Ink on my Apron: Seven Spice is all you need
Seven Spice is to Middle Eastern cuisine, what garam masala is to its heady Indian counterpart. A little sprinkle goes a long way and it calls for some dexterous handling. Go too heavy-handed and you risk an unpleasant degree of pungency but done right, it can be magic.
Do you miss things more when the end is closer in sight? The irony of this thought hasn’t been lost on me as I clear out my fridge and slowly wind down my life in Chennai for a week in Dubai. I’ve lived away from home for a little over two months now, and while the winds of change have been embraced on most counts, there are still times an inopportune craving for my mum’s ghee rice and mutton curry kicks in and punches me in the gut.
On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself amazed that not only have I come to terms with the fact that the average Indian supermarket doesn’t always have a dedicated chocolate aisle but I have also made my peace with this. Cadbury’s seems to have a strange sort of hold (read monopoly) over the market with a grand fridge stocking various “premium” riffs on Dairy Milk. If one wanted to change things up a little, a few bars of Five Star and Munch that stand sentry close to the cashier’s till prove to be a convenient and slightly more economical distraction.
My mother casually asks whether I miss the conveniences of life in the Middle East and seems surprised by my easy willingness to adapt. It’s hard to explain how us third-culture kids become adept at juggling worlds and people, while simultaneously being effortless creatures of our circumstances. You will go to any extent to ensure you aren’t caught out as the whiney out-of-towner - so while there will always be a part of you who secretly knows that nobody does a post-midnight shawarma quite like Beirut in Satwa, you’ll quickly find a worthy contender in Chennai at Zaitoon.
Along with a number of other quirks I have inherited, from my mother, a compulsive need to get into frantic cleaning mode, before folding up the house for a brief stint away. Stacks of neglected laundry are tended to, the house is aired, bed linen is folded into neat squares and the kitchen – centre of all activity – grinds to a slow standstill. For a week prior to my departure, I assess my stock of perishables, keen to integrate them into easybreezy weeknight meals. A lone carrot and red pepper(that has lost its perky crunch) are julienned and given a second lease of life as they’re tossed into a pot of instant noodles along with two eggs and a dash of soy sauce and oyster sauce. When confronted with a half-used tray of pre-cubed paneer, four overripe tomatoes prove to be the handy addition I need for a rich butter masala sauce. A defeated bunch of spinach leaves that seem to be holding on to the last vestiges of life are tossed into a mildy-spiced yellow curry with chickpeas and what better way to work my way through a two-litre carton of milk than with a very handy instant caramel pudding sachet that’s been stashed away for a rainy day.
I find my natural knack for repurposing thrown slightly off guard when a single chicken breast,long-forgotten eggplant and an avocado - that has frustratingly acquired the perfect ripeness at a lesser than convenient time – stare me in the face. My original plans for a meat and eggplant curry had been earlier abandoned and while red meat seems to always be the protein of choice when it comes to a pairing with this complex vegetable, I find myself instantly intrigued. A little rifle through my homemade spice cabinet helps me settle on my potent jar of Lebanese Seven Spice mix.
Seven Spice is to Middle Eastern cuisine, what garam masala is to its heady Indian counterpart. A little sprinkle goes a long way and it calls for some dexterous handling. Go too heavy-handed and you risk an unpleasant degree of pungency but done right, it can be magic. Like every proficient Indian home cook will tell you, nailing the right proportions of a tried-and-trusted home blend with varying aromatic components can be a task that is years in the making. That being said, for every fair share of unsuccessful stints, the day you realise you have struck a sweet spot is a triumph like no other.
Photograph courtesy Jehan Nizar
The name Seven Spice itself is one that lends itself to much debate as there is a school of people who swear that the real deal actually features eight spices – chiefly ground black pepper, cumin, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and dried ginger. A simple blitz in a spice grinder is all that’s required and the resultant powder can be stored in an airtight container for months on end.
In the spirit of all things Middle Eastern that are to come my way in a few days, I chose to treat myself to a cheeky tongue-teaser with a warm pan-fried chicken and eggplant salad with not much else to help it come along other than a bold garlic-infused butter bath and teaspoon of Seven Spice. The chicken is seared to perfection so as to retain its juices and the eggplant is readded to the mixture at the final stage, after an initial shallow frying. Served with unapologetic thick cucumber rounds and generously diced avocado, this is the perfect way to remind oneself that life goes on in the smooth interim that you’ve been away from a place you call home.
Recipe for Warm Middle Eastern Garlicky Seven Spice Chicken and Eggplant Salad
For the Warm Salad:
Eggplant, roughly cubed and marinated with a sprinkle of salt, black pepper and red chilli powder
Chicken breast, cut into strips and marinated with 1 tsp homemade Seven Spice powder, 1 tsp paprika and salt to taste
5 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp butter
Garlic, 9 cloves (halved)
Squeeze of lemon
1 cucumber, cut into thick rounds
1 avocado, diced
1. In a deep-bottomed pan or vessel, heat the olive oil. Shallow fry the cubed eggplant till light brown and remove from the pan. Place in a bowl lined with kitchen tissue to remove the excess oil.
2. Add the butter and allow it to melt. Add the garlic cloves and let them become light brown.
3. Add the chicken strips and sear, flipping from side to side, till done but ensure they still retain their juices.
4. Add a squeeze of lemon.
5. Readd the eggplant and give a quick toss. Remove from the heat.
6. To serve, plate the warm chicken and eggplant mixture with cucumbers and avocado and give a gentle stir to ensure the juices of the chicken infuse the vegetables and act as a dressing.
By Jehan Nizar, Lifestyle Features Writer and Food Blogger at inkonmyapron.com