One-pot lamb and quinoa biryani. Photo: William Meppem
There aren't many foods that are as well-travelled as spices. Seafaring trade routes took them from their origins in India and south-east Asia and scattered them around the world, from European court tables to African outposts. For a set of ingredients that reach as far and wide as spices do, it pays to think of them a little more elegantly than just whacking them into a spicy "curry".
I was born in Malaysia and the food I grew up with was peppered - pardon the pun - with anise, cinnamon, cumin, coriander and many more aromatic elements. Spices bring warmth, complexity and character, and they can be worked into just about any cuisine.
Malaysia