Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend
Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

This five-spice mix forms the backbone of Uyghur cuisine – at least that part of it that deals with roast meats.  Variations of this mix are used to flavor many Uyghur dishes, with other ingredients – salt, garlic, onions, etc., added to the mix as needed.

The flavor of the Uyghur five-spice blend is robust and smoky with light spicy bites from the Sichuan peppercorns, and the effect it has on roast meats is phenomenal.  Feel free to use it on kebabs and roasts like the Uyghurs do, or just on regular old steaks like I do.  My kids love when I use it on beef and lamb, and miss it when I don’t.

It has a great deal in common with other five-spice mixes from East Asia, and also with some of the masalas from the Himalayas – especially those from Tibet and Nepal.   (To read a post about the variations in these spice mixes, follow this link.)  In fact it is sort of a combination of both sets of spices.  With the east, it shares Sichuan pepper and star anise, and with the Himalayan masalas it shares black peppercorns and black cardamom.  Interestingly, the base of the Uyghur five-spice blend is made up of roasted cumin, which is found in abundance with Western and Southern Asian spice mixes.  So once again, the Uyghur recipe blends ingredients from across the Silk Road with unique results.

As to chili peppers, there are a number of them used in Uyghur cooking that range from mild to blazing hot.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any of these in the US, and thus turned to the familiar and widely available Japone. If you can find Sichuan chilis, these are a good moderately-hot substitute for Uyghur chilis.

I need to stress that there is no set recipe for these mixes.  They vary by region, city or even by household, depending upon individual and familial tastes.  That said, however, the roasted cumin is always there as are the Sichuan peppercorns to some degree or another.  The smokiness, however, can sometimes come from black cumin instead of black cardamom, and sometimes I have had versions that distinctly had cinnamon as part of the mix.  Here’s my favorite blend:

1/4 cup cumin seeds
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
10 dried red chilies (Japones will work but Sichuan is best)
Seeds from 4-5 black cardamom pods
3-4 star anise pods (pieces are fine)

Dry roast spices separately until fragrant (do not scorch or burn)
Grind together

Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes #3: Domingos Rodrigues

Arte de Cozhina
Arte de Cozinha

Take a step back in time from the English (Hannah Glasse) and American (Mary Randolph) versions of Indian curry that we have examined and explore a 17th Century Portuguese version of a Goan fish curry. The recipe comes from Arte de Cozinha by Domingos Rodrigues and was first published in Lisbon in 1680.

Rodrigues was a cook for the royal household of Portugal who lived from 1637 to 1719, and Arte de Cozhina was the first important cookbook published in Portuguese and was reprinted many times since its initial publication. My copy is a facsimile of the 1732 edition, but I checked the curry recipe against versions on the internet from 1680 and there is no change between the editions.

The recipe was written a full hundred years before Glasse’s curry and it is indeed a very different dish. For starters, this curry is really just a robust sauce or relish to be spooned over poached fish or meat that sit atop salted rice. It is not fish or meat cooked in lots of sauce until tender that is then eaten with plain or flavored rice. It also calls for a large amount of rice. In short, the proportion of meat, sauce and rice in Rodrigues’ curry are different from many curries today. Certainly this is true for those eaten in the west or in those served in international restaurants. However, “curry” as a sauce for rice with only a bit of meat or vegetable is commonly eaten in modern home meals and also in food market stalls on the subcontinent and in the Indo Pacific.

The original recipe reads:

Caril para qualquer peixe

Afogadas duas cebolas bem picadas em uma quarta de manteiga de vaca, deitem-lhe uns poucos de camaroes, ou amêijoas, com o leite de uma quarta de amêndoas e, cozendo-se tudo até que fique um tanto grosso, tempere-se de adubos. Feito isto, coza-se meio arrátel de arroz em água e sal, ponha-se no prato e, sobre ele, algumas postas de peixe que quiserem, cozidas em água, e deite-se por cima o caril. Deste modo se faz também caril para carne, mas nao leva marisco.

A liberal and functional translation of this is:

Curry for any fish

Sauté two minced onions in one fourth of unsalted cow’s butter. Add a few shrimp or clams along with the milk from one fourth of almonds and cook until the sauce has reduced a bit. Season with spices. Cook a half pound of rice in salted water. When the rice is done put it on a plate. On top of the rice place some poached fish and spoon or pour the sauce over the fish and rice. Works well with meat, but not for seafood.

Written in a modern form, the recipe looks like this. (Please note that I made some changes to the original recipe, such as reducing the amount of butter and almond milk used. Other choices are discussed below.)

