Spice up your life with Arun Kapil

Joe McNamee talks to Arun Kapil the founder of Green Saffron and an evangelist for spices, about his latest book.

Arun Kapil is at pains to stress that his new cookbook, Fresh Spice, is not an Indian cookbook. Sure, his name fits the bill and the Anglo-Indian Kapil can look the part; anyone familiar with the long, snaking queues in quest of a curry from one of his Green Saffron farmers’ market stalls, would be surprised to hear he’d write about anything other than Indian food. 

But Kapil is emphatic: “Sure, my dad is Indian but my mum is English and I grew up eating as much ‘English’ food [much of it identical to a typical Irish diet] as I did ‘Indian’.”

Spice up your life with Arun Kapil

No, Kapil is an evangelist for spices rather than for any specific cuisine and is fond of pointing out to naysayers claiming to hate spicy food that they have been most probably enjoying it all their lives: “Spices to me are all about flavour and not necessarily just heat, even those who claim to hate spicy food eat an awful lot of spices. Pepper is a spice.

Nutmeg and cloves in confectionary: ginger biscuits, cinnamon snaps. Spiced beef and baked hams studded with cloves at Christmas. Barm brack at Halloween, black and white puddings. Spices are not just Indian and have been in Ireland for centuries.”

Factor in the rapidly accumulating influences he is absorbing as an adopted Irishman—married to Olive, an East Cork woman whom he met over a decade ago, shortly after arriving in Ireland to study at Ballymaloe Cookery School—and you can’t fail to notice the ‘green’ tinge, a distinctly Hibernian angle, especially his embrace of all things piggy and porcine.

“Used properly, spices enhance every single dish they come into contact with and, once you are familiar with them and all their properties and tastes, your imagination is the only limit to what you can do with them.”

Kapil’s Guide to Spices

What are spices?

“Spices can be bark, leaves, fruit, seeds and pericarps (husk). [In the US, herbs are also referred to as spices.] Black pepper is the fruit and white pepper is the seed. They can also be arils, the fleshy part of the outside of a seed; mace is an aril to nutmeg. Resins can act as spices, for instance afoetida, tapped from the roots of a ferula plant.

I view spices as building blocks that can be broken down into colour, the volatile or essential oils, the aromas, and what I call the characteristic or even character trait, by that I mean, certain spices can reflect or evoke certain moods or personalities, for example, happy, vibrant, sultry and so on.

And there’s an all-important fifth element which is using flavour memories, that is memories of dishes you have eaten in the past to create new flavour combinations.”

Shopping for spices

“Best of all would be online from a reputable and trustworthy source — obviously, I’d recommend www.Greensaffron.com  Next best is from a good Asian shop or a good health food shop as they have a higher turnover of these items so their spices are freshest. Other mainstream outlets will tend to sell less and quality won’t be as good as these other options.

“Always, always look to buy small quantities often rather than bulk buying because freshness will always be an issue with large quantities—you don’t go off and buy 20 heads of lettuce. Ideally, buy no more than 20-30 gm so you are looking to buy loose spices, not pre-packed in jars or tins.

“Other than turmeric, don’t buy ground spice, as it will most likely not be fresh or have much flavour unless freshly ground from a very, very reputable source. Look for whole spices instead.

Trust your eyes and senses and look for fat, plump, bright, vibrant, rather than skinny, pallid, withered, dismal-looking, as these simply won’t have the beautiful essential oils. You’ll very soon learn to discern the difference like an expert because this isn’t rocket science.”

Storing spices

Always store in an airtight container, in a coolish environment and out of the light. Exposure to heat and light will degrade the quality of your spice. Store whole spices no longer than six to nine months and ground spices no longer than 2-3 months.

Preparing spices for cooking.

“€20-€25 will buy you a handy coffee grinder or a decent mortar and pestle and it’s one of the best investments you’ll ever make because the secret to cooking with spice is grinding as needed and no more than required.

A real bugbear of mine is the notion you need to roast or toast or fry spices before beginning to cook the actual dish. People think they are ‘bringing out the natural flavours’ of the spice, but in fact, you are changing the chemical composition and therefore its flavour, rounding it and losing a lot of the subtler high notes and bass notes compressing them all into the toasty middle.

That’s not a bad taste and there are times that that’s what you want, but be aware most of the time you would be losing a whole other world of flavour.”

Five spices to start with …

“Pepper, cumin, clove, coriander and nutmeg. Why no chilli, why no mustard seeds? I use those two in loads of dishes but this five gives you a whole range of flavour notes to tweak and tease out endless combinations.

Many people think of clove and nutmeg as only to be used in seasonal dishes, especially cakes and desserts but they can also be brilliant with dark red meats, — eg lamb, especially hogget, beef and even venison.

Start experimenting. Don’t be afraid of doing something wrong. Use tiny quantities as a little goes a long way and if you feel it needs more, you can add more but it’s much harder to remove an already ground spice from a bubbling stew.”

And five more to bring you to the next level …

“Green cardamom, star anise, vanilla, mustard seeds and fennel. These tend to be more perfumed and a little really does go a long way.

Cooking with spices

“If you are going to add spice at the start of the dish, for example, when frying onions and garlic, always hold a little back to pop in towards the end as you would green herbs and citrus to reinvigorate those higher flavour notes and aromas.

Spices for a sweet tooth

“Spices in sweet cooking are brilliant at cutting through overly rich tastes or sharpening up any cloying sweetness and generally adding clean finish to the taste. Good cream or butter will always taste well in a dessert but adding a spice or two takes it to a different level entirely.

I was doing a TV show with Paul Hollywood and I suggested he add cloves and black pepper to his classic black forest trifle. I got a strange look but when he tasted it, he was genuinely surprised and amazed at how it lifted the flavour.

The combination of fat and sugar is at the heart of most good desserts and cakes but it is a bit of a blunt instrument. Adding spice not only lifts those elements, but introduces an entirely new dimension.!”

* Fresh Spice by Arun Kapil, (Pavilion) www.greensaffron.com 

Chocolate Pot Aeval

Serves 4–6 450ml (16fl oz) double cream 100ml (3½fl oz) whole milk 20 black peppercorns 3 cloves, finely ground 5 gratings of nutmeg 100g (3½oz) dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), 150g (5½oz) milk chocolate (43% cocoa solids) 30g (1oz) salted butter 50g (1¾oz) light muscovado sugar 70g (2½oz) golden syrup 1 small pinch sea salt 4 large egg yolks 2 tsp Irish whiskey 2 tsp vanilla extract Preheat the oven to 140°C. Pour the cream and milk into a saucepan. Add the spices and cook over a low heat until bubbles just appear. Remove the pan from the heat and leave to infuse for 4–5 minutes.

Add the dark and milk chocolate and leave to stand for 1 minute, then use a balloon whisk to gently combine. Put the butter, sugar, syrup and salt in a small saucepan and heat gently over a low heat to dissolve.

Stir well, then allow to bubble for 30 seconds before turning off the heat. Tip this butterscotch mixture into the warm chocolate and whisk gently but thoroughly to combine.

Whisk the egg yolks, whiskey and vanilla, then add the chocolate-cream mixture and whisk gently to combine. Pour through a sieve into a individual serving dishes, ramekins or espresso cups. Discard the spices.

Put the ramekins into a baking dish or roasting tin and pour in warm water to come two-thirds of the way up sides of the dishes. Bake in the oven for 35–40 minutes until set. Leave to cool slightly, then serve with a little crème fraîche or soured cream.


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