Monday, 6 December 2010

Continuing the Odyssey

The quest for exotic spices didn't end with my first order from Steenberg's. I knew I wanted more, and after confirming I wasn't bankrupt, I put together another shopping list - of even more exciting things.

However, before this, I needed cloves. I'd previously ordered orris root powder as I'd decided to make pomanders (oranges studded with cloves to me), and traditional recipes all called for this ingredient in order to fix the scent, along with powdered cinnamon (I guess the latter is for extra fragrance). However, I quickly ran out of cloves, and I wasn't prepared to buy them at full price. I had an inkling that there were a few ethnic grocers (mostly South Asian and African) on a road not far from my house. The trip was eventful - light snow the night before had frozen, and the first step I took sent me crashing to the floor, smacking my head on the driveway, and cracking my back, hip and pulling my stomach muscles (it's taken a few days to recover). But I was determined not to be beaten, and I was rewarded - I found a spartan, but spice-filled grocer, who sold cloves for 99p per 50g bag (not bad).

What's amazing is how my home town has changed so much in just a decade. When I was growing up here, it was around 98% white British, the only significant "outsider" community being Scottish. Now, we have numerous Polish grocers, a couple of West African stores, and a handful of South/Southeast/East Asian shops too. For someone looking to cook all sorts of exotic dishes, this is a boon.

A case in point is black cardamom. A month ago, I'd only read about this spice, and expected never to see it. In London, I snapped it up from the Borough Market (very classy, quite expensive), then again at a Turkish minimarket in South London (cheaper). But to see it here, a few hundred metres from my house! Amazing. Anyhow, I didn't need to buy any this time, but I'm glad to know I can. I did, however, get two other spices, just as exotic, and similarly fabled to be (in that I've read about them, seen pictures of them, but never expected to encournter them in real life): ajwain (ajowan) and black cumin.

I was going to order ajwain from Steenberg's anyhow, but I got it much cheaper from the grocer's, so I was pleased. And black cumin is even rarer - I'd only seen it on Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages (my spice bible, the best website I know on the subject). I tried the ajwain in a tomato sauce (see previous post), where it added a rich fragrance of thyme, but I've yet to experiment with the (apparently less appealing) black cumin. Anyhow, I need to go back to the shop for more cloves - and to explore their vast range of dhal, and maybe the bizarre fish they had in the freezer.

So my online spice order consisted of: sahlab (salep), which is a ground orchid root, used in Turkey to make a milky drink, but even more excitingly, a stretchy ice cream; mastic, a tree-derived gum from the island of Chios in the Aegean, also used in this ice cream, but also in a few baked goods from those parts; Tonka beans, a vanilla-scented South American seed, slightly controversial due to the presence of toxic coumarin; ground sumac, a sour powdered fruit from the Eastern Mediterranean; and furikake, a Japanese mix of seaweed and sesame, for sprinkling on rice. Additionally, though not strictly spices, I chose frankincense and myrrh, partly out of curiosity (there can't be many people in the Western world who haven't heard of these, but how many have seen them for real, or even know what they are?), and partly because I've been getting back into incense as the nights have lengthened and the weather turned sub-Arctic.

And yet, there are still many more spices I want to try! After Christmas perhaps...

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