When I tasted cumin for the first time, it felt like a whole world was opening up before me. There was something familiar about its earthiness, yet that fragrant, almost astringent note was wholly new and surprising.
I was around 11 years old when my mother and I were visiting Cape Town for the summer. Sandra, my mother’s close and oldest friend, took us to the theatre with dinner afterwards at a Turkish restaurant called Anatoli’s. Famished, we arrived late, only to be told that the kitchen had closed. Luckily our waiter said we could still choose from an array of entrées behind the counter. Relieved, we piled taramasalata, olives and freshly baked flat breads onto our plates, followed by two glossy aubergines, stuffed with minced lamb. I remember how they sat there unclaimed and all alone in a stainless steel tray. We were lucky to get them in time, as it was these beauties that contained the magical ingredient. Like a genie whisking me off on a magic carpet ride, cumin took hold of me and hasn’t let go ever since. After that first glorious taste, I wolfed down that aubergine, blissfully unaware what that evocative flavour actually was.
Then, seven years later I was visiting my friend Kate at her lovely little house in Bathurst. Kate loves to visit India and she was regaling me with her adventures as a solo traveller while cooking up a cabbage pickle with what was left in her pantry. Blithely throwing some nondescript seeds into the pan, I asked her what spices she was using and she said: “Cumin”. After tasting her pickle, it all fell into place. This is what that mysterious ingredient was!
Apart from garlic and lemons, cumin is the most important seasoning in my kitchen. It is one of the star ingredients of a homemade garam marsala, which I use with almost everything. My favourite everyday dishes include butternut and sweet potato soup with cumin and lamb kebabs marinated in yoghurt and cumin seeds that have been dry roasted and ground in a spice grinder. Food writer extraordinaire Elizabeth David describes how her life changed while working as a war correspondent in Alexandria and Cairo in the 1940s. “In my turn I fell under the spell of the beautiful food of the Levant – the warm flat bread, the freshly pressed tomato juice, the charcoal-grilled lamb, the oniony salads, the mint and yoghurt sauces, the sesame seed paste, the pistachios and the pomegranates and the apricots, the rose water and the scented sweetmeats, and everywhere the warm spicy smell of cumin.” Cumin perfectly embodies what she called one of the “Arabian Nights ingredients”.
Cumin is a tiny seed that really packs a punch, especially in dishes containing liquid, where they swell up and really make their presence known. It is important to use just the right amount in a dish, as too much can leave a bitter aftertaste. My chickpea and apricot pilaf doesn’t use a huge amount of cumin but the flavours all blend together so well that it shines through brilliantly. It’s a splendid dish for a party, especially if vegetarians have been invited. I have been asked to make it many times, even having to knock it together at the last minute when my mother under-catered.
Chickpea and apricot pliaf
2 tins of chickpeas or 3 cups pre-soaked and cooked
2 cups of brown Basmati rice, uncooked
200g dried Turkish apricots, soaked in warm water
Two large onions, sliced thinly into half moons
2 ripe English tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and chopped
100g sliced almonds, toasted
Full cream yoghurt, to serve
Fresh coriander, chopped, to serve
1 and 1/2 tsp Himalayan pink salt
2 T whole rice spice
2 T cold pressed coconut oil
Dash of white wine vinegar
½ tsp yellow mustard seeds
3 white cardamom pods, seeds removed and pounded in a mortar and pestle
¾ tsp whole cumin seed
½ tsp whole coriander seed
1 and 1/2 tsp garlic and ginger puree
1 tsp ground turmeric
Chopped fresh chilli, to taste
½ tsp garam marsala or mild curry powder
3 T mango chutney
Soak the apricots in warm water before you begin. Add rice and cold water to a small pot, along with the turmeric, rice spice and Himalayan salt. Boil until the water has evaporated, switch off the heat and steam with the lid on.
Dry roast the cumin and coriander seeds in a cast iron frying pan without oil until fragant. Set aside. Pound the coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle.
Preheat a wok or cast iron pot while you slice the onions. Sauté the onions in coconut oil along with the cumin and coriander seeds. Add the chilli, ginger/garlic paste and the pounded cardamom seed and stir. Then add a dash of white vinegar and reduce. Drain the apricots and slice into strips. Add the mustard seeds to the pan until they begin to pop. Then add the diced tomatoes, garam marsala, chickpeas, mango chutney and the apricots, as well as ½ tsp Himalayan salt. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, adding a dash of water if it gets too dry.
When the sauce is sticky and luscious, turn down the heat and add the still warm rice with two wooden spoons, taking care to amalgamate the two without breaking the grains of rice too much. Allow to braise for about 5 minutes, stirring to prevent too much sticking to the bottom of the pan. Turn off the heat and allow to steam for 10-15 minutes.
Serve with seasoned full cream yoghurt dolloped on top and sprinkled with coriander leaves and toasted almonds.