This is the first instalment from Food Editor, Paul Rushton, on the power and magic of spice.
I love ‘process’. Soothing rituals and pacifying practices – the day’s seamless security blankets. This new spice path is a regular series for the Balance Plan – about remembering and reminding myself of each of the spices in my jars, the things I can make with them and the dishes that they will transform, the ways in which they heal and the dusty scents and vistas that will be summoned like djinns from the steam of the pan. Jar number one is NIGELLA SEED. Sometimes called ‘black onion seed’ or ‘black cumin.’
Spice can be ballast or perfume, heat and tang, earth and incense. I want to eat, not just the rainbow, but the world.
As diverse, rich and vivid as life – spices are the reason that I love to cook. They conjure memories of beaches and fragrant markets, desert campfires and frenetic city streets; street food in newspaper cones of exotic script and clay pots of chai to be smashed back into the earth from the windows of sleeper trains. They can turn simple dishes into things of fire or delicate layers upon layers of harmonious flavour. Straightforward pots become tantalising and far-flung. Spice can be ballast or perfume, heat and tang, earth and incense. I want to eat, not just the rainbow, but the world.
Despite their place at the heart of cooking in many regions and cultures, it often feels as though much of the West is still to catch on, at least to the sheer breadth and range of experience we can take from spices. The exploration and colonisation of spice-rich countries and islands in search of affordable access to these exotic seeds, potent bulbs and lurid powders was once big business, but more use for greedy traders, it seems, than pushing our experience of spices then beyond Christmas pudding, gingerbread and black tea.
Still now, whilst we enjoy the range of restaurant and takeaway options, street food, jerk houses and noodle bars in our towns and cities, our home cooking is less than spice-rich. A chilli-con-carne here or Thai green curry there, we are often not comfortable with their use and balancing, our spice racks are not stocked for purpose. We no longer need to send our companies to occupy vulnerable nations in order to acquire our spices. They are inexpensive and widely available and they go a long way. They are neglected in Western health advice and UK government guidelines on healthy eating which simplistically speak of five a day, starchy carbohydrate, protein and less saturated fat, with no sense of nuance, lateral thinking or stretch to understand or convey the unique properties of particular ingredients. I wonder if they think too little of their citizens; that guidance must be as simple as possible and not stretch too far, lest it escape our fragile understanding and skittish attention spans.
Classical cooking has its place, but it is often overblown and outmoded; cooking with large limits. Effusive use of garlic, butter, salt, pepper and simple herbs is often the flavour base and top, too much focus is placed on the expensive, butter-basted cut of meat or fish topping the sparse but nicely arranged (and equally buttery) seasonal vegetable accompaniments. When we cook on a budget, but wish to ‘wow’, it seems that the quality and provenance of our meat is everything – and the vegetables are a half-apologetic afterthought. I’m tired of the Masterchef plate ratios – slabby meat with baby this and micro that. Veg is a god-send, it is produced without pain, it is prana – life’s vivid vibrant thrumming energy.
We need to shake up the way we eat, cook and think about food. We do not need to be afraid of spices. We must stock our racks and play with our food, and not only for the delicious results. The healing power of spice is old news. Spices have been at the centre of medicine across Eastern cultures for thousands of years. Many have staggering health benefits. Western medicine too is discovering their value and potency.
Found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, nigella seeds accompanied him on his ultimate trip across the river. They were reportedly referred to by the prophet Mohammed as the cure for ‘everything but death’. This is not proving to be outmoded wisdom under modern medicinal scrutiny. Nigella is a powerful anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal. It protects against heart disease. It is effective in reducing high blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. There is evidence that it can be used to treat epilepsy and MRSA as well as asthma and type 2 diabetes. Most importantly perhaps, nigella can inhibit the development of breast, colon, oral, cervical and aggressive brain cancer, as well as the progress of leukaemia. It has also been linked to the treatment of radiation damage and the symptoms of chemical weapon exposure. Used topically it effectively treats psoriasis in many cases. It is used as an antihistamine and for digestive tract conditions such as dysentery and colic, respiratory conditions such as bronchitis and emphysema.
Like ginger and its cousins, turmeric and cardamom, I use nigella to tackle cold symptoms, muscle pain or a sore throat and as a daily boost to immunity through food and its inclusion in my masala tea. It is no chore as nigella is subtle and fragrant and a lovely, quiet background note in many dishes. It is great in breads, curries and rice dishes, with eggs or as a low hum through any kind of stew or one-pot-wonder.
Putting the raw seeds through a simple bread dough is a revelation. Roll out your yeasted dough, brush with ghee or butter and cook on a hot pizza stone, as hot as your oven will go. A few minutes for flatbreads, or leave it a little longer for crisp-breads. I remember bread in India, stretched out and stuck to the smoking side of the tandoor, the nigella seed giving of its oils, hot on a thali tray with dal, papad, curd and chutneys.
For curries, just add to the oil at the beginning as you would cumin or mustard seed. Similarly in risottos or rice dishes like paella. Or add it to the oil before you fry or scramble an egg, sprinkle it through egg-mayo. Like ground coriander or paprika, nigella works well as a flavour enhancer or a binding, in-between note that brings the whole together.
We will learn more of the healing and disease preventing importance of nigella, I am sure. It is undoubtedly a boost to immunity, a delicious ingredient and cheaper than chips, visually enticing; black as the night against the colours of lunch or dinner; heavy with mysterious properties and reverent enough for burial with the pharaohs.