On The Nutmeg Trail – The Ticket to Spice – Eleanor Ford’s latest cookbook – The Nutmeg Trail – is a triumph. This culinary journey along the ancient spice routes is interwoven with fabulous recipes and stories. It’s a veritable pilgrimage, a culinary exploration of spice, showcasing how centuries of spice trading and cultural diffusion have influenced and changed the world’s cuisine. It really is a superb book for anyone, like me, who enjoys experimenting with different spices. And what a spice journey it is: through Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Iran, and the Emirates.
Following the ancient spice trail, Eleanor (who lives in the UK but has lived in Indonesia and Hong Kong) showcases the different elements of spice through her recipes. Salty, gingery, fiery, fragrant, floral – you name it, she’s covered it! The book combines historical research with a travel writer’s eye and a cook’s nose for a memorable recipe – and having tried some of the recipes myself, I can vouch for her ability to tempt those taste buds but also provide a workable and delicious result. Eleanor is an award-winning food writer, and this is her third book. The Nutmeg Trail is published by Murdoch Books at £25 for a beautifully illustrated hardback. Here are a couple of vegetarian recipes from the book – but there are lots of wonderful meat and fish dishes too.
Cashew Nut & Lemongrass Curry (Serves: 4–6 as a side)
“The cashew tree, with its extraordinary-looking rainbow fruit and hanging curved seeds we erroneously call nuts, is a member of the sumac family. Native to Brazil, it was brought to Goa by the Portuguese in the 1560s, from where it spread to become a staple of South Asian cookery. In curries, the nuts are often ground into silky sauces, but in this rich and delightful Sri Lankan dish they get star billing: soft, sweet, and plump with coconut milk.
There is a similarity between this and the Garlic clove curry (page 189), however, the flavour profile is different. Here, fresh stems of lemongrass bring out the slight citrusy notes of both curry leaves and cinnamon, where they sit behind its more obvious sweet warmth.”
250g (1 2/3 cups) raw cashews
1 tablespoon ghee or neutral oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1.5cm (5/8 inch) ginger, peeled and minced (1½ teaspoons)
10 fresh curry leaves
400ml (1½ cups) coconut milk
1 scant teaspoon of fine sea salt
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 lemongrass sticks, bruised
2 green finger chillies, split lengthways
1 cinnamon stick
12cm (4½ inch) pandan leaf (optional)
Soak the cashew nuts in a bowl of water for at least 1 hour, or overnight. Drain and rinse.
Heat the oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Fry the onion until softened and just starting to turn golden. Add the garlic, ginger and curry leaves and cook for a few minutes, until fragrant.
Add the cashews to the pan along with the coconut milk, salt, and turmeric. Drop in the lemongrass, chillies, cinnamon and pandan, pushing them beneath the surface to infuse their flavours into the creamy sauce. Bring to a simmer, then cook on a low heat, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Eat with: Rice, other curries, and a pickle to cut the sweet richness
Royal Saffron Paneer (Serves 4)
“Mughal kitchens must have been exquisite places, the air scented with the saffron, flower waters and cardamom used to suffuse their rich, creamy foods. Here is a derivative of one of the courts’ most celebrated dishes, silky-soft morsels of fresh cheese cloaked in a sumptuous, sweetly spiced tomato cream with the merest thread of heat. Delicate and divine.”
1 teaspoon Kashmiri chilli powder, plus extra to serve
1 teaspoon grated jaggery or sugar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
450g (1lb) paneer
1/4 teaspoon saffron strands
1 teaspoon rose water or kewra (screwpine) water
125ml (1/2 cup) thick (double) cream
Heat the oil in a pan and cook the onion until soft and golden. Add the tomatoes, cardamom, cloves, turmeric, and chilli powder. Season with jaggery and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the paneer into bite-sized cubes and put it in a bowl. Pour over boiling water, cover and set aside for 10 minutes to soften. (There is no need to soak if you are using homemade paneer.)
Toast the saffron in a dry pan for just a few moments, you want to wake it up not scorch it. Tip into a small bowl and crush to a powder with the back of a spoon. Add a tablespoon of hot water and leave to infuse.
When you are ready to serve, drain the paneer and add it to the hot pan of spiced tomato. Simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in the saffron infusion, rose water and all but a dribble of the cream. Warm through.
Serve with the reserved cream, white dripped lacily on saffron yellow, and a red dusting of chilli powder.
Eat with: Roti or paratha and other Indian dishes.