spice blends: 6 posts

Dungan Spice Blend and Summer Salad : From Bishkek Via Brussels

Last weekend I had a cooking class with Zulfiya Ma Tian Yu of Dungan Food. Zulfiya lives in Bishkek, Kyrgystan, but we managed to overcome the Bishkek-Brussels distance by a combination of video and WhatsApp. Thanks to  modern technology, I’ve learned the basics of this ancient cuisine. The Dungans are a community of Muslims of Arab-Chinese descent living in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Originating from Western China, where the Dungans are known as Hui, this community has a distinctive identity, amalgamating various cultural influences. Its cuisine is likewise diverse, vibrant–and different from the cuisines of their immediate neighbors.

Imagine the sophisticated seasonings of Persian cuisine, intricate Chinese techniques and the robust Central Asian palette–and you get an idea of what Dungan food is like. There are noodle dishes served with an array of dozens of salads and sauces, dumplings filled with lamb and pumpkin, and paper-thin crepes for wrapping stir-fries of garlic chives and pepper. Each meal is served with plenty of vegetables, and everything is cooked just enough to enhance the natural flavors.

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Perfume With the Aroma of Gingerbread

For anyone interested in perfumery, blending a gingerbread spice mixture can be a useful exercise. You can learn to create top, heart and base notes and to understand how spices interplay to create an aroma greater than the simple sum of their parts. Most European countries have their own gingerbread recipe and a combination of spices that gives each regional variation its distinctive flavor. My great-grandmother’s Ukrainian version was scented with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, star anise and a hint of saffron. When I blended it myself following her proportions, I realized that it was similar to the “gingerbread perfume” accord I learnt how to make as a perfumery student, although my liquid version didn’t have the voluptuous richness of saffron.

In FT magazine column Mouthwatering Scents of Gingerbread, I write about spices, pastries and perfumes, including my four favorite fragrances with a gingerbread accord. To read the full article, please click here.

More on gingerbread: Ukrainian Honeycakes with Cinnamon :: Gingerbread Spice Blends :: Belgian Gingerbread (Speculoos) :: Dutch Cinnamon Cookies (Jan Hagel).

I’d love your opinion on other gingerbread redolent perfumes. Also, if anyone has a favorite recipe for the dark, moist, soft gingerbread or honeycake, I’d be most grateful.  

Photography by Bois de Jasmin, to make the printed gingerbread, I used the dough recipe for speculoos.

Coriander and Cumin or The CC Powder

Being married into an Indian family, I learned a few things: Time is a flexible, fluid entity; when you have a few millennia of history underpinning your culture, what’s an hour here or there. You can always eat–and if you can’t, you’re probably not conscious. Spices to a cook are like essences to a perfumer. On this latter point, I would like to linger.

cc powder

I thought I knew spices before I went to India, but nothing prepared me for the dazzling array of flavors and the variety of techniques with which they can be brought to life. India is divided into 29 states, and each region has its spice signature; generalizing is all but impossible. For instance, Aai’s, my mother-in-law’s cooking combines the refined sweetness beloved in her native Gujarat with the robust spiciness of Maharashtra fare. These two states share a long border, but the cuisines are remarkably different. Gujarati cooking is rich in coriander, tamarind, with peanuts and sesame giving it a nutty flavor, while Marathi dishes have a sharp bite of garlic, chili pepper and mustard seeds. Cross into northern India, and the richness of cinnamon, clove and fenugreek color the local meals. Travel down the southern coast, and coconut becomes the main leitmotif.

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Belgian Gingerbread Treasure : Speculoos (Speculaas)

It’s called spéculoos in French, speculaas in Dutch, and Spekulatius in German, but by whatever name you call this fragrant gingerbread cookie, it will always evoke the scent of holidays in this part of the world. Speculoos may look humble, but take one bite, and you will know why it’s a favorite among Belgians. Perfumed with cinnamon, clove and cardamom, the cookie tastes of butter and caramel, and it’s impossible to have just one.

For me, speculoos is one of the quintessential Belgian tastes. Of course, there are also fries and waffles, but speculoos have their place of honor in this small country of 10 million, bridging the cultural divide between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North and Francophone Wallonia in the South. Speculoos are eaten all over the Benelux region, with some areas such as Hasselt specializing in their own unique versions. Traditionally, the cookies were baked to celebrate Saint Nicholas Day on December 5th in the Netherlands and December 6th in Belgium, but today you can find them at bakeries all year round. In Paris you will be served your expresso with a square of dark chocolate, but your lait russe (café au lait) in Brussels will arrive with speculoos on the side.

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Ukrainian Gingerbread (Medivnychky) Recipe

Gingerbread 1

Since I posted a collection of gingerbread spice blends I figured that I might as well complete the gingerbread theme this week by sharing one of my favorite recipes with you. To experiment with my dry perfume blends, I tried quite a few recipes for gingerbread, from medieval renditions to modern versions. Yet, when I baked these crisp Ukrainian cookies, even my gingerbread wary family was curious. Unlike most other gingerbread recipes, these cookies are not particularly sweet, which makes them equally appropriate for either evening tea with jam or a glass of red wine with cheese. Moreover, the relatively simple dough makes the flavor of the spices stand out clearly and provides a good foil for experimenting with different dry perfume blends.

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