As any cook will tell you, spices make the difference. Flavour, aroma, colour ... and let's not forget health! It's exciting to discover new herbs and spices and integrate them into your kitchen. But what do you do with all your spices when you leave a country?
Rosemary is for remembrance
I left Sydney in 1999 to be a correspondent in Moscow, and after packing up my house was left looking at my spice collection. I couldn't bear to be parted from a sealed bag of fiery chillis, and sent them in the boxes to Moscow, which I'm not sure was legal. But what was I going to do with all these open jars and bottles? I didn't want to throw them or their fragrant contents away, and in a moment of inspiration I took them to my farewell party, to give out to my friends, like a "party bag" when they left.
Every guest went off into the night with a keepsake from my kitchen, after picking what they most wanted - “Oooh, orange blossom water – I've never used that! ” - a different flavoured memory for each.
Over the past few years, since I've been reporting from Jerusalem, when journalist mates leave, I take some of their spices, so that I will remember them when I cook. (Some people leave me more substantial mementoes including dishes, knives, tablecloths and wonderful stone gargoyle candlesticks, hey Candice?)
Surveying my expanded spice collection, it seems that most people buy too many whole peppercorns, allspice, cumin, cloves and nutmegs, as well as huge quantities of dried chillis and powdered paprika. So don't overstock on those - they take a lifetime to finish!
This week, a dear Australian friend has left Jerusalem. It’s so good to have a friend from home, with your accent and take on life, just down the road. Toni is one of the best cooks I know, and she has lived in Asia and the Middle East, which has given her great confidence with spices; she is very innovative about marrying them in unexpected ways, giving everything she cooks a remarkable depth of flavour.
When I came over to say goodbye and to take away a few things from Toni's kitchen, I found overflowing boxes waiting for me – it was almost like leaving the kitchen of one of our Food is Love grandmothers!
Toni has given me so many spices, herbs, essences, dried fruit and leaves, as well as nuts and grains that I will feel her with me for weeks, in fact months – now that’s a cushion against missing a friend!
I wish you well in the next city, Toni, and hope some small part of your cooking mantle falls on me.
EAST AND WEST
Toni’s collection, some of it bought in Arab stores in East Jerusalem, some in Jewish markets in West Jerusalem, some in one of the city’s few Asian food shops – was so thrilled when I saw a bag of dried lime leaves, trust Toni to find those! – has made me reflect on the high the quality of the spices available here. Fresh ginger, tumeric, all kinds of chillis, seeds and essences, as well as salts and oils, on sale at spice stalls in the markets, where you will also find tangy herb and nut mixes, for cooking through rice, all displayed in beautiful mounds. I've learnt living here that the spices which pack the biggest punch are the ones you buy whole and grind or grate into your dishes as you need them.
This week, we've made a tangy, spicy lentil soup, using red lentils and dried apricots, in 2 different styles. It’s basically the same (pretty simple) ingredients, which many of you will have in your cupboards – red lentils, dried apricots, tomatoes – thrown into pots on opposite sides of the world, to produce different versions of this soup.
The first version is from Armenia (and it's also popular in other countries in the region, such as Turkey, Georgia, Russia and the Caucuses). The second version, with different spices, and the addition of coconut milk, is from Sri Lanka.
I have changed the spices slightly for the Armenian soup, and added chili, inspired by the kick in the Sri Lankan version. If you prefer it tangy and sour-sweet, without heat, leave the chilli out!
Armenian Red Lentil And Apricot Soup
- One onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- ½ - ¾ cup dried apricots
- 1 ½ cup dried split red lentils, rinsed
- 7 cups of home-made chicken stock, or vegetable stock
- 3 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- Optional: 1 fresh chilli, or more to taste, chopped
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- salt and pepper
- juice of half a lemon
1. Chop the garlic and onions – and chilli if using; rinse lentils; chop up the dried apricots (this will speed up the cooking)
2. Heat some oil over medium heat in a soup pot. Add the fennel and cumin seeds and fry for 30 seconds or so, till the seeds release their flavour. (I find this is a good way to start many soups.) Add the onion, garlic, and dried apricots. Sauté until the onion is translucent.
3. Add lentils and stock and simmer, covered, until tender – about 20 minutes or so. Add more water if needed.
4. While the soup is cooking, peel, seed and chop tomatoes.
5. Add the tomatoes, powdered cumin, and thyme to the stock and simmer another 10 minutes or so. Add salt and pepper.
6. Whiz with hand blender or in food processor. You can make it smooth, if that’s how you like it, or stop just before you reach that stage. Add lemon juice to taste. If you like it more lemony, add more than half a lemon.
Serve garnished with coriander leaves, and chilli oil, and some flavoured seeds, if you like. It is so flavourful, it is also great plain, with no garnish.
