I grew up in what you might call a “flavour-free” household. I know I have mentioned before that neither of my parents were the keenest of cooks, so it will come as no surprise that the only seasonings to grace our plates growing up, were ketchup and ranch dressing.
Needless to say, spices scared me. Before I learned how to cook I was afraid of eating anything out-of-the-ordinary because my sensitive taste buds couldn’t handle anything beyond the pungency of a hot dog bun. It wasn’t until I met my best friend’s mother, Annie (who I talked about in this post) that I discovered the world of flavour I had been missing out on. Funnily enough, my home nowadays smells like an ethnic food bazaar, and I am totally enamored with the power of spice.
When I first began teaching Ayurvedic Indian cooking classes, I felt it was time to up my game and seek out a good source for spices. Coincidentally, this was right around the same time that a friend and fellow chef, Julian Amery, was opening his very own spice shop, called ASA, in the central market of Copenhagen. I had no idea what to expect from Julian, and whether or not buying spices from him would be any different from the ones at the local grocery store, so I was pleasantly surprised when I first cooked with his wares, that the difference was clear. Fresh spices are a whole other ball game.
But why go to the trouble of buying spices from a place you trust rather just pick up some at the supermarket? For one, spices that you buy at a generic grocery store could have been sitting on the shelf for months, or even years. Let’s remember that spices are foods, so they do go bad. Over time spices lose not only flavour, but also their nutritional potency. Secondly, if quality and the environment matter to you, then I would also recommend buying organic, fresh, whole spices from a reputable source. They may be slightly more expensive, but you’ll actually use less. And one other thing that I hadn’t really considered before buying spices from ASA, was the politics behind the spice trade. Julian works exclusively with producer groups and co-operatives who have both a stated commitment to the social welfare of their farmers (and their families), and to their training, education and welfare.
Tandoori is a traditional spice blend from India and it has many different variations according to region and household. It is typically quite hot on the spice scale, as it can include paprika, cayenne, chili, and ginger. The word tandoori actually means “pertaining to the tandoor”, which is a special, high-heat oven typically made of clay in which many different foods are cooked. You’ve probably heard of it before in relation to tandoori chicken, which is the same marinade that is used in the following recipe for tandoori cauliflower.
For the Tandoori Cauliflower recipe I wanted to create my very own Tandoori spice blend, so I of course went to ASA. Making your own custom mixes, with a little help from the expert himself, is a total blast. I took my proposed spice blend list to Julian and he helped me tweak it a bit. The following mix is what I settled on, and for those of you in Copenhagen, Sarah B’s Tandoori spice blend is available for a limited time in the shop! If you would like to recreate this blend at home, I’ve included the recipe below. For accuracy, it is preferable to use the weight measures.
Sarah B’s Tandoori Spice Blend
4 grams / 2 tsp. chili (or cayenne)
5 grams / 1 Tbsp. cardamom (ground, or seeds)
20 grams / 4 Tbsp. cumin seeds
11 grams / 2 Tbsp. coriander seeds
½ whole nutmeg, grated
5 grams / 2 tsp. whole cloves
5 grams / 2-3 sticks cinnamon
15 grams / 2 Tbsp. ground turmeric
15 grams paprika / 2 Tbsp. paprika
1. Place all ingredients except for turmeric and paprika in a spice mill, mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Grind until powdered. Add turmeric and paprika. Store in a glass jar away from light and heat. Will keep for up to six months.
Julian has included what to look for specifically when you buy these particular spices and I have included the health benefits.
Ground: Vibrancy and depth of golden, deep saffron colour; clean, sharp, savoury/sour acid note on the nose; fine, uniform texture; a sense of density and oiliness to the touch.
Health Benefits: anti-inflammatory, helps relieve arthritis, IBD, cystic fibrosis, anti-carcinogenic, improves liver function, lowers cholesterol.
Vibrancy and depth of colour – deep red; clean, deep,sweet/umami note on the nose; sweet, warm, clean flavour; fine, soft, uniform texture; a sense of density and oiliness to the touch.
Health Benefits: anti-inflammatory, improves circulation, aids digestion, high in vitamin C.
This depends on the pepper. All have different characteristics. For Birds Eye Chili, which I use the most, it’s as follows- Whole, dried: Vibrancy and depth of deep red colour; sharp, acid, sweet/vinegar note on the nose (almost eye watering); at first bite – sweetness and citrus first note, then sharp, fast heat, building quickly and falling away gently over a couple of minutes.
Health Benefits: Reduces inflammation, relives pain, reduce blood cholesterol, clears congestion, boosts the immune system, prevents stomach ulcers, lowers risk of Type 2 Diabetes.
Whole pods: firm and plump (the older they are, the more dried out and withered they look); clear, pistachio-green casings; seeds, when extracted and tasted, should give a clean, clear taste of eucalyptus/mint/citrus, with a long finish.
Health Benefits: antioxidant, aids digestion, improves circulation, stimulates appetite, good source of potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron and manganese.
Look for a strong, deep, “brown” note on the nose, an oiliness to the powder (if you’re buying ground), and a deep, sharp, almost bitter taste. The more powerful the flavour, the more you will get a “cool mint” feeling after tasting and breathing in through your mouth.
Health Benefits: boosts immune function, aids digestion, anti-carcinogenic.
The seeds should have a golden hue. Corriander should possess an appealing, clear grassy, fresh hay and citrus note on the nose.
