Showing posts with label ingredient. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ingredient. Show all posts

Dec 19, 2016

Ingredients: Persimmons, Kaki, Shizi, Haluuabed

One of the most beautiful fruits of Autumn is the brilliant orange-red persimmon. Persimmons are quite a versatile Fall fruit and work well in both sweet and savory applications. There are over two hundred documented cultivars of persimmons, although it is estimated that there are over a thousand actual varieties. Persimmons begin appearing in markets in late September and are often available through December. 

 The lotus persimmon or date-plum (Diospyros lotus) is native to southwest Asia and southeastern Europe.
 The ancient Greeks referred to it as "the fruit of the gods." 

The English word persimmon is derived from the Native American words pasiminan or pessamin from an Algonquian language of the eastern United States meaning, "dry fruit." 
Modern Greek name for the fruit is λωτός (lotos), which has led modern Greeks to the assumption that this is the lotus referred to in Homer's Odyssey. The botanical name of the persimmon family is Diospyros which is said to mean, "divine fruit." In Nepali persimmons are called haluaabed. In Chinese persimmons are called shizi and in Japanese they are called kaki.

A persimmon tree laden with ornament-like fruits after a frost has killed it's leaves in Fall.

The persimmon is multi-trunked or single-stemmed deciduous tree up to twenty-five feet high and at least as wide.
It is a handsome ornamental with drooping leaves and branches that give it a rather tropical and graceful appearance. Persimmon leaves are alternate, simple, ovate and up to seven inches long and four inches wide. They are often a pale, yellowish green in youth, turning to a dark, glossy green as they age. Under mild autumnal conditions persimmon leaves turn vividly dramatic shades of yellow, orange, and red. Tea can also be made from fresh or dried leaves.

A female persimmon flower.

The persimmon's inconspicuous flowers appear in very early Spring are surrounded by a green calyx tube borne on leaf axils of one-year old wood. Female flowers are single and cream-colored while the pink-tinged male flowers are typically occur in threes. Persimmon trees are usually either male or female, but some trees have both male and female flowers. A tree's gender expression can vary from one year to the other. Many cultivars are parthenocarpic and set seedless fruit without pollination. Some varieties require pollination for adequate production. When persimmon plants that do not require pollination are pollinated, they will produce unique fruits with seeds that may be larger and have a different flavor and texture than their seedless counterparts. Persimmons prefer a deep, loamy soil and require a chill time of at least 100 hours to blossom and set fruit annually. The fruits are technically a berry.

The tiny American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

There are many different species of persimmons worldwide. The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is quite small and native to the eastern United States. The black persimmon or black sapote (Diospyros digyna) is native to Mexico. The mabolo or velvet-apple (Diospyros discolor) is native to the Philippines. The lotus persimmon or date-plum (Diospyros lotus) is native to southwest Asia and southeastern Europe and was known to the ancient Greeks as "the fruit of the gods." The large and fleshy Asian or Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki) is native to Japan, China, Korea, Burma, and Nepal and is the most widely cultivated species. There are several cultivars of Asian or Japanese persimmons each with unique flavors and qualities of fruit.

A hachiya persimmon that must ripen to a jelly-like pulp before it can be eaten.

The two most common types of persimmon found in modern markets are the Asian varietals Hachiya and Fuyu. Fuyus are squat and round, and Hachiyas are long, heart-shaped, and pointed. Hachiyas are tart and bitterly astringent due to their high tannic acid content until they are extremely ripe. Fuyus can be eaten while still firm with a texture much like a peach. Choose Fuyus when their flesh is firm but gently yielding like a ripe tomato. Fuyus are mildly sweet and excellent eaten out of hand or sliced into fresh salads. Unripened Hachiyas are too tannic to eat, but once ripe the fruit becomes jelly-like and pulpy and is wonderful pureed for use in baked goods. Look for Hachiyas with taut and glossy skin, but avoid fruit with bruises as they may rot before ripening. To ripen persimmons simply leave them out at room temperature in a sunny spot until they soften or freeze them overnight and allow to thaw the next day. Store soft, ripened persimmons in the refrigerator until ready to eat.

A firm fleshed and non-astringent Fuyu persimmon.

