I have to admit it. I am a serial spice buyer. I need to have them all. I cannot read about a spice and not have it. I want spices with the avidity of a collector.
There is a childish pleasure in rummaging through the messy closet that contains them all, in their unappealing plastic bags. At my mum’s home spices dwell in a neat, dedicated part of a drawer. Each of them is stored in a tiny tin or glass jar, collected over the years. Many spices have been there for ages, literally. I know my mum shares my fascination for spices, but quite frankly there is not that much room for spices in an Italian kitchen, so she buys them and they stay there until they grow tasteless. They have to fight for space with dried herbs, which my parents not only like, but also enjoy foraging themselves: one year I counted eight types of dried oregano, then there are wild juniper berries, myrtus, rosemary, sage, and let us not even start with caraway (which nobody likes, but is real fun to pick up). Now and again my mother will venture in a spiced recipe, with mixed outcomes: I still remember a vegetable strudel with coriander seeds she had read about somewhere. The coriander was whole, and it was the only spice, and it was a lot. I thought I hated coriander for years, and wondered how people could eat it. I did however like curry. I did not even know that curry was not ‘one’ spice. It came in jars, sometimes it was more pungent, others a bit bland, and it had the brightest colour. There was one dish we made with it: a Talismano dish with chicken and prawns cooked in coconut milk (we always used real coconut because you could not find canned coconut milk) and curry, served with ‘Indian rice’, o ‘riso all’indiana’ – which I was convinced referred to native Americans, for some reason, when I was a child.
When I moved out, one of my house mates had a love for Indian food. It was a fascination coming from friends who had travelled to India extensively; I never met them, but they were there every time he cooked. It is weird, when you think about it, how people influence other people’s lives in complex nets. When he’d cook he’d always add garam masala and a lot of chillies to the food he prepared, together with a lot of olive oil, making the result decidedly less Indian. We did not have that much kitchen space, between my equipment and his spices, so he built a spice carrier – it was a big basket precariously standing, always at a risk of falling and spreading spices everywhere. It never happened, for some weird miracle.
And I started to buy spices, being now the master of my own kitchen space, albeit limited, and with a more than encouraging companion. I travelled to Amsterdam and Paris and came back with a full rucksack. It was not yet clear to me that there is no need to buy spice mixes, which lose their flavours so quickly anyway. With the years I studied a bit, and of course reading about food on the internet does give you a different perspective. I discovered the basics that made the flavours of curry, one after the other: cumin, coriander seeds, asafoetida, turmeric… I discovered there are different curry mixes, and even ‘wet’ curry paste. My spices came with me every time when I moved, changing container every time, although they are now constrained in plastic bags. I don’t have enough space for jars. A few of them are in a more reachable position and in jars, because they are used more often: chilli, black pepper, cumin, mint, paprika, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom.
In the lat years a magic is happening. I am starting to finish my spices, and have to buy them again. My cumin is always fragrant and I have cooked my way almost through my stash of black cardamom. When I read a recipe of Ottolenghi, I have all the spices.
I did lack one of the spices called for this recipe (curry leaves!), but I’ll be soon off to buy it. I loved this flavourful curry, incredibly light, also because it does not use coconut milk, but shredded coconut, giving a distinctive coconut flavour while keeping the sauce light. I used dried coconut flakes and they worked really well. The other reason why I loved this particular curry is that it is made using sprouted mung beans. I am not familiar at all with mung beans, but in my recent wave of enthusiasm for sprouting I gave them a try, since they are very easy to spout, allegedly. Indeed they are. I follow more or less what I do for chickpeas: soak them for 8-12 hours, drain, keep in a plastic or glass container, rinsing them twice a day for a total of 48 hours, then wash, dry and store in the fridge until needed. Many recipes advise to keep them in a dark place but I did not find this necessary. Another motivation for turning to mung beans is this month’s ‘No crouton required‘ challenge, where the main theme is mung beans and adzuki. Lisa, of the always inspiring Lisa’s Kitchen, is hosting this month, and she allows for any dish to be submitted – this curry would probably count more as a casserole, I guess, than a soup or salad; it is perfect served with rice, and incredibly good cold, in a lunch box. I recommend going a bit heavier with the chillies than what you’d think – their kick is considerably mitigated in the mix.
Sprouted mung beans curry (from Show me the Curry)
200 gr mung beans, sprouted
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoon coriander seeds
3-4 dried red chillies, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida
30 gr dried coconut flakes
To garnish: chopped cilantro, lime juice
Heat half the oil in your pressure cooker or in another pan. Add mustard seed, stirring. When they start to pop, add fenugreek, peppercorn and coriander. Roast for 30 seconds, then add chillies and roast for another minute, always stirring. Add the dried coconut and mix well. Set in a blender container (I used a hand blender, and it worked).
Heat the remaining oil, add in the asafoetida and turmeric, then the chopped onion. Cook until the onions are soft and golden. Add to the spices, add about 100 ml of water and blend everything together until there are no obvious whole seeds around. Add more water if needed. Add salt, taste and adjust. You can add some extra chilli powder now if you like.
In the same pan or in your pressure cooker add the sprouted mung beans and the onion and spice mixture, and top up with water if needed. The beans should have a runny sauce but not be covered in water at all. Cook for about ten minutes in the pressure cooker or half an hour without it. The beans should be cooked but by no means overcooked. Adjust salt. Garnish with cilantro and lime juice, to taste.