Spice fascination all-consuming

Eleanor Ford's fascination with spices and how they can be used and the history behind them led...
Eleanor Ford's fascination with spices and how they can be used and the history behind them led to her becoming a culinary detective. Photos: supplied
It is the complexity of spices that make them so valuable for cooks, Eleanor Ford says.

"One spice alone can lift a dish."

Her fascination with spices and how they can be used and the history behind them led to her becoming a culinary detective as she searched out their stories and histories describing her new book The Nutmeg Trail as a work of gastronomic archaeology.

It is a project that has "fascinated and consumed me utterly".

Ford has focused on the Indian Ocean, the original cradle of spice, exploring food trading hubs where new flavour combinations were born and culinary cross-pollination is most pronounced.

"Different cuisines favour particular spice pairings and have unique ways of harnessing their aromas. Small tweaks of spicing make food with similar ingredients that is gloriously diverse."

A spice at its simplest are the parts of plants most densely rich in flavour, which can enliven and elevate food, she says.

They are dried seeds, barks, roots, rhizomes, fruits, arils, flower buds and resins from plants that grow in mostly tropical climates.

"Spices’ aromas and flavours are volatile and fat soluble, the spices best freshly ground and their flavours extracted by sizzling in oil."

Ford includes a spice library, information on how to store, use and layer different spices. There is also information on their flavour profiles and where different spices come from.

She also gives a 101 in spice trade history of the maritime spice routes starting in the Indonesian spice islands for nutmeg and cloves, then to China for ginger, Sri Lanka for cinnamon and India for cardamom and black pepper via the Middle East and northeast Africa to Europe for cumin, coriander and saffron.

"Centuries of spice trade and cultural diffusion have changed the world’s cuisine."

Ford’s recipes, she warns, reflect her personal predilections for simple home cooking that delivers big flavours.

She tries not to adapt recipes in order to keep the authenticity of each dish as their stories and histories are important.

"Inherently, these reflect my cooking in my London kitchen with the ingredients available to me."

The book

This is an extract from The Nutmeg Trail by Eleanor Ford, photography by Ola O Smit. Murdoch Books RRP $55. 

Curried udon noodles

A quick and immensely satisfying one-wok meal. Get cooking now and you could be eating in 15 minutes, or read on for a little history.

In the past 150 years, Japan has become a nation of curry lovers with a heavily Japanised influence on the Indian flavours. Curray, as it is locally known, is served donburi-style over rice with pickles, cooked into rich noodle soups or stuffed into the slightly sweet buns of every convenience store.

It is also a favourite for school lunches and the home cook with whole supermarket aisles dedicated to provisions, including curry spice blends sold in mild, medium and (only nominally) hot. Much like Western curry powders, the base of these is turmeric, coriander and cumin, with aroma from spices including cardamom, cloves and fennel. Unique to Japan are caramel slabs called curry roux. Made from fat, flour, curry powder and soy sauce, these melt in the pan to a smooth brown sauce.

A couple of theories for curry’s introduction to the country could explain the flour-thickened sauces. It may have crossed from Shanghai, where there was a large Indian population, the flour-thickener being an influence from Chinese cookery. Or it could have been introduced via the British, who held India under colonial rule and were themselves fusing Indian flavours with roux-based stews. Either way, the habit is now fully ingrained in Japanese cuisine, acting as comfort food that can be eaten without the need of ceremony.

Chewy udon noodles might be curried either in a thick soup (using curry roux) or quickly stir-fried yaki-style (with curry powder) as here. The bitterness of the bok choy plays off beautifully against the gloss of the salty-sweet, earthy-spiced mirin.

Serves 2

1 Tbsp neutral oil

1 onion, thickly sliced

8 shiitake mushrooms, sliced

50g mangetout (snowpeas)

2 baby bok choy, quartered

3 spring onions (scallions), cut at an angle into 3cm pieces

2 garlic cloves, minced

300g fresh udon noodles (or 200g dried, cooked)

1 tsp toasted sesame oil

2 scant tsp curry powder

Grinding of black pepper

3 Tbsp mirin

2 Tbsp Japanese soy sauce

Juice of ½ a lime

Optional toppings

Pink pickled ginger

Aonori (dried seaweed powder) or shredded nori

Toasted sesame seeds


Heat the wok, then add the oil and onion and fry to soften. Add the shiitake, mangetout, bok choy and spring onions and cook for 5 minutes more over a medium high heat, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and cook for just a minute longer.

Untangle the noodles into the wok then toss through the sesame oil, curry powder and a generous grinding of black pepper. Add the mirin and soy sauce and let the noodles warm through and soak up most of the sauce.

