A Farmers’ Co-Op Tour Off the Coast of East Asia
Everybody has spices in the kitchen. I don’t care if it’s just a seldom used, dusty carton of paprika at the far reaches of the kitchen cabinet, or, as in my own cupboards, a wide array of seeds and fragrant powders accumulated from my travels. The truth is, a kitchen would simply not be a kitchen without spices, and the culinary world would undoubtedly be a much duller place.
However familiar spices feel to us today, few people are aware of just how vital they have been throughout history, not only in the development of cuisines around the world but also in helping to create the economic and political world in which we now live.
Long before their arrival in the West, many ancient cultures, including Egypt, China, India and Mesopotamia, already cultivated spices, where they were appreciated not only for their ability to flavor and preserve food, but also for the health benefits of spices like turmeric and coriander.
The Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations first began to trade with the East and make spices a key part of their cuisine. Their importance and culinary use of spices grew over the centuries. By the 1600s, the first stock exchanges were created in Great Britain and Holland to offset the risk of sending voyages to the East in search of their precious cargo. Fortunes have been won and lost over spices. Ransoms have been paid with spices. And, if I corner you at a party, it won’t be long before I tell you about the very strong historical argument that a war fought over nutmeg was responsible for the creation of New York City.
From a culinary point of view, our lives would be very different. One can find recipes dating back to the Middle Ages that are laced with spices very familiar to us today. And, spices have been of regular use in the American kitchen since the days of the Pilgrims. Suffice to say, our history and kitchens would both have been very different without spices.
I would be lost without a wide variety of spices in my kitchen. But, I am often disappointed by the quality of what I can find here at home, even from the best suppliers. Primarily, this is caused by the problems of packaging spices in faraway places, and the length of time it then takes them to come to our stores. In the meantime, spices begin to lose much of the essential oil that delivers both aroma and flavor. That is why I always recommend that, whenever possible, people buy whole seeds and grind them as required rather than buying pre-ground spices.
I really notice the difference in the quality of the spices when I am on my travels, and particularly when lucky enough to be walking through spice markets in cities like Kolkata, Istanbul or Bahrain. I noticed it even more on a recent excursion to the famous spice plantations of Zanzibar, a small archipelago of islands a short way off the coast of East Africa.
“Whenever possible, buy whole seeds and grind them as required rather than buying pre-ground spices.” — Simon Majumdar
Now in a slightly uneasy alliance with the mainland Republic of Tanganyika, to form the country of Tanzania, Zanzibar has found itself under the control of many outside countries over its history, including Portugal and Great Britain. However, Zanzibar really began to exploit its climate and the fertility of its soil to join the lucrative spice trade, particularly with the growing of cloves, during the time of the rule of the Sultans of Oman in the 19th Century. Today, as well as providing income through the sale of spices, the plantations themselves have become a popular eco-tourist destination.
During our time in Zanzibar, my wife and I took the opportunity to visit one of the largest spice plantations on the island. It was a short drive from Stone Town, the old part of Zanzibar City. As we arrived, the morning dew was still dripping o the leaves of the trees, and the faint aroma of familiar spices filled our noses as they dried in the hot sun. We were met by two guides, one to explain to us how the plantation – a cooperative for local farmers – worked, and one younger man, armed with a sharp knife, to climb trees and cut prime examples of the spices for us to sample as we walked through the plantation.
At the first stop, we immediately knew that this was going to be an introduction to spices as we had never experienced them before. The younger of our two guides pulled a root from the ground — it was obviously ginger. But, one small nibble on the green root, showed that this was a million miles from the stubbly dried offerings of your local supermarket. It was so fiery that I was still feeling the tingle on my tongue nearly ten minutes later, as we continued our walk around the plantation.
Further tastes continued to prove just how far we were from the supermarket aisles of Southern California. Fresh turmeric root leaked yellow juices. Cardamom pods and green peppercorns plucked from the branches, which like the green vanilla pods beside them, would be dried, before being packed for shipment. Clove buds taken from the flowers of their parent tree looked so different from the dried cloves we use at home, but still tasted so familiar when we chewed on them as instructed. Cinnamon was carefully peeled from a tree and so fragrant that I described it later as smelling like the Queen of Sheba’s bedroom. And, best of all, a fruit that we were at first unable to identify, was split open to reveal an inner seed and outer lacy red coating that would become nutmeg and mace, respectively.
We spent two hours walking around the plantation and, as we were heading back to the United States in a day or so, we came away laden with spices to use at home. They were soon put to good use, and totally changed the way I think about using spices in my own kitchen. That appreciation of the importance of spices has stayed with me, even though I am now dependent on more local supply. I hope that reading this has made you even more determined to go and explore the spice shelves of your own favorite store.
Garam Masala Chicken Cracklin’s
Recipe by Simon Majumdar
My recipe for the famous spice mix of India changes on a regular basis. However, this version is a great place to start, and the resulting masala is wonderful to use as a rub, to mix with a dip, or in this case, to make a leftover into something magical. For this recipe, I use the skin I have peeled from chicken thighs I am using to make curries.
Skin of 10 chicken thighs. Salt, to taste. Garam masala.
For the Garam Masala
• 1 tsp black peppercorns
• 1 tsp white peppercorns
• 1 star anise
• 1 whole nutmeg
• 1 piece of mace
• 2-inch cinnamon stick
• 6 green cardamom pods
• 3 black cardamom pods
• 2 bay leaves
• 2 tsp cumin seeds
• 2 tsp coriander seeds
• 6 whole cloves
• 4 dried red chili
• 2 tsp fenugreek seed
1. Place chicken skins on a baking tray lined with parchment paper.
2. Place in an oven preheated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for one hour.
3. Drain of excess fat. Allow to cool on a wire rack.
4. When ready to serve, deep fry in canola oil until the skins begin to puff up.
5. Drain on paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and garam masala before serving.