Spice Road Soup

Spice Road Soup
Where would our cooking be without the vast world of spices?

I recently read through the book Cook's Encyclopedia of Spices by Sallie Morris and Lesley Mackley where they give a thorough description of the origins, history, stories, recipes and other uses of fifty spices.  It has already inspired me to get off the couch and put together the Dhal with Tadka found on p.185 of the book accompanied by minted Basmati rice and Whole Roasted Tandoori Cauliflower from Sarah B at My New Roots. 

A few days later, hungry again, I started digging through my cupboards looking to discover what I could make for dinner, and decided it was time to play with spices. 

First, let me say a bit about spices.  I have a cupboard full of them because I love to cook, and find it hard to resist a recipe with a long list of tantalizing spices.  There are regions of the world where cooks are masters at combining spices to create their local dishes, and I have seen evidence of this when wandering the markets of the world.  In Arusha, Hyderabad, Casablanca, and Dubai - I remember tracing my way through the maze of stalls, first noting the presence of new and delightful spells coming through my nasal passages, and then looking around with wonder and perplexity at the peaked mounds of colorful spices positioned mere feet way from the hanging carcasses of all forms of dead animals whose flavor they were destined to enhance.  

Some of the spices had names I recognized:  cardamom, ginger, cinnamon - and the most expensive of them all saffron - a spice I'd first tasted tucked into a saffron roll purchased from a small bakery just out of view of the sea in St. Ives, Cornwall.  Some of them had names I'd heard of but had never seen:  sumac, myrrh, mace, galangal, and the nearly orange turmeric, used for clothing dye and ready to stain everything in its path a glorious shade of gold.  Others I thought I knew, and realized how limited my knowledge was when I was staring down at the various shades of mustard, or when discovering that mace was the outside piece on a nutmeg - something I discovered on a spice farm outside of Old Town on the island of Zanzibar.   Later, dining in the local restaurants in these countries, I tasted and smelled the melding of the spices into a perfect balance in the Indian, African, Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisines.

Eventually it dawned on me that my cooking was missing a whole new dimension when I limited myself to the (relatively) few spices I'd grown up with.  

I went to examine my own spice cupboard, fresh with the knowledge that dried spices don't actually last forever.  There is no point in buying the quart-sized Costco container of Italian seasoning, especially if you are not cooking a weekly meal of spaghetti or lasagna for a family of 12.  No, Spices have a shelf life, and most of mine were old.  Better to buy in small quantities to ensure freshness and quality.  Out went the old with the compost and off I went on a mission.

Spice Road Soup
As I read through the Spices book, studied online, and talked to spice shop owners and the proprieters of ethnic food shops, I started to rebuild my spice rack with new, fresh spices.  I bought fresh cardamom pods, both green and black, and a mortar and pestle to go with them.  The green cardamom had the familiar perfume I'd come to recognized via the ubiquitous pulla  in Finland - sweet cardamom rolls sold in every coffee shop and quite delicious with a cup of coffee.  Only these fresh cardamom pods were ten times more fragrant, and I was surprised at how powerful the smell was.  The pungency of the black cardamom actually shocked me - it's smell reminscent of eucalyptus combined with fresh ground black pepper and isn't a pleasant scent at all - it will be added soon to a slow oven roast where the flavors will mellow and meld with the dish.  Black cardamom and baked goods will never be good friends, I don't think.

I hunted down sumac to make Za'atar from a recipe found at 101 Cookbooks, and bought a fresh sachet of dried oregano as well as black sesame to toast and add to the dish.  The Za'atar was first added to yogurt until I became more adventurous and dumped generous tablespoons of it into a cold Spelt Salad along side of quick-pickled red onion, not-so-quickly preserved lemon and fresh Naval orange.

I picked up curry, a tandoori blend, turmeric, cumin, and dried coriander pods, looking forward to adding their perfume to my kitchen.  I learned that warming the spices before adding them to the dish brings out their flavor - so that the flavors of the finished taste warmer, matured.  I discovered that homemade Italian Seasoning is as simple as a thing could be and curiously satisfying.  Most importantly, I became more adventurous about combining various spices to see what gastronomic paths unusual combinations might lead me down.

This soup is like a journey down the Spice Road from ages ago, and brings a new appreciation of the importance of the Spice Trade and an understanding of why spices were so highly valued as a currency.  It combines spices grown around the world together with beans, buckwheat and vegetables to create a robust meal with great depth of flavor.    Serve this with a strong bread such as rye, wholewheat, or spelt.  Then go take a look at your spice rack and begin some experiments of your own.  And if you see me out somewhere with bright yellow thumbs, blame it on the turmeric.

Spice Road Soup

1.  In a medium-large pot combine over medium heat:
4 cups vegetable broth
1/3 cup whole buckwheat
1 cup cooked black beans
1 cup cooked chickpeas
3/4 cup diced firm tofu or okara (by-product of making tofu or soy milk)
1 large carrot, chopped to equal 3/4 cup
1 cup chopped cauliflower
1 cup steam Swiss chard (approximately 2 cups fresh)

Bring the mixture to a bowl and reduce to a simmer.

2.  In a mortar (or a spice grinder) combine the following spices:
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 bay leaf, crushed
2 green cardamom pods, pod discarded and seeds reserved or 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon chili powder

Crush the spices until they are roughly ground.  Transfer the spices to a small saucepan and warm over dry, high heat until the spices are fragrant and are just beginning to smoke.  Pour the spices into the soup and cover.

Allow the soup to simmer for 25 minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 4.