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A North African Chermoula

Spice merchant Peter Watson uses a blend of spices to create a chermoula-coated chicken dish.

PT4M14S http://www.goodfood.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-244o6 620 349

MARIA Konecsny strikes a thoughtful pose as she stands before the antique French counter in her Lygon Street spice store, Gewurzhaus. Once fashioned to store pharmaceuticals, today each of the 66 drawers contains a fragrant parcel of single spice, alphabetised from the A of allspice to the W of wattleseed.

''I could go across most of these and think of what I would create,'' Konecsny finally says, ending the pause prompted by an earlier question: is there a one-size-fits-all dictum that might prove helpful in establishing culinary parameters around the use of spice? Cumin and fennel should never be seen without coriander in between, for example?

You can use these ingredients in a stripped-down way. 

''It's really just a question of balance,'' she says. ''Most of them are fairly forgiving.''

Maria Konecsny (L) and sister Eva from the Gerwurzhaus Herbs and Spice shop in Carlton.
Maria Konecsny (left), with sister Eva at Gewurzhaus, says spices and herbs are all about balance. Photo: Eddie Jim

Growing up, spice was an integral part of our home. The whir of the coffee grinder was a familiar nightly sound, followed by the cumin, onion, coriander and ginger hitting hot ghee - and stinging the backs of our nostrils. Yet leaving home meant leaving that behind. It was 15 years before I felt the mistress pull of spice again. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it felt much like starting from scratch. The Kashmiri recipes of my mother, father and grandmother were an invaluable aid, easing me back into familiarity, landing me in a place where the spices of my childhood were once again familiar, where I could leave instruction behind and work intuitively.

I think this is what Konecsny means when she answers my question with such disappointing breadth. Disappointing, I mean, because we all want it to be simple. We all want to own it - that intrinsic feel for what is right that leads us away from cookbooks and forward into the freedom of culinary creativity. Yet, when starting from scratch, that kind of internal nous can feel as foreign as those aromatics we are handling.

''So much of it is about overcoming rules and being creative,'' Konecsny continues, when I ask for her tips on the best ways in which to adapt the use of spice in day-to-day cooking. She recalls a man who recently came in searching for a dessert cocoa only to have his eyes opened to the possibility of using it to add depth to gravy, or as a complementary flavour to venison.

Pic shows Peter Watson at home with his daughter Seryn for a Christmas cover story.
Peter Watson.

''It's a lot about smelling and seeing and touching and tasting as you go,'' she says. ''It's like using new ingredients when you're cooking. You have to learn them.''

She talks of starting simply: a pepper rub on a roast lamb, mixing juniper berries, black peppercorns and allspice. Adding fresh cinnamon to your morning muesli.

For one Armenian girlfriend of mine born in Ethiopia, it means using berbere - the wonderfully earthy and heating spice blend that forms an intrinsic part of Ethiopian cuisine - in everything from spaghetti bolognese to topping a grilled cheese sandwich.

Some spices at the Gerwurzhaus Herbs and Spice shop in Carlton.
Spice drawers at Gewurzhaus. Photo: Eddie Jim

''People really shouldn't be nervous because if you think about it there is hardly anything on this planet that has not got spice in it - even things like perfume and alcohols. Pepper is a spice, salt is a spice - they have no reason to be afraid of things,'' says Peter Watson in full flight at his Collingwood warehouse store-cum-kitchen as he talks a mile a minute to the scent of bubbling chilli jam cooking on a nearby stove.

The man who sells a staggering variety of both single spices and spice blends under his eponymous label loves the idea of dry spice rubs as an easy way to jazz up a chicken breast or piece of fish. While easily available to buy, they are just as simple to make - consider a simple sumac and salt combo, or an Indian-style blend of cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt and chilli. Those allergic to onion or garlic can experiment with asafoetida. Or take a store-bought spice paste, mix with cream or yoghurt and create a sauce that makes a stand-in for gravy on meat or cheese sauce on vegies.

''There is no reason to fear it - we have been living with and using these things for a long time,'' Watson says, ''but there are some rules we need to stick with.''

Spice.