Persimmons are enjoyed in many different ways around the world. The Japanese enjoy them pickled in lime water or massaged and air dried as hoshigaki. The Chinese love them salted and dried. They can be can be made into purees, fruit leather, candies, sherbets, ice creams, jams, compotes, puddings, breads, cookies, muffins, cobblers, clafoutis, cakes, pies, and tarts. Complimentary pairings include pomegranates, pears, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mace, vanilla, cream, maple syrup, honey, prunes, dates, citrus zest, almonds, pistachios, vinaigrettes, basil, Thai and Serrano chilis, and hard cheeses such as cheddar-y Manchego and salty Parmesan.

The Japanese specialty hoshigaki, an air dried and gently massaged Hachiya persimmon.

The easiest way to store persimmons is to freeze them. As you can see by the photos of fruiting trees above persimmons are quite prolific. They also tend to all ripen at once. While they are delicious to eat fresh there's usually more than enough from one tree for the entire neighborhood and then some. What to do with all this persimmon largesse? Freeze 'em! You can either freeze the entire fruit for later use by just putting it in an airtight plastic bag or container. (This works really well for fruit that isn't ripe yet. When the frozen persimmon thaws et voila! It's ripe and ready to be eaten.) You can also puree them and put the pulp in an airtight plastic bag or container. Your persimmons must be perfectly ripe if you wish to puree them before freezing though.


Here's Bibi pureeing ripe Fuyu persimmons in her mixie. I just give them a good wash, remove the stems, and put them in the mixie skin and all. You might want give the persimmon flesh a bit of a going through before pureeing as there might be seeds. The seeds can be rounded like plum stones or oblong like date pits. Your mixie, food processor, or blender will NOT puree these rock-like seeds. You will hear them quite loudly bouncing off the blades and mixing container of your appliance. 


See? Beautiful orange persimmon pulp ready to be eaten as is, enjoyed as frozen sorbet, or stored for your next baking project. I usually measure the pulp out by cupful and store them in Ziploc bags in the freezer. Persimmons will keep frozen for up to 8 months. You might see some separation or darkening of the persimmon pulp but the flavor will be the same as fresh.

My favorite treat! Spicy persimmon cookies with walnut and raisins. Mmmmm!
When you're ready to make a delicious treat like these cookies or just enjoy a healthy frozen snack just grab a bag out of the freezer. Hope you enjoyed my little overview of persimmons and stick around for lots of persimmon recipes too!

Nov 7, 2016

Ingredients: White Pepper, Safed Mirch, Safed Golmirch, Shada Golmorich

White Pepper, Safed Mirch, Safed Golmirch, Shada Golmorich

White peppercorns and black peppercorns come from the same plant, but are processed differently. White peppercorns are allowed to fully ripen on the vine and are stripped of their dark shell after soaking. Their flavor is sharper, hotter, and less complex than black peppercorns. White pepper is the pepper of choice in many Asian cuisines including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. In classic Western and Indian cooking, white pepper is primarily used in light-colored dishes for aesthetic reasons.


To make white pepper the berries from the pepper vine (Piper nigrum) are picked when they are fully ripened and red. (In contrast black peppercorns are picked just when they are beginning to turn from green to yellow or pinkish.) The outer skin of fully mature red peppercorns is removed by process called retting. Retting consists of soaking the berries in water for one to two weeks until the shell loosens. The outer shell is then removed or rubbed off by various methods to reveal the cream-colored white seed. The white peppercorns are washed once again and sun-dried.

White Pepper, Safed Mirch, Safed Golmirch, Shada Golmorich

Although India is one of the world’s largest producers of black pepper, only a small amount of white pepper is actually produced for domestic use or sale. Compared to black pepper, good quality white pepper can fetch nearly four times more value in the international market. Using traditional methods to process white peppercorns has been fraught with problems for Indian farmers. Retting or soaking the peppercorns takes quite a bit of water and predisposes the peppercorns to fermentation, internal mold, and fungi.

White Pepper, Safed Mirch, Safed Golmirch, Shada Golmorich

The Post Harvest Technology Centre at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, developed the white peppercorn processing machine you see in the above photo in 2007. This unit mechanically processes white pepper from mature pepper berries that have undergone retting or soaking pre-treatment.  The pre-treated pepper berries are fed into the unit through a hopper into a drum that has a water jet, four nylon brushes, and a double layered metallic sieve. This provides the abrasion necessary to remove the outer shell or pericarp of the retted berries. A 1.0 hp single phase electric motor powers the device and only two people are required to operate the machine. About 120-150 kg of pre-soaked pepper berries can be processed into white peppercorns in one hour.