Domingos Rodrigues’ Fish Curry

2 sticks unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions, minced
10 shrimp, peeled, deveined and diced
1 -1½ cups unsweetened almond milk
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons black peppercorns, lightly crushed
2 green or finger-hot chilies, chopped
1-3 teaspoons malt vinegar

6-7 dry red chilis (Kashmiri are best)
3 tablespoons coriander seed
3 teaspoons cumin seed
2-inch piece of ginger, chopped
8-10 cloves of garlic
2-4 tablespoons finely ground coconut
2 ½ teaspoons tamarind concentrate
Water as needed to make a paste

Fish Poach
2-3 mild fish: croaker, pomfret, or cod
Water in medium-to-large sauté pan to cover fish
½ teaspoon salt
½ onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
1-2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon whole, black peppercorns

Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. When butter is melted and warmed, add onion and sauté until they start to become translucent. Add the diced shrimp or clams and stir well. When the shrimp have colored and cooked, add the almond milk and stir well.

As the curry sauce warms, prepare the masala. You will need to stir the curry sauce from time to time as you prepare the masala. Individually dry roast the chili peppers, coriander seeds and cumin seeds and set aside. Put all of the ingredients of the masala into a blender (you can pound it if you really want to), and add about 1/4 cup of water to start. Grind until you have a smooth paste, adding water in small amounts as needed for consistency.

Prepare the rice (I used basmati) in salted water any way you wish. Pour enough water in a large sauté pan to cover the fish, but do not yet place the fish in the water. Season the water with salt, onions, white vinegar and peppercorns, cover, and bring water to a boil.

Add the masala paste to the curry sauce and stir well. Cook over medium-low heat for at least 15 minutes to integrate the spices into the sauce. When garlic and spices are cooked, finish the sauce with a bit of salt, peppercorns, diced green chili peppers and malt vinegar.

When the poaching water has boiled, uncover and reduce heat. Slide the fish steaks into the water, cover and reheat to a medium-to-high simmer. Do not boil. Cook fish for 5-8 minutes (less is better) and when done, remove from sauté pan to drain before setting atop the rice. When sauce is done, spoon over fish and rice in the amount desired. Tuck in for a delicious dish.


A Curry for any Fish from Arte de Cozinha
A Curry for any Fish from Arte de Cozinha


As you can see, there is a great deal of room for creativity on the part of the cook and variation in the dish with the direction from the original recipe which reads, “season with spices”. To determine which spices to use, I consulted some modern Goan recipes for fish curry and constructed a recipe based on these. Of course, by 1680, the Portuguese had extended their presence in India beyond the Malabar Coast to Sri Lanka and up to Bengal in the northeast, but I chose to construct the curry based on Goan recipes simply because that was the “capital” of the Portuguese trading empire on the subcontinent, and the cuisine still bears the mark of their colonization.

Another thing that figured into the choice of Goan spices was the description of Goan curried fish by 16th Century Dutch traveler Jan Huyghen van Linschoten. Huyghen, who was Secretary to the Archbishop of Goa from 1583 – 1589, wrote: “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sour, as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well, and is called Carriel, which is their daily meat.”

With this description, I felt good about using a lot of tamarind for sourness, and also decided to prepare the water that the fish is poached in slightly, as Huyghen calls it a “broth”. Many historical recipes do not mention doing this, but most cooks do it. It is one of those unspoken directions that can subtly change the flavor of a dish. My additions were simple. I just added a bit of white vinegar in the water to help maintain the consistency of the fish, some cracked peppercorns and a few slices of onion.

I felt justified in using lots of chili peppers, as these had been eagerly adopted from the Portuguese by the Goans and Kanarese in the very early 16th Century. By the time Rodrigues was writing, chilies had long been naturalized on the subcontinent. I did omit the tomatoes found in many modern Goan curries, because this fruit was not embraced by the Indians until the mid 19th-to-early 20th Century.

Coconut can be found in most modern Goan curries as part of the masala, but it is also mentioned in the 1563 edition of, Conversations on the Simples, Drugs and Medicinal Substances of India, by the Portuguese physician living in Goa, Garcia de Orta. Orta wrote, “With this Coquo pounded they make a sort of milk, and cook rice with it, and it is like rice boiled in goat’s milk. They make dishes with it of birds and meat, which they call Caril.”

Map of the World, 1510
Map of the World, 1510

The choice of fish was a bit challenging. I initially cooked this dish with mackerel, but found the strong flavor of the fish to pull against the spicy, sour flavor of the curry sauce. The second time I tried the dish, I went with a milder fish called an Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus). The fish were caught locally and were very fresh when cooked, which was a positive factor in my decision-making process. The croaker worked well with the curry, and I recommend it or any other mild fish with this recipe.