Health Benefits: anti-inflammatory, lowers cholesterol, helps reduce amount of damaged fats in cells.
When very fresh, cloves will have a deep, brown/red colour, a strong, pungent citrus note on the nose, and, surprisingly, a very strong, quick chilli-hot effect in the mouth, leaving a long-lasting anaesthetic feeling on the tongue. Little known fact – cloves can be used to add heat to a dish.
Health Benefits: anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, high phytonutrient content including manganese, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin K, dietary fiber, vitamin C, calcium and magnesium.
There are many different varieties of Cinnamonum in the world. The most widely used are Cassia (Cinnamonum Cassia) and “Real” Cinnamon (Cinnamonum Verum). Cassia is often mistaken for and sold as Cinnamon in Europe and North America.
Cassia has a deeper, redder colour, and its whole bark is thicker than Cinnamon. It has a more intense and less fragrant aroma than cinnamon. Its taste is almost medicinal, and consists of one string sweet note. I would use this more in savoury and salty dishes.
The best cinnamon has a pleasant, intense, sweet, nuanced woody aroma reminiscent of summer fruit and flowers, and its flavour is complex, fragrant and warm, without the intensity of Cassia. I would use this more in sweet cooking, such as patisserie, at Christmas and for Mughal and Arab dishes.
Health Benefits: anti-microbial, anti-clotting, controls blood sugar, boosts brain function, helps warm the body in the onset of cold or flu.
The best whole nuts are large, firm, plump and heavy, with very little or no “give” when pressed firmly with a fingernail. Colour can vary between beige and chocolate brown. The freshest nuts will maintain their characteristic fragrance even when whole. At ASA, we import the nuts with their shell on and crack and sort them by hand.
Health Benefits: anti-inflammatory, improves memory, aids digestion, improves appetite, relieves diarrhea.
I asked Julian what to look for in general when buying spices. These are certainly not practices suitable for the grocery store, as tearing open all those little plastic bags could cause a stir, so all the more reason to buy at a market where you can play around a little.
Colour – vibrancy and depth of colour, no indication of dyeing
Look – plump, properly graded and sorted
Aroma – intense and deep, nuanced, uncontaminated
Feel – oiliness, yield/firmness, where appropriate
Taste – clarity, intensity, freshness, complexity, length
And what about storage? Spices should always be kept in an opaque, tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place. If stored properly, most whole spices will last for one year, and ground spices up to six months.
I first ate a whole tandoori cauliflower many years ago at an Indian restaurant back in Toronto. I clearly remember the server setting the giant platter down on our table, a big, auburn vegetable head in the center surrounded by pickled onions, herbs and chutneys. There was almost something majestic about how it was presented, and it made us all feel like royalty.
If you struggle to find something really “special” to serve to your vegetarian dinner guests, I would definitely suggest this show-stopping dish. Even for those that do eat meat, there is something so impressive about tandoori cauliflower that they will want to dig in too.
One of the secrets of the tandoori cauliflower is the marinade, which is based on yogurt. The yogurt helps bind the spices together, surrounds and coats the food, and the acidity naturally tenderizes whatever you are marinating. Yogurt is typically used in marinades for meat, but it works just as effectively with vegetables. If you do not eat goat or sheep yogurt, try a plant-based yogurt of your choice.
The mint chutney that accompanies the cauliflower is meant to be a refreshing compliment to the intense, spicy flavours of the tandoori blend. It is bright and crisp, and delicious with many things besides this particular dish. I enjoyed some of the mint chutney on top of steamed rice and quinoa, and even tossed it around with some chickpeas. Delicious! It’s a breeze to make and can be prepared a day ahead to save time.
Whole Roasted Tandoori Cauliflower with Mint Chutney
1 large head cauliflower, washed well, leaves removed
4 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. minced ginger
1 Tbsp. tandoori spice blend
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp. sea salt
½ cup / 120 ml thick yogurt (preferably goat or sheep - vegans use plant-based yogurt or coconut cream)
1. In a mortar and pestle (or food processor) smash garlic and ginger into a paste. Add the tandoori spice, lemon and salt and mix until uniform. Fold in the yogurt.
2. Place the whole of cauliflower in a large bowl and spread the marinade all over, making sure to coat the bottom as well. Place in the fridge to marinate for minimum 1 hour, maximum 12.
3. Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C. On a lined baking sheet, place cauliflower and roast until tender (45-60 minutes depending on the size of the cauliflower). Garnish with cilantro leaves, lots of lemon juice and a generous drizzle of high-quality olive oil. Serve immediately with mint chutney. Enjoy.
2 cups loosely packed mint leaves
1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
1 shallot, minced
½ red chili, minced (optional)
juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup yogurt (vegans use plant-based yogurt or try coconut cream)
1 Tbsp. cold-pressed olive oil
a couple pinches sea salt
1 tsp. raw honey
1. Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until a chunky pesto-type of sauce results. Season to taste. Enjoy with all tandoori dishes, on top of rice or legumes, or as a spread on crackers or bread. Store leftovers in the fridge. Keeps for 5 days.
I hope this post inspires the spice lover in you to run to the nearest ethnic food shop or market to play and explore. I cannot tell you how much fun it is just spending just five minutes browsing for spices, and then taking them home to experiment with. If this seems daunting, start with just one or two spices, see how you like them and build your pantry from there. Whatever you do, don’t let your household be a flavour-free one!