I grew up with minimal working knowledge of spices and herbs. Rosemary and basil had a home in my childhood garden...but I rarely did more than crush the leaves between my fingers and smell. The standard repertoire in the kitchen included Nature's Seasoning, Montreal Steak Seasoning, and Pumpkin Pie Spice. Oh, and cinnamon. For applesauce and cinnamon toast.
Naturally, as an adult I didn't want to waste money purchasing an array of goods for my spice rack without knowing what they were meant for and how I would use them, so the past three years of home cooking have seen me purchase little sample amounts of spices, on occasion, as a particular recipe would require. Otherwise, sea salt and freshly ground pepper did the trick.
When The Spice Merchant's Daughter caught my ear a few different times (I think I first heard it mentioned on NPR...), I added it to my mental library list. This summer, it eventually made it into the queue and finally into my eager hands. Part autobiography, part cookbook, the author tells of her childhood in Malaysia and her mother's work of processing and selling exotic spices. As an adult, daughter Christina Arokiasamy eventually moved to the US and now teaches others how to make use of the flavors of her childhood. Her description of the spice pantry and list of do-it-yourself blends inspired me. And with that extra kick of motivation, my friend, Jane, and I decided we wanted to tackle this culinary escapade together.
We arranged for four other friends to join the two of us, chose a date, and then I set out with a massive grocery list. Three days worth of shopping trips included visits to Limbo, H-Mart, and Fubon and a whirlwind continuation of my education in shopping for world foods. (My mistake to ask the kind clerk at H-Mart if they carried Macadamia nuts. "No, no, no...not Asian, Hawaiian. Don't carry that here.")
Palm sugar, cardamom pods, curry leaves, and galangal...I'm thrilled now to not be so intimidated by the new (to me, at least) ingredients!
Whole cinnamon sticks, star anise, and dried chilies. Turmuric, nutmeg, paprika, dried lemon peel, cloves, lemongrass. Thyme, cumin, garlic salt, dried parsley. Coriander, black pepper, home-ground chili powder. Garlic.
And...shallots. Lots, and lots of shallots. (P.S. A thousand thanks to Linda and Emily for helping slice and peel all 55!) Note to self: install industrial strength ventilation fan next time you plan on dealing with massive amounts of shallots, garlic, peppers, and chilies in one tiny little second story kitchen. My lips were stinging from the heat of the chilies just floating through the air!
Before the crew arrived, I made the Green Seafood blend since it was the simplest and we had decided to use it for our communal meal.
When Spice Night rolled around and everyone made it up my narrow stairway with their bags and boxes of mortars and pestles, food processors, old coffee grinder, and potluck dishes, we shared a meal together to sample a few of the flavors we'd eventually be taking back to our respective pantries.
Jane's delicious salmon took a quick bath in olive oil and had a nice massage with a few generous scoops of the Seafood Rub...and came out of the oven as tasty as ever. Complemented by Mary's salad, Molly's autumn apple crisp, and Emily's cider, the meal gave us sustenance for several hours of recipe multiplication and kitchen labor.
After our full evening of grinding, toasting, chopping, blending, and eye-watering, we each had our portions of the following recipes:
Quick Curry Powder ~ to be used in just about anything
Merchant's Garam Masala ~ added to curries, stews, stocks, and "to build layers of flavors" for chicken, pork, and lamb marinades
Green Seafood Rub ~ used with olive oil and spread over fish...
Thai Massaman Curry Paste ~ for beef, lamb, poultry, or stir-fried veggies
Chicken Spice Paste ~ for basting chicken when baking or grilling, using as a stir-fry base, or for blending with coconut milk and using in curries
Chopping curry leaves for the Quick Curry Powder
The Garam Masala cools...
(Nothing like the scent of warm cardamom pods, cloves, and cinnamon!)
Dry ingredients for the Thai Massaman Curry Paste
Garlic, shallots, and galangal galore.
Combined with lemongrass, palm sugar syrup, salt
Macadamia nuts, galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallots and chilies...
and water for Chicken Spice PasteLeft to Right: Thai Massaman Curry Paste, Green Seafood Rub (in the ziplock), Merchant's Garam Masala, and Quick Curry Powder
And with that, a successful Spice Night for all!