Piperidine- 1-[5-(1,3-Benzodioxol-5-yl)-1-oxo-2,4-pentadienyl]piperidine


White peppercorns have a sharper, hotter flavor than black peppercorns because the essential oils that provide most of the woodsy, lemony notes have been removed with the outer layer of the fruit.  The flavor of white peppercorns comes primarily from the alkaloid molecule piperine. This gives white peppercorns a far less complex flavor profile than black peppercorns. I have read descriptions of the taste of white peppercorns as lemony, citrusy, earthy, wine-like, hot, sharp, and creamy. The flavor of white peppercorns always reminds me of clam chowder, gefilte fish, and sometimes even the Meyer lemons of my native California. The scent of uncooked white pepper has a distinctive and musty barnyard odor. You can practically smell the rotting hay and horse urine. I suppose that's earthy.


In both Western and Indian cuisines white peppercorns are often used in cream or light-colored sauces where black pepper would visibly stand out. The photo above is of a black pepper flecked sauce which apparently neither Westerners nor Indians can abide. Black flecks in a white sauce denote rusticity and we can't be having that in an ethereally pale French béchamel or hollandaise sauce. Mughlai dishes such as Safed Maas (white mutton) or Rezala Chicken cannot suffer the indignity of darks flecks lurking in their silvery yet sumptuous gravies either. In northern Europe white pepper outsells black 10 to 1. The Cajuns of Louisiana use it quite a bit in their highly spiced cuisine too. There's an old Cajun cooking saying "Black pepper is for the taste, white for the heat, and red for the bite." In China, Malaysia, and Thailand white pepper is used extensively. You can taste the sharp heat of white pepper prominently in the famous Chinese 'hot and sour' soup. I love the way the Chinese and Thai use white pepper paired with fresh ginger. Interestingly, the Chinese never cook white pepper but add it at the end of cooking a dish believing that it will get bitter if heated. 

The volcanic soil of the Penja valley in the West African nation of Cameroon produces the world’s most coveted white pepper. Prized by Michelin-starred chefs it's flavor is described as musky, herbaceous, grassy, and delicate. In addition to the unique terroir of Cameroon, Penja white pepper is said to undergo a special processing technique that doesn't promote fermentation. This supposedly prevents the bitter, harsh, or 'off' taste that inferior white peppercorns may have. The Penja white peppercorn owes its rise to fame to French entrepreneur Erwann De Kerros, who came across a farm while traveling in Cameroon in 1992. Mr De Kerros stayed for four years, and began sending chefs and culinary journalists samples of his discovery. Today, Mr De Kerros runs Terre Exotique, a well-known spice company with almost $10 million in revenue. Among Mr De Kerros’ customers are the posh spice shop La Boîte in New York City and the luxury department store Harrods in London. Incidentally, I also saw this product on sale on Amazon for $13.95 for 80g. Apparently the price Penja white pepper has recently precipitously dropped for some reason from about $35 per 80g in 2015.

I'm pretty sure most of us have not sampled Penja white peppercorns but we probably have tasted the more mundane Indonesian varieties Sarawak and Muntok. These are what you'll commonly find at most grocery stores and spice shops worldwide. When buying white peppercorns it's best to buy them whole and grind them as needed. White peppercorns' flavor quickly dissipates after grinding just like black peppercorns. Store them away from direct sunlight in an airtight container and they should be good for about a year. I'm really not that fond of the flavor of white pepper except for in fish or seafood dishes. Perhaps I should try adding it at the end of cooking like the Chinese do? I've never found white pepper to develop a bitter taste with cooking. I have found you do have to be careful how much you use though, a little too much and it's sharpness will easily take over an entire dish. White pepper does NOT mellow out with cooking as black pepper does.
The only way I've seen white pepper sold in India: powdered.
Evidently I'm not alone in my dislike of white pepper. Supposedly there was an ongoing feud between the famed french chef Jacques Pepin and the iconic American chef Julia Child over the use of white pepper. Ms Child used white pepper for aesthetic reasons, while Mr Pepin hated the stuff and used black pepper only. Mr Pepin was even willing to suffer black specks in his béchamel!