Spritz in the lime juice and remove from the heat. Portion into bowls and, if using, scatter with the toppings.

Moules au combava

A tropical way with mussels, typical of the spirited, heavily creolised Reunion cooking.

The volcanic island is a French department in the Indian Ocean with a strong cultural and culinary influence from both France and India. French settlers to the uninhabited island first brought slaves from Africa to work their sugar plantations, then, after slavery was abolished, turned to Indian labourers from Tamil Nadu and the Malabar coast.

These workers were given no choice but to assimilate, relinquishing their names, religions and languages, and have stayed in a country that is a true union of people from everywhere. With them came a potpourri of world cuisines.

Moules are a local favourite and can be served in French style with a creamy sauce or, as here, where the Eastern influence is clearer. Both ways use the fragrant, bittersweet and intensely perfumed zest of the wrinkled combava fruit (also known as makrut or kaffir lime), which is well worth seeking out.

Serves 4-8

2kg mussels

2 Tbsp neutral oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

6 sprigs thyme

5 tomatoes, chopped

1 tsp ground turmeric

Finely grated zest of a makrut lime

(½ tsp) or 6 shredded lime leaves

For the spice paste

3cm ginger, peeled

4 garlic cloves

1 green chilli, seeds in or out, sliced

½ tsp fine sea salt


Debeard the mussels and scrub the shells clean with a brush under cold running water, at no stage immersing them in water. Give each a sharp tap and discard any that don’t close. You can store in the fridge for up to 24 hours, in a colander over a bowl and covered with a clean damp tea towel.

Grind together the ingredients for the spice paste using a pestle and mortar.

Heat the oil in a saute pan over a medium heat. Fry the onion until soft and translucent then add the spice paste and thyme. Stir until it becomes fragrant and the harsh rawness has mellowed, then add the tomato and turmeric. Cook for about 20 minutes to break the tomato down and reduce to a thick sauce. Stir in the zest and remove from the heat. Taste for seasoning but remember the mussels will bring their own salinity.

Put the mussels into a large cooking pot and clamp on a lid. Cook over a high heat, shaking occasionally. After a couple of minutes all the shells should be open. Discard any that are not.

Strain off the mussel juices into a jug and use just a few spoonfulls to thin the spiced tomato sauce. Add the sauce to the pot and heat through quickly, mixing to coat the mussels.

Eat with French fries or baguette, or preferably both.

Venetian chicken with almond milk and dates

The Persian and Arab fondness for using sugar, spice and ground almonds in savoury dishes spread both East, notably to Indian Mughal cuisine, and West to medieval European cookery.

This recipe is based on one handwritten in a 14-century cookbook from Venice. At the time, the city lay at the end of the fabled spice route, the European hub of spices and silks arriving from the East. Just as Venetian art and architecture drew on Islamic influence, so too does this sweetly spiced braise.

A heavy hand with spice continued for centuries in Northern Italy and Renaissance chef Cristoforo di Messisbugo included spices in almost every recipe. A ravioli dish for 10 used a heady ounce - 28g - of cinnamon and half an ounce of ground ginger.

There was little distinction between sweet and savoury, dishes freely mingling together and pasta doused in sugar and scented with cloves, pepper and saffron.

This recipe has only a gentle sweetness and stands the test of time.

Serves 4

8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs

1 Tbsp plain flour

3 Tbsp olive oil

2 small onions, finely chopped

60g ginger, peeled and finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

½ tsp ground coriander

Pinch of ground cloves

2 bay leaves

400ml (1½ cups) unsweetened almond milk

2 Tbsp verjuice

Pinch of saffron strands

2 Tbsp date syrup

4 medjool dates, stoned and quartered

2 Tbsp toasted almond flakes

Handful coriander (cilantro) leaves

Rice or polenta, to serve (optional)


Season the chicken thighs generously with salt and pepper, then dust with the flour. Set a large casserole pan over a medium-high heat and, when hot, pour in the olive oil. Add the chicken thighs and brown to a deep golden on all sides. Remove to a plate, leaving the oil behind.

Add the onion to the pan and cook to soften but not colour. Stir in the ginger, garlic, spices and bay leaves and cook for a few minutes until fragrant. Return the chicken to the pan in a single layer.

Pour in the almond milk and verjuice, scrunch in the strands of saffron and add the date syrup and dates. Season with salt. Bring to a bubble, then lower the heat and simmer for 1 hour. The chicken should be tender and falling from the bone.

Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and turn up the heat. Bubble the sauce until it has reduced and thickened. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Serve the chicken in the sauce, scattered with almonds and coriander, alongside rice or polenta.

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