JERUSALEM TEST KITCHEN
I made this version, using vegetable stock which was waiting just for this soup in my freezer, and it worked very well. It was quick, easy and the end product was spicy and tasty.
I found myself adding a lot of salt, and more lemon juice, as it was verging on too sweet for me. The apricots were beautiful and I put in about 1 cup. I’ve pulled it back in the recipe above, and I think that will produce the perfect balance of sweet and tangy.
SYDNEY TEST KITCHEN
In her wintry Sydney kitchen, Margo was looking forward to soup. She often changes our recipes because she's a gluten free cook. This time she had no reason to make changes.
“But as usual, I deviated from the recipe (more than I wanted to this time!) I thought for sure I had red lentils around, but only found yellow dal, so yellow lentil soup it is!”
Margo found the result good and the recipe easy to follow and she has this advice for jazzing up a smooth soup:
“While these super smooth soups are delicious as is, I learned a great trip from a restaurant called the Soup Kitchen in Helsinki. There they sell a giant bowl of soup for about 10 euros, but what makes it so special is the garnish. They top the bowls with a drizzle of basil infused olive oil or sesame oil, spiced cream, fresh herbs and toasted pepitas that are both sweet and salty. The result is nothing short of fantastic. (Obviously home-made bread doesn't go amiss either!) If you're finding your soup is a bit one dimensional, garnish baby, garnish!”
Sri Lankan Curried Lentil and Apricot Soup
Makes 6 to 8 servings
- 2 onions, chopped
- 12 garlic cloves / ¼ cup finely chopped garlic
- ¼ cup ginger – about 4 cm of a fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped ie you want to produce an equivalent amount to the garlic
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- 1 large plum tomato, chopped
- 1 scant cup (125 g) diced dried apricots
- 2 cups (500 ml) red lentils, rinsed
- 8 cups (2 litres) water – you could find yourself adding 1-2 cups more as you cook
- 3/4 cup (185 ml) coconut milk
- Salt + ground black pepper to taste
- Optional garnish: plain yoghurt, and chopped coriander
1. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions. Cook, stirring about 10 minutes. You want them transparent to golden. Reduce heat to low. Add garlic and ginger. Cook for 2 minutes. Add curry powder and cook 1 minute more.
2. Add tomato, apricots, lentils and water. Raise heat to high. When mixture starts boiling, reduce to simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until apricots are very soft, about 30 minutes.
3. Whiz with a handheld blender or in food processor. As with the first soup, you can make it smooth, if that’s how you like it, or stop just before you reach that stage. You can refrigerate the soup now, and serve it the next day – this will really help the tastes to meld.
4. Just before serving, put soup back on the stove, over low heat, and stir in coconut milk. Season with salt and pepper.
MADRID TEST KITCHEN
Candice in Madrid is very familiar with the Armenian soup. She has been making it since her first stint as a Moscow correspondent when the Soviet Union fell in 1989. So she made the Sri Lankan version, watching her husband like a hawk to see what he made of it.
“When I heard the sound of Richard's spoon clanking against the bottom of the bowl, I knew this soup was going to be a hit.”
"Comfort food for all seasons!" he said, going for seconds.
Candice also likes it.
“It's essentially my old standby, the Armenian soup, with its lovely sweetness and tartness, but with a South Asian twist. This produces an earthier soup with a tiny bite to it. I like the bite and might consider adding something to it next time to up the kick.”
Candice found herself having to add water - as I did to the Armenian soup. Otherwise, she says, it came together as advertised and was easy and quick.
"The yoghurt/cilantro garnish seemed just the right touch. Although I wonder if mint in place of cilantro might not be interesting."
Candice found that leftovers the next night were even better than on Day One. "The flavours had melded beautifully, so well that I would almost advise making it a day ahead...."
When faced with the killer question – which did she like more – Candice found it hard to choose!
"Unfair! i adore my dear old Armenian soup and if forced to choose (but really, why choose?) I would choose her. The spicier, slightly heavier (and undoubtedly more fattening) Sri Lankan one would be a less versatile soup. You wouldn't serve it with just anything... P.S I wonder what it would taste like if garam masala were substitutes for curry powder?"
FINAL JERUSALEM VERDICT
So Irris to the rescue on that one. (Where is that white horse of mine?) With Candice’s comments ringing in my ears, I made the Sri Lankan soup with half curry powder, half baharat spice mix. I didn't have garam masala, and the baharat came from the Toni collection, so I liked that.
The result was very tasty, and Candice is right, this soup is richer because of the coconut milk and the yoghurt. In fact, to my taste, it didn't need the yoghurt, and I would also add more chilli next time. But it is a winning combination and both are light, tangy, lovely, healthy soups.