta, etc. Some of them measure spices in ounces rather than spoonfuls so the result is a jar rather than enough for a couple of rounds of use. My only other caveat is that he’s tweaked many if not all the recipes in Turquoise to his own high-level restaurant chef context, so they may not be accurate to traditional versions.

I didn’t note down whether he specified whole spices for this baharat recipe or not, but I’m presuming not here–he was writing largely for a supermarket-limited Australian, British or American audience, for whom ground spices are the more available form. If you do use whole spices, it’ll probably taste better–or at least stronger. You might need to adjust. I would follow Manju Malhi’s general methods above and toast the whole spices dry for about 30 seconds,  grind them in a coffee grinder and then mix that with any powdered spices like paprika and nutmeg.

Baharat (adapted from Greg Malouf)

Makes 7 oz per Malouf. Mix this with oil and garlic and use as a spice rub or paste.

  • 5 T. sweet paprika
  • 5 T. cracked black pepper
  • 1/4 c. cumin
  • 2 T. coriander
  • 2 T. cinnamon
  • 1 t. hot paprika
  • 1 t nutmeg

Claudia Roden gives a simpler account, though no specific recipe for baharat in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. In Egypt, she says, it’s a mix of cinnamon, allspice and cloves and used with meat; in Morocco, a mixture of cinnamon and rosebuds.

However, Roden does give a recipe with proportions for za’atar.

Za’atar (adapted from Claudia Roden)

For dipping bread into in the palm of your hand, or for sprinkling on labaneh (or Greek-style plain yogurt) dip drizzled with olive oil

  • 1 part ground dried thyme (preferably wild thyme)
  • 1 part lightly toasted sesame seeds
  • 1/4 part sumac
  • salt to taste

I’ve also seen za’atar recipes with a little bit of cumin and coriander added–I’m talking maybe a pinch in a mix with a tablespoon or so of herbs and sesame–or a pinch of ground caraway, which is quite good if you don’t overdo it. You may want one or all of these three along with a little more sumac, which is sour, especially if you’re going light on salt (I would–most bread has quite enough of its own salt, and labaneh doesn’t need any).

– – – – – – –

Ras el hanout or “Top of the Shop”, from Morocco, is most popularly quoted from Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (1973, and still in print). Her version is well researched but hard to achieve without hitting the mail-order spice houses. Is it worth doing that? Possibly, but probably not. Wolfert in her younger days went for the hard-core  authentic version of everything–hand-rolled couscous (which she demonstrated last weekend at a cooking festival in Pasadena, but I had to miss it), and laboratory-analyzed samples of souk vendors’ spice blends.

Ras el hanout, in the souk-bought version she had analyzed, contained a wide variety of exotics like galingal and cubeb pepper, as well as rosebuds and aphrodisiacs, including Spanish fly and other things that weren’t illegal in Morocco 30-plus years ago, but do you really want to sprinkle them on your chicken? Rumor has it her new book, due out soon, has a simplified version of ras el hanout, but the 1973 legal-if-challenging version is as follows:

Ras el Hanout (adapted from Paula Wolfert)

The first thing you notice about this list is the difficulty of finding things like unground turmeric root, orrisroot, galangal, rosebuds and lavender in your local supermarket. Even Whole Foods comes up a bit short here, though they probably do have the lavender. Be absolutely sure your rosebuds and lavender are unsprayed and intended for cooking–and know that the rosebuds for cooking are pretty small, about 1/2 inch across, not like the ones you got for Valentine’s Day. They’re often sold as ingredients for tisanes in Latino markets, and a dozen buds might be about a tablespoon.

It would be really helpful to know if you can substitute regular powdered turmeric and if so, how much would work. On another site, I found a Kitty Morse recipe with notes for “a 2-inch piece of turmeric root or 1 teaspoon powdered turmeric”–but turmeric powder is rather bitter. Judging from my own experiences mixing a homebrew version of standard curry powder, I can’t imagine a full 8 teaspoons of it in this mix.

Black cardamom pods are also generally a challenge–they’re bigger than the white/green ones and smokier. You can find them in Indian groceries but not generally elsewhere. If you can find them, use at least one to flavor  saag paneer, but remember to take it back out before serving–no one wants a mouthful of black cardamom husk (I speak from rueful experience. It was like eating a milkweed pod.)