A word about measurement. The original recipe uses the measurement, “one fourth” for butter and the amount of almonds used to make almond milk. I based the amount I used for each on the quartillo – the measurement used in many contemporaneous Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican recipes. The quartillo is equal to one pint. I couldn’t bring myself to use 1 pound of butter and so reduced this by half. Its possible that the “one fourth” refers to one quarter of a pound instead of the quartillo. It is difficult to tell.

Lastly, I found the use of almond milk interesting, and wonder if that was not Rodrigues substitution in lieu of coconut milk, which Garcia de Orta noted was of, “poor quality” in the Portuguese homeland.

Other interpretations of this dish are clearly possible given the great latitude for seasoning that Rodrigues’ recipe offers. I made my choices and was clear about why I made them, but recognize that other permutations are possible. The recipe as written is a mixture of hot, spicy and sour which works well with fish. There are titles of other curries in Arte de Cozhina – a Flounder Curry and a Lamb Curry. Alas these are just titles without ANY ingredients or method and like ideal forms will remain just out of reach.

I hope you enjoy these “Through Foreign Eyes” historical curry recipes. I enjoy researching, cooking, and writing about them because they allow one to travel in both space AND time. For example, given Rodrigues’ position as royal cook, this dish could have been served at a royal banquet. Close your eyes and you can hear the light clink of the silver and quiet conversations as the lords and ladies enjoy their special meal. (Words, translation and interpretation of historical recipe, and photographs by Laura Kelley. Special thanks to Adam B. for pointing out this recipe to me.  Thanks to Rachael L. for information about the quartillo.)

N.B. You can purchase almond milk in most supermarkets, but If you would like to make your own it is very simple to do. Place peeled almonds and water in a 1:2 ratio (i.e. 1 cup almonds, 2 cups water) in a bowl and soak at least overnight. The longer the almonds soak, the less gritty the resulting almond milk will be. When almonds are done soaking, strain them and discard the soaking water. Add new water in the same 1:2 nuts-to-water proportion and blend until smooth. For additional smoothness strain through a fine sieve or moist cheesecloth and refrigerate until needed.

No Cuisine is an Island #1: An Indian Shellfish Curry

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce
Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

The booksigning at the Smithsonian went well. Actually it went very well – we sold and signed all but two of the books purchased for the event. I also really enjoyed meeting people and discussing the book with them. I was pleased to see that people were most interested in the book’s message that cuisines are interconnected, and how dishes we think of as cornerstones of national cuisines actually contain ingredients from all over the world.

To that end, I thought that a demonstration of how globally-sourced ingredients were combined for one of my favorite subcontinental dishes was in order. The recipe is for a delicious sweet, spicy, hot and sour shellfish that will amaze you. The recipe and description are followed by an analysis of ingredients and their origins. What seems like and Indian or subcontinental dish has connections to five continents and many more nations. It is truly global, and should be savored by all.

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

1 pound shrimp, peeled, rinsed and deveined, or
1 pound sea or bay scallops
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon mustard or other seed oil
2 tablespoons peanut or light sesame oil
2-3 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
4-5 hot, dried, red chili peppers, torn or chopped
1 large onion peeled, sliced, and separated into crescents
3-4 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup of water to moisten (more if needed)
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
1 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 teaspoon tamarind paste dissolved into 2–3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plain yogurt
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (20–30 sprigs)
¼ teaspoon Indian Garam Masala

1. Shuck and devein shrimp or prepare scallops and place into a bowl with the cayenne pepper, turmeric, and a pinch of salt. Stir well, cover, and set aside for at least 1 hour.
2. Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and when hot, sauté the fennel seeds for a minute or two. Remove from heat and let sit while shrimp or scallops marinate in the spices.
3. When almost ready to cook, reheat oil and add the mustard seeds and chili peppers and sauté for a minute. The mustard seeds may pop as the warm up, so you may wish to cover the pan, and shake to move contents. When done, remove from heat and let sit for five minutes.
4. Warm the sauté pan with the fennel and mustard seeds up again and add the onions and garlic. Stir and fry until the onions turn translucent and start to turn golden.
5. Add water to moisten. When water is warm, put in the cumin, coriander, and tomato and mix well. Cook 3–5 minutes to fully warm the spices.
6. Add tomato sauce, tamarind, lemon juice mixture, and salt. Cook to warm and add yogurt and cilantro leaves. Cover and gently cook for 15 minutes. Add garam masala and mix well. (The recipe can be paused here to allow other dishes to finish.)
7. If paused, reheat curry base and add shrimp and cook for 3–5 minutes or until shrimp are fully cooked. Serve immediately with rice or bread.