First, he is adamant spices should be either dry- or wet-roasted (be that in an oven, a dry frying pan or cooked in oil) before use. ''It changes their dynamic and it changes their profile.'' Next, he advises caution for beginners: if a recipe asks for a teaspoon of cumin and it looks a lot, add a half-teaspoon before tasting and continuing. Having said that, he says a dish that has been over-spiced can be corrected with sugar (''it will dull the flavour of the spices'').

For a wet dish such as a tagine that has suffered at an overzealous hand, Watson suggests peeling and adding a raw potato and allowing to cook ''for a little while'' before removing and discarding. The potato will absorb a bit of the spice.

The other key point, says spice fanatic and author of Mighty Spice Cookbook (Simon & Schuster) John Gregory-Smith, is to keep it simple. Talking from his home in London, Gregory-Smith is a proponent of the ''less is more'' rule - his cookbook is filled with classic recipes from India to Thailand and beyond, with each dish containing no more than five spices.

''What I wanted to do is show people that you can use these ingredients in a stripped down way and get quite a lot out of them,'' he says, citing the sticky Sichuan pork using no more than dried red chillies, star anise, fresh ginger and salt. If it seems too simple to be true, think again. My eyes were opened in India this year as a south Indian friend pulled together an aromatic and traditional fish stew using just fresh ginger, black peppercorns, cinnamon, salt and fresh green chillies.

Not to mention an Afghan home cook who demonstrated the wonder of pressure-cooked lamb koftas redolent of onion, salt, black pepper, garlic, turmeric and sweet paprika - familiar flavours drawing together to stunning effect.

In a way, the difficulty lies in understanding which spices to combine. Perhaps it helps to know that this is a challenge that unites us all. Himanshi Munshaw-Luhar runs food and spice tours in Melbourne and her homeland of India. She is a wiz whipping up chicken chettinad, but is less comfortable with Thai green curry.

Not even Teage Ezard is immune. ''Recipe testing,'' he says, laughing, when I ask how he comes up with his spice creations, such as the milk he infuses with a combination of five spices - cinnamon, star anise, green cardamom, cloves and nutmeg - that forms the base of his delicately spiced panna cotta. It's also a favourite combo he uses to marinate pork.

''Leading from there you might explore the hot and the sour, like a combination of fresh tamarind [soak in warm water for five minutes and break up in to a paste], chilli and lime,'' he says.

I approach the stovetop that night with a head buzzing with ideas but a body slowed by a lingering lurgy. The intention is to cook up aloo gobi or kaddu ki sabzi, but hunger and fatigue dull my drive.

Needing nurture without effort, I steam some potatoes and boil some peas, mashing the former while heating ghee in a pan. Tossing in a heaped teaspoon each of cumin seed, salt and Kashmiri red chilli, I wait for the release of aroma before throwing in my veg. In two minutes I have it. The simple wonder of spice in a five-minute meal. 


Setting up your spice kitchen

MY FATHER understood the mental leap of setting up a spice larder. A few years ago, dismayed to see none of his children meandering the spice trail, he sent each of us a single-page document covering the necessities.

■Coffee grinder.

■Nutmeg grater

■Magimix (a quick way to mince onion, ginger and garlic)

■Sealable plastic tubs or jars

■Spices (for an Indian kitchen):

Whole - cinnamon quills, coriander seeds, cloves, black cardamom, green cardamom pods, cumin seed, black mustard seed, dried red chillies, bay leaves, sesame seeds, asafoetida, turmeric root, fennel seed, nigella seed, aniseed.

Ground - salt, garam masala, dried ginger powder, Kashmiri red chilli.

Fresh - curry leaves, coriander, mint.


Learn more

■Himanshi Munshaw Luhar runs spice tours of Melbourne and India, and home-cooking classes; see foodietrails.com.au

■Gewurzhaus will run spice appreciation classes from October, covering spice basics through to Mumbai street food. Email info@gewurzhaus.com.au


Where to shop

■Curry Corner, shop 2, 180 Russell St, city

■India Bazaar, 5A, 77 Foster St, Dandenong

■MKS, 23 Pultney St, Dandenong

■Omara supermarket, 695 Sydney Road, Brunswick

■Spice Bazaar, 79 Victoria St, Seddon

■Gewurzhaus, 342 Lygon St, Carlton; 543 Malvern Road, Toorak. A new store is due to open in the Block Arcade, city, in October.

■Peter Watson, 23 Roberts St, Collingwood