  • 4 whole nutmegs
  • 10 dried rosebuds (unsprayed, use only rosebuds specifically prepared as a cooking ingredient)
  • 12 cinnamon sticks
  • 12 blades mace
  • 1 t aniseed
  • 8 pieces turmeric root
  • 2 small pieces orris root
  • 2 dried cayenne peppers
  • 1/2 t dried lavender (unsprayed, use only lavender specifically prepared as a cooking herb)
  • 1 T white peppercorns
  • 2 pieces galangal
  • 2 T whole ginger root
  • 6 cloves
  • 24 allspice berries
  • 20 white or green cardamom pods
  • 4 black cardamom pods

Grind everything together in a spice grinder as fine as possible and pass through a sieve. Return the larger pieces to the grinder and grind them down further. Store in an airtight jar away from light.

The Gourmet Cookbook: More than 1000 recipes,  edited by Ruth Reichl just around the time Gourmet magazine was preparing its final issue last year, also contains a recipe for ras el hanout. It’s simplified in accessibility if not number of ingredients from Wolfert’s, and contains cumin and sesame seeds and no nutmeg or rosebuds or lavender or galangal or orris root. It’s bound to have a considerably different flavor.

Ana Sortun’s Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, which stems from her travels in Turkey, also presents a “Moroccan ras el hanout,” even more simplified to about 7 spices, including cumin and paprika. It’s a lot more like Greg Malouf’s baharat, also based on Turkish cuisine, than anything genuinely Moroccan.

For Chinese 5-spice powder and quatre-épices, I ended up with The Gourmet Cookbook again, and this time I don’t mind quoting the recipes, since these are quite well known standards and haven’t been messed with too much in the magazine features. I would look for Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s version of 5-spice for tighter authenticity and because I’ve read high praise about her cookbooks, but I haven’t scouted this one out specifically yet.

Chinese 5-Spice (adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook)

  • 1 T Szechuan peppercorns or 1 1/2 t sansho (Japanese pepper), but don’t roast sansho
  • 8 whole pods star anise
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 1 1/2-inch piece of cinnamon stick, coarsely crushed
  • 1 T fennel seed
  • 1 t black peppercorns

Preheat oven to 250 F, spread all spices, except sansho if using and black peppercorns, on a small baking sheet and toast on a middle rack for 20 min. Cool to room temperature, add the black peppercorns (and sansho if using) and grind to a powder. Shake through a fine sieve and store in an airtight container away from light.

Quatre-Epices (also adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook)

Other versions have black peppercorns or a half-and-half blend of white and black, and some include a bit of cinnamon as well. I know, that makes five spices, not four. But who’s counting? You might want to adjust the pepper-to-sweet-spice ratio in favor of the sweet spices for gingerbread and pain d’épices and the like. Although in A Long Time Ago in France, MFK Fisher gave a pain d’épices recipe from Dijon that included mustard along with the pepper and so on!

  • 3 T white peppercorns
  • 1 whole nutmeg, coarsely crushed
  • 12 whole cloves
  • 1 T ground ginger

Grind the whole spices to a fine powder, shake through a fine-mesh sieve and blend with the ginger. Store airtight and away from light.

The only spice blend I haven’t found a tested in-the-book recipe for is berbere. Lots of web sites have versions of it with or without dried garlic and onion powders, with and without whole spices. Actual onion and garlic, added fresh while you’re cooking, is something I remember smelling as I passed by the  Ethiopian kitchens in the apartment building next door to mine when I was a volunteer in the north of Israel years ago. If I remember right, berbere should smell and taste like a hot-pepper paste flavored a bit with standard curry powder spices (coriander, cumin, ginger, etc), only richer and more pungent from ajwain or (see note below) caraway–though you can adjust the heat for yourself so you don’t die immediately.

I would look for a variety of recipes like Chowhound.com‘s or whats4eats.com as well as recipezaar.com‘s and the like, and figure on making a paste of the ground and whole spices with some oil and water and frying it with onion, then adding garlic once you have the rest of the liquid sauce ingredients in for your chosen stew, as you would for an Indian korma.

Most of the berbere recipes call for about half to 1 cup of hot pepper in with the teaspoonish bits and pieces of sweet and savory spices. Several recipes call for ajwain, which looks like a close relative of fennel, cumin, anise and caraway and tastes like a cross between thyme and caraway–caraway’s probably the best western substitute, but go easy on the quantity–it can easily overpower the sweeter allspice and so on.

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