Now, here comes the fun part. The map below depicts where the ingredients from this dish hail from. Lines terminate only in rough geographic areas, not on specific places:

Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map of Ingredients Source
Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map

The only ingredients that originate in India are black pepper, cardamom and cinnamon, and they are all in the garam masala used to finish the dish. Important certainly, but in this dish, almost an afterthought. Turmeric may also originate on the subcontinent, but no one is sure whether that is the case, or whether it arose in Southeast Asia and was adopted in antiquity by the Indians.

From South America there are chili peppers, and peanuts in the peanut oil, and from North America there is the tomato, and possibly the cayenne pepper. From North Africa (Southern Mediterranean) there is black mustard seed in the mustard oil, and from East Africa there is the lovely, sour tamarind pod. From Southern Europe there is fennel and yellow mustard seed and from Asia minor there is coriander or cilantro. Onions and garlic probably hail from Central Asia (Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan) because that is where most of the genetic diversity in Allium species is found, and cumin is Western Asia’s gem, which has been flavoring dishes from ancient Mesopotamia to today.

Cloves and nutmeg used to round out the garam masala of course come from Indonesia’s Moluccas, and the dish is usually served on rice which comes from China’s Pearl River valley, but it can also be enjoyed with bread, or potatoes from the New World.

All of these ingredients made their way to India through movement of people and ideas or through trade and conquest. Some ingredients arrived deep in prehistory, and some are relative newcomers which only arrived in the middle or late centuries in the last millennium. The Silk Road was an important part of the spread of these ingredients and in the forging of links between cuisines and cultures.

To some degree, we tend to think of the world’s borders and biodiversity much as we find them today, but a simple exercise like this shows us that this is not really the case at all, and it hasn’t been the case throughout much of human history. With apologies to locally-sourced aficionados, eating-locally is a relatively modern concept when compared to the global nature of most dishes.

Cultures combine ingredients differently, but most cuisines include ingredients from places beyond their national borders. Each bite connects us with the past and with the people who often travelled great distances to bring variety home. Diversity is a wonderful concept, appreciate it the next time you enjoy a delicious curry or stew or koresh or bhaji or braise or . . . (Words and ingredient analysis by Laura Kelley; Photo of Shrimp or Scallops with Spicy Tomato Sauce by Celeste Heiter; Map of Ingredients drawn by Laura Kelley).

Flowers that Have Changed the World of Food # 3: Cloves

“And somewhere near India is the island containing the Valley of the Cloves.  No merchants or sailors have ever been to the valley or have seen the kind of tree that produces cloves:  its fruit, they say, is sold by genies . . . the islanders feed on them, and they never fall ill or grow old.”

Summary of Marvels  (Ibrahim ibn Wasif-Shah, ca. 1000 CE)

From Indonesia’s Moluccas (Maluku) Islands to the rest of the world come the tiny but powerful flowerbuds we know as cloves.  More accurately, cloves are flowerbuds from the Syzygium aromaticum tree that are picked before opening and dried in the sun until they resemble the little reddish-brown batons used in most of the world’s cuisines.  Mentioned in the Indian Ramayana by the 5th or 4th century BCE (but possibly as early as the 10th Century BCE) and in later Sanskrit medical texts (Charaka Samhita) from the 1st Century BCE wherein they were recommended along with nutmeg to freshen the breath, these little blasts of bittersweet peppery flavor that we know today for their ability to energize other spices was first used for its aroma and as a medicinal ingredient.* **

Cloves Dried and in Flower

Maluku natives and other Indonesians smoked cloves and used them to treat stomach ailments, but did not use cloves in cooking.  These medicinal and aromatic uses were exported as the clove trade began in antiquity.  The Han Chinese used it as a breath freshener to mask the scent of tooth decay and halitosis and used cloves in perfumes and incense.  Additional medicinal uses in China and India included chewing cloves as a dental anesthetic or using an external rub of clove oil as a general analgesic or to lessen the pain of rheumatism.

Aromatic and Medicial Uses of Cloves

It is unclear when cloves started to be used as a culinary spice.  It is used in modern five-spice powders and garam-masalas, but there is little but unreferenced and contradictory information about the antiquity of its use in these culinary mixtures.  In the west, by the time of Pliny the Elder, the clove was still used as an aromatic perfume (NH 12.15), and there is also no mention of the culinary use of cloves in the 4th century ACE Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome.  In the 6th and 7th century Byzantine writings of Kosmas Indicopleustes and Paulus Aegineta, cloves are still used for their scent and clove oil used topically as medicine.

