Sunday, October 11, 2009

Spicy niceties

No matter where you do your gardening, you'll have to come to grips with the fact that there are just some things you cannot grow in your part of the world, due to your climate conditions. For example, my warm temperate spot here in Sydney is too hot for growing peonies, clematis, cherries and raspberries, for example, and I can live with that, with some regrets, especially the raspberries.

But sometimes it really irks me that I can't grow my own spices. I'd love to have trees producing cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and mace but I'd have to move 2000 km closer to the equator to do that (not to mention getting a much bigger backyard). I love spicy food and cooking with spices, and yesterday was one of those days completely consumed by the glorious aromas and flavours of spices. So I thought I'd celebrate spices for a moment, and finish with the recipe for one of the spicy dishes I cooked last night, a stir-fry of spiced mixed vegetables.

Here's what started the whole spice thing rolling yesterday. The Indian spices section of my pantry. As some of them were up to their use-by date, and stocks of others were running low, I bit the bullet and decided to toss out the lot, head for the Fiji market on King Street in Newtown, and splurge on a completely new set of spices, all with a use-by date June 2012. It was like a cleansing, only spicy.

Shopping at the Fiji market is wonderful fun for noses. As is common in Sydney, food businesses calling themselves 'Fiji' are usually run by people of Indian heritage, and so all the essentials of Indian cuisine are available there. After shopping myself silly on spices, I then spent about two hours emptying the jars, replacing the contents, snipping off the labels from the packets and sticking them on the jars. I like the higgledy-piggledy look of all the odd collection of jars and labels.

Out of this collection, alas, there's only a few I can grow here in my garden: chillies, curry leaves, coriander (pictured above, in flower at the moment, so I can later collect the seed). And turmeric, too, but I tried that and while it was a handsome tropical-look foliage plant it proved to be an aggressive weed. So no more turmeric for me. And as I mentioned in a recent blog, my cardamom plant thrives here but has never flowered and probably never will. But that's about it for home-grown spices for me.

And so I just content myself with a couple of spices, and leave it at that. Maybe I over-compensate in the kitchen? Who knows, but to conclude this blog I thought I'd share one of the recipes I cooked last night, which at least used some of my home-grown curry leaves.

This is my potted curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii).

It's just coming into bloom now, and the the combination of the recent wet weather and flowering has drained the leaves of their healthiest dark green hue, and so I gave it a feed this morning of blood and bone, plus some cow manure, and I hope it appreciates it!

Now, the recipe I'm including here is mildly spicy but very aromatic, as it includes one of my favourite Indian ingredients, panch phora. My Indian cookbook tells me that 'panch' means 'five' in Hindi, and so panch phora is a blend of five seeds: black mustard, cumin, black cumin (nigella), fenugreek and fennel. They're whole seeds, and the first step of the recipe is to heat some oil in a pan (I use a wok) and fry together the curry leaves and the seeds. Both pop and sizzle and flavour the oil as they do so.

The full recipe is at the end of the blog, but this is one of those recipes where you spend 15-20 minutes chopping the vegetables and 10 minutes cooking them. After popping the panch phora seeds and curry leaves in the oil, you toss in crushed garlic, chopped ginger, chopped chilli and ground turmeric and fry it another minute or so, then, as pictured here, add in a colourful mixture of vegetables cut to a similar size for quick cooking. Here, it's carrots, green beans, red bullhorn chilli (large, and mild as capsicum) and asparagus, but you could use any mix of vegetables that are either in season, at a good price, etc. Cook the vegies for 5 minutes, tossing well in the spices and oil to coat them with the spicy flavour.

Then you add finely sliced Chinese cabbage (called wombok, wong buck here) and stir-fry it for another five minutes. Once the cabbage softens and wilts, sprinkle over a couple of tablespoons of fine desiccated coconut, cover the pan/wok with a lid for a minute or two more, and there you have it: Spicy Fried Vegetables. Here's the recipe, which is kind-of from my Asian food bible, 'The Complete Asian Cookbook' by Charmaine Solomon, except that I have changed it by dropping one or two ingredients and adding one or two others.

Spicy Fried Vegetables

3 large carrots, cut into matchsticks
250g (8 oz) green beans, cut into small pieces
1 punch asparagus, cut into small pieces
1 red capsicum, cut into small chunks
1/2 Chinese cabbage, finely shredded
3 tablespoons ghee or oil
1 teaspoon panch phora
8-10 curry leaves, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
2 whole green chillies, chopped
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons desiccated coconut

1. Prepare all the vegetables, garlic, ginger, chillies and set aside in bowls ready to add them as per the recipe below.
2. Over medium heat, heat the oil in a wok or pan until hot, then add the panch phora and the curry leaves, and watch out! It can pop and sizzle, but try to give them a stir to encourage popping of the seeds.
3. Add the garlic, ginger, chillies, turmeric and stir-fry for only 30 seconds to 1 minute, as you don't want to overcook the garlic and burn it.
4. Then toss in the all the vegetables, other than the Chinese cabbage. Stir well several times to blend all the flavours, and let the vegetables cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Add the shredded Chinese cabbage and stir well to combine. Let it cook for 5 minutes, until it softens, then sprinkle with salt and give it one more stir.
6. Sprinkle over the desiccated coconut, stir well. Put a lid on the pan, turn down the heat, and let it cook for just 2 minutes more.

I served this with a pilau-style spiced rice, plus a South Indian sour fish curry flavoured with tamarind (damn, another tree I can't grow here!).


Shailaja said...

Interesting to see your curryleaf tree in bloom. Here in India it is in bloom, too, and very soon the cuckoos will arrive in hordes to eat the bitter-sweet fruit. Do you have cuckoos there, I wonder.I'm amused that you are lamenting not being able to grow a tamarind tree in your garden. Here nobody does as each tamarind tree is supposed to have a resident ghost!

Jamie said...

Hi Shailaja

Oooh, a resident ghost! Didn't know about that bit with tamarind trees.
And as for cuckoos, yes, we do have cuckoo birds here but not in hordes. In fact our resident cuckoos are called koels, and they are almost all black, largeish and specialise in a very haunting, annoying call that begins around 4 o'clock in the morning and goes on for hours. So maybe they are our resident ghosts!

Green thumb said...

Like any authentic Indian, I too have been brought up on spicy Indian food, yet I haven't tried growing too many spices in my garden. I have grown mustard, fennel, but hardcore spices like cardamon, black pepper etc require the Southern Indian climate to grow.
The dish you have made looks delicious!

Eileen said...

Growing spices, what a wonderful thought! I've long wished I could grow those trees that pau d'arco tea comes from. The Taheebo tree from South America. Not a spice, exactly, but same idea (wanting to grow foods from other regions). Coconut palms would be great, too (I *might* be able to here in Arizona, just maybe:-) Your recipe looks wonderful. Dh & I love Indian food, but when we are not careful, some of the dishes become too spicy for our children...