Oct 25, 2016

Ingredients: Szechuan Peppercorns, Sichuan Peppercorns, Timur, Teppal, Thirpal, Tippal, Thingye, Hua Jiao


Szechuan peppercorns, also called timur, teppal, thirpal, tippal, thingye,  jiao, and sansho are all taste sensations like none other in the spice world. Used in cuisines throughout Asia their flavor isn’t spicy, but rather lemony, citric, and woody. Instead of heat, they incite a tingly numbness or fizzing feeling in the mouth. Despite the name, the reddish-brown husks are not related to black pepper. Different species with varying nuances of flavor are used in the cuisines of China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, and India.


The term Sichuan or Szechuan peppercorns refers to the spice obtained form a group of closely related plants of the genus Zantho­xylum. In Asia, most members of this genus are found in the Himalayan region as well as central, southern, and eastern Asia. The various species are all deciduous and prefer full sun or partial shade in hot areas. They range in size from multi-trunked trees around twenty feet in height to small woody shrubs. Leaves are leathery, pinnately compound, and green in color. The plant seems to prefer poor, well drained, rocky soils and is often planted for erosion control on steep bans and roadsides.


The Zantho­xylum genus all have very large thorns and are related to citrus as well as the tree known as 'prickly ash' in the United States. Some species are dioecious requiring both a male and female tree to produce fruit while some species are self-fertilizing and monoecious. Berries ripen and turn to a bright red in early Autumn.


The berries are sun dried which causes their pericarps or shells to split open and a seed to be exposed. The aroma, flavor, and pungency of the spice is only found in the fruit wall or pericarp of the fruit not in the black seeds. The seeds are purported to be bitter, hard, and gravel-like and so are usually removed. The exception is the Korean variety Z. schinifolium whose aromatic seeds are preferred for usage in cooking. The leaves of various species are also edible with a flavor similar to mint and lime in flavor and used in some of the cuisines of China and Japan.


Szechuan peppercorns were banned from import into the United States in 1968 for fear they could possibly carry the bacteria responsible for citrus canker and infect citrus trees. The ban was lifted in 2005 with the condition that all Szechuan peppercorns be roasted at 158F to kill the bacteria before entering the United States. 
Hydroxy-alpha sanshool is the molecule found in plants from the genus Zanthoxylum believed to be responsible for the numbing, tingling sensations of the spice. The compound's name is derived from the Japanese term for the Sichuan pepper, sanshō (literally mountain pepper). Though the chemical structure is similar to that of capsaicin (the substance that causes the sensation of burning heat in chilis), the mechanism of action by which hydroxy-alpha sanshool induces sensations has been a matter of debate. Apparently, sanshool causes a vibrational sensation equivalent to 50 taps per second rather than the heat or burning associated with pepper or chilis. According to a study at a prestigious university in London, the sensation caused by eating Szechuan peppercorns feels exactly the same as pressing a vibrator to your lips. To some this sensation can feel like the fizziness in a carbonated drink, a buzzing feeling, or touching your tongue to a battery.


There more than 250 species in the genus Zantho­xylum across Asia. Each have the same essential flavor characteristics but vary slightly in nuance. The pericarp pictured in the upper left is from the Himalayan species Z. alatum or armamatum, it is the most pungent species with a cassia-like aroma and is used Tibetan and Nepali cooking. On the upper right is the the Indonesian variety Z. acanthopodium, which is used in the Indonesian cuisine and is said to have a strong lime-like taste. At the lower left is the south Indian variety called tirphal from the species Z. rhetsa which has a delicate flavor and is used alone to flavor certain fish dishes. On the lower right is the famous Chinese Szechuan pepper called jiao from the species Z. piperitum/simulans. Jiao is an ingredient in the traditional five spice pow­der​ and is traditionally used in combinatiion with black pepper and red chilis in the fiery cuisine of the Szechuan region.
 

My experience tasting the spice:
In Nepal the local variety f this spice is called timur. Upon procuring some at the local market I placed one of the timur peppercorns in my mouth.  It started out with a pungent yet pleasant citric, lemony, black pepper, and slightly woodsy flavor. Immediately after that I felt something like the fizzing of 'pop rocks' candy in my mouth. Soon it grew more intense and I started to drool. After about two minutes a strong acid taste appeared and the fizzing sensation became nauseatingly overbearing. This was like having a mouthful of battery acid and weapons grade pop rocks. My eyes began watering and I began to retch so I finally spit the darned thing out. The fizzy sensation turned to numbness and an acrid flavor remained for about 5 minutes even after rinsing my mouth with water and milk. I deduced from this experiment that sparingly and dry roasted must be the key to effectively using timur in foodstuffs.

Nepali momos served with achar

It seems the higher in altitude and farther east you go in the Himalayas the more timur is used as a primary spice. In Nepal timur is used in pickles, savory curries, spice mixes, noodle dishes, and chutneys. The national dish of Tibet is the momo, a dumpling filled with stuffing made from vegetables, cheese, or meat and spiced with garlic, ginger, onion, and timur. Momos are quite popular in Nepal too and are always served with a spicy red dipping chutney made with just a little pinch of timur. Tibetan cuisine also makes use of the combination of hot red chilis with timur as is done in the Szechuan province of China. The Tibetan word for timur or Szechuan peppercorns is is g-yer ma. Tibet shares a border with the Szechuan region so that's not too surprising. The spicy Tibetan noodle dish called malaphing is served in yak broth seasoned with red chili paste, garlic, dark sesame oil, and ground timur - quite similar to any boiled noodle dish you'd be served in Szechuan.

Spiced, smoked, dried, buffalo meat called secuti.
What do you do with all the meat when you've sacrificed a water buffalo and you've no refrigeration? Well, here in Nepal you slice it thinly and marinate it with timur, salt, and red chili powder and smoke it! Above you can see a packet for sale at our local market of spiced, smoked, and dried buffalo meat called sukuti. It is the Nepali version of jerky. On the label it's called a 'special meat snack' and I have seen it eaten out of hand as such. I've also seen pieces boiled with greens for a simple soup too.

The eternal hipster, Johnny Depp simultaneously symbolizing all things radically fresh, raw, and noble.
Looks like Kim Kardashian's makeup artist did his contouring and eyeliner today.
What is that bold, brash, citrusy, and peppery opening note in the new and controversial men's fragrance by Dior called Sauvage? Why it's Szechuan peppercorns! I immediately recognized it at first sniff. I love the aroma of Szechuan peppercorns and have often thought their brisk and pungent aroma would make a great uplifting spa fragrance or men's cologne. I've been to Szechuan restaurants that actually scent their dining rooms with the tantalizing fragrance of Szechuan peppercorns dry roasted with rock salt. Apparently a significant amount of Westerners find Sauvage's scent too harsh and supposedly synthetic. I think Westerners are just unfamiliar with the naturally bright and brash fragrance of Szechuan peppercorns. You know how most human beings are, anything we don't immediately recognize makes us uncomfortable and we don't like being uncomfortable. The coupling of Szechuan peppercorns with Calabrian bergamot as in Sauvage really amps up it's fresh floral and hesperidic facets. Fret not though, that rip roaring opening mellows out in about a half an hour and a warm, woodsy, Ambroxan base comes forward that lasts for hours. I rather like Sauvage and think it's a brilliant, modern, minimalistic interpretation of classic masculine fragrance. The perfumer's description and advertising tagline for the fragrance is radically fresh, raw, and noble. I'd agree Sauvage fills the brief but an actor who is most famous for playing a Disney pirate hardly seems radical, fresh, raw, nor noble. Clive Owen or Daniel Craig would have been my picks.

Szechuan peppercorns are best purchased whole and ground as needed. When stored in an airtight container away from sunlight the whole peppercorns seem to last indefinitely. Dry roasting this spice mellows it and brings out it's aromatic flavor. Dry roast in a heavy frying pan or on a baking sheet in the oven for 3-4 minutes. When the peppercorns get hot they will begin to smoke so watch them carefully and remove any burnt berries. Allow to cool and then grind. Roast and grind in small batches as the flavor dissipates quickly. Try a little dry roasted and ground mixed with salt for a zingy rub for red meat or sprinkle a little atop your favorite savory curry as the Nepalis do for an exotic taste treat.