There are intermediate uses of cloves as both medicine and culinary spice in 9th Century Europe at the Carolingian monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, where monks used cloves to season their fasting fish (Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, 1877; viii, 121) along with pepper and cinnamon and several other indigenous plants and herbs.  In the 10th Century, Andalusian traveller Ibrâhîm ibn Ya`qûb notes that the burghers of Mainz (Germany) used cloves to season their food.

Ingredients for Baharat

Also in the 10th Century, it appears in The Book of Dishes by Ibn Nasr ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, listed as an aromatic along with musk, ambergris, and rosewater.  In this 10th Century tome, it is used along with purslane in a peach drink and in a relish of crumbs, raisins, vinegar and spices.

By the 13th Century, the acceptance of cloves as a culinary spice is widespread. In the 13th Century Andalusian Cookbook translated by Charles Perry, cloves are used in Ahrash, a type of lamb-burger, Mirkâs a cheese-based sausage; Sweetened Mukhallal a meat stew topped with beaten eggs; Madhûna, a baked chicken dish, a stuffed lamb breast; and an egg-based sausage, as well as several other dishes.

Also in the 13th Century, in the Book of Dishes by al-Baghdadi, cloves are used in the recipe Hummadiyya to flavor meatballs and the broth they cook in along with cinnamon, coriander, ginger, and pepper.

Kyrgyz Bal

Although I cannot yet prove my suspicions, my intuition tells me that that Arabs might have been the first to use cloves as a culinary spice and that this was spread to Europe with the conquest of Andalusia and Catalonia in 711 and throughout the known Islamic World during the Abbasid Caliphate, beginning in 750.

Called kutakaphalah in Sanskrit, qaranful in Arabic or karyphyllon in ancient Greek (as well as cengkeh in North Moluccan Malay), it is now hard to imagine the culinary world without cloves.  What would any of the eastern Asian five-spice powders be without cloves, or the subcontinental garam-masalas, not to mention Arab baharat, Moroccan Ras-el-hanout, Tunisian gâlat dagga and Ethiopian berbere?  Thailand’s Massuman Curry is also clove laden as are the many spice rubs used on kebabs in central and western Asia, and cloves are a major constituent in my favorite Central Asian spice tea bal.

Bal is a ubiquitous Kyrghyz hot drink served to welcome guests, with meals, and almost any time in between. It is a hot peppery tea made of boiled spices sweetened with honey that is delicious – especially on colder days. Although not enjoyed cold in Kyrghyzstan, it also makes an exotic iced tea drink as well.

4 cups water
2 teaspoon ginger, peeled grated and minced
1 stick cinnamon, lightly crushed
10 whole cloves, lightly crushed
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons honey

Boil water until it has reached a rolling boil. Add spices and return to a boil. Lower heat and cover. Simmer for 10 minutes then remove from flame and let steep another 10-15 minutes. Strain into teapot or serving vessel. Stir in honey until completely dissolved.

In today’s world, we primarily use cloves in the kitchen, but still have medicinal and aromatic uses for them. In Indonesia, they are still used to flavor kretet or clove cigarettes. Interestingly, modern science is also investigating cloves for their antimicrobial properties (Yukawa et al., 1996; Kurokawa, et al., 1995) and finding that cloves have both good antiviral and antifungal activity in vitro. In antiquity, empires were built on them and men were enslaved and died for them. Remember that and more the next time you throw a bag or a bottle of cloves into your basket at the market. (Words and Research by Laura Kelley; Special thanks to Charles Perry for pointing out the use of cloves in the 10th and 13th Century recipes.  Photo of Dried Cloves from Wikiemedia; Photo of Clove Flowers by Timothy Motley; Photo of Kyrgyz Bal by Baby Kato).

Flowers that Have Changed the World of Food #1: Orchids
Flowers that Have Changed the World of Food #2: Saffron

* (Some claim that archaeological evidence of the use of cloves has been found at ancient Mesopotamian sites. This evidence (a jar purported to contain cloves) comes from excavations at the ancient city of Terqa, Syria (modern Ashara) on the middle Euphrates that dates to 1760-1600 BCE. However, the scholarly community is divided about whether the contents of the jar is actually cloves. With multiple trading “middlemen”, it is not out of the question that ancient Mesopotamians could have used cloves. Their presence in a scribal area could be for purposes of initial or early description. Until definitive evidence is produced, however, such as mass-spec or other type of constituent analyses, I am hanging back on saying these are cloves.)

** (Older scholarly documents (IH Burkill etc) and the internet are awash in references to a 3rd Century Chinese text that mentions cloves, but my perusal of Shen Nong Bao Cai Jing and several other turn of the millenia medical texts finds no mention of cloves at this time).