Oct 13, 2016

Ingredients: Black Pepper, Kali Mirch, Gol Mirch, Gulki, Marts, Marich


Often called the "king of spices," black pepper is has a long history of use as a spice, a preservative, and even as currency. The history of black pepper is the history of the spice trade. By far the most widely seasoning in the world, black pepper adds it's pungent and aromatic warmth to dishes in nearly every cuisine. Originating in India's southern coastal region of Malabar, black pepper has been making it's way westward for over 2,000 years. 


The word pepper is derived from the Sanskrit word for long pepper, pippali. The ancient Greeks and Latin speakers turned pippali into the Greek word peperi and the Latin word piper. The Romans referred both to black pepper and long pepper as piper, as they erroneously believed that both of these spices were derived from the same plant. The names of pepper in almost all Euro­pean lan­guages are derived from the Latin root piper.  Ex­amples include Old English pipor which has evolved to pepper in modern English, Czech pepř, French poivre, German Pfeffer, Finnish pippuri, Ukrainian perets, and Yiddish fefer. In South Asia, the word for black pepper is derived from the Sanskrit root marichan. The modern Hindi word mirch meaning chili or pepper comes from this root. In Urdu and Hindi black pepper is called kali mirch (literally black pepper) or gol mirch (literally round pepper). In Kashmiri black pepper is called marts and in Nepali it is called marich staying closer to the Sanskrit root.

A black pepper farm in a forest in Southern India.
Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a tropical, perennial vine in the family Piperaceae. Climbing with aerial roots the vine can grow to over thirty feet high. At maturity the vine sports glossy, green heart shaped alternate leaves. The leaves have a sweetly aromatic flavor and are edible also. In India and some parts of Southeast Asia the leaves are used to wrap betel nuts, making the slightly narcotic mouth freshener called paan. Black pepper vines need a a warm, wet, tropical climate and a well drained loamy soil rich in minerals and organic matter. Vines can yield for up to forty years. The plants are propagated by cuttings which are rooted and tied to rough barked trees or trellises.

Black pepper vines growing up brick trellises at a pepper plantation in Viet Nam.
In late spring, the vine produces pendulous spikes of tiny white flowers which develop into clusters of 50 to 100 small green berries. As the berries ripen they turn yellow and eventually become a rosy red. A single stem will bear 20 to 30 fruiting spikes.


Black pepper is produced from the berries of the pepper vine when they have grown to full size but still remain green. Since clusters mature at different times, harvesting from can take place over several months. 

The green berries are dried in the sun or by machine for several days. Traditionally, they are separated by hand and laid out on woven mats to dry in the hot sun. Some commercial growers speed the process up by dipping the berries in hot water and using a kiln to dry them. During the drying process an enzyme in the outer shell of the peppercorn is activated. This enzyme causes oxidation in the outer shell turning it black and creating a volatile oil containing piperine and oleoresins. The volatile oil is what gives black peppercorns their characteristic heat, pungency, and robust complexity of flavor. 


All black pepper is not the same. There's no shortage of places to get your black pepper from in modern times. Being the world's most popular spice it is grown all across the narrow, 15-degree band around the equator called the spice regions. There are over 75 cultivars of black pepper in India alone. As of 2013, Vietnam is the world's largest producer and exporter of pepper producing 34% of the world's black pepper crop. Varieties from Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Ecuador and Brazil are available also. As with wine grapes or other fruits and vegetables, the terroir or sun, rainfall, and minerals in the soil of the region where the black pepper is grown affects the flavor and aroma of black pepper.
Black peppercorns from the South Indian city of Tellicherry (now knoown as Thalassery) are considered the finest quality in the world. What makes the flavor of Tellicherry peppercorns so superior? Their bright freshness is described as being reminiscent of citrus, pine, or fruit is perfectly balanced with a sweet heat. This gives peppercorns from Tellicherry a superior complexity in aroma and flavor than rivals from other regions. The lack of the bitterness or earthiness found in other black pepper varieties also distinguishes Tellicherry peppercorns.


Black peppercorns are best bought whole. Black pepper begins to lose flavor as soon as it is ground. The volatile oils responsible for black peppers' complex blend of heat and pungency soon dissipate after grinding. For peak flavor grind pepper only as you need it. A peppermill or a mortar and pestle make grinding fresh black pepper a simple task. Whole black peppercorns will keep their flavor almost indefinitely if stored away from sunlight and heat. Good quality black peppercorns should also be uniform in size and dark in color.


While a shaker full of black pepper is a common sight on Western dining tables in most South Asian cuisines black pepper plays no special role. With a few exceptions black pepper is simply another member of the vast pantheon of spices the Subcontinent enjoys. Black pepper is a common minor ingredient the spice mixes of garam masala, South Indian sambar podi, and Anglo-Indian curry powders. You may occasionally see mangos and watermelon eaten with a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper to intensify their flavor in India. You might even see lassi, a cold yogurt drink, made with black pepper. In the Winter an extra dash of black pepper may accompany fresh ginger in masala chai as it is considered warming to the body. Only in Rajasthani, Sri Lankan, and Chettinad cuisines is black pepper used as the main spice rather than an accent in dishes. Personally, I put a bit of black pepper into every savory dish as well as my wintertime cuppa chai!

Aug 29, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Cloves, Laung, Lavang, Grambu

Originating in the Moluccan Islands of Indonesia, cloves have been used as a spice and traditional medicine for thousands of years. Cloves are a unique spice with their fiery, sweet, aromatic flavor enhancing beverages as well as sweet and savory dishes. Because of their exceptional versatility and intense fragrance cloves have always been held in high esteem in the cuisines of Asia, Europe, and North Africa.

The name clove ultimately derives from the Latin word clavus meaning nail in reference to the nail-like appearance of the spice. The Hindi word for clove is laung, the Kashmiri word for clove is rong, the Gujarati word is lavang, the Bengali word for clove is  labango, and in Tamil the word for clove is grambu. All of these South Asian names have no discernible etymlogy in the Indo–Aryan or Dravidic languages.


Cloves are the dried flower buds of a twenty-four to forty foot evergreen tree in the myrtle family, Syzygium aromaticum. They are grown commercially in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. The flower buds of the clove tree initially have a pale green hue and are grouped in terminal clusters. Just before the buds blossom they turn a brilliant pink, at which point they must be harvested immediately. 


Cloves are harvested at one to two centimeters long and consist of a long calyx that terminates in four spreading sepals and four unopened petals that form a small central ball. One adult tree yields about a seven-pound harvest.


The freshly picked cloves are spread out to dry on mats in the sun until they turn a deep brown hue. They are then hand sorted for size and perfection. Cloves from Sri Lanka are considered the best in quality.


Eugenol is the oily the compound most responsible for the distinctive aroma of cloves. Although eugenol has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties it is toxic in relatively small quantities. For example, a dose of 5–10 ml has been reported as a near fatal dose for a two-year-old child. Eugenol or clove oil can also pit or dissolve plastic so it is best stored in a glass container.


Although cloves are native to Indonesia they do not play a major part in Indonesian cuisines. However, Indo­nesians are the main con­sumers of cloves and use nearly half of the world’s pro­duction.  In Indonesia clove flavored cigarettes called kretek are extremely popular and enjoyed frequently by nearly every Indonesian male.


In South Asian cuisines cloves are mainly valued for their heat and aromatic sweetness in savory dishes. Nearly every variant and regional blend of the spicy mix garam masala contains powdered cloves. Cloves are often used whole in sabut or khada masalas along with peppercorns, cassia bark, and cardamom to fragrantly flavor curries, biryanis, and pulaos. 

Mmmmmm...love my morning & afternoon cuppa!

My favorite use of cloves is in the traditional spicy milk tea called masala chai. A single clove and two green cardamoms per tablespoon of Assamese black tea leaves is my favorite chai blend for Spring and Summer. Although cloves work well in sweet dishes there aren't many Indian desserts that feature them. Most Indian desserts that do contain cloves are Mughal inspired such as the carrot based gajjar ki halwa, the fragrant rice pudding kheer, and the creamy vermicelli noodle dessert seviyan.

Helpful hints:
Use cloves sparingly, their bold flavor can quickly overpower a dish and will intensify the longer they are cooked.
Store cloves in a non plastic container as their volatile oils can dissolve plastic. Be careful when grinding cloves as their oils and sharp edges will pit and score a plastic top on an electric grinder too.
Equal amounts of allspice is a good substitute for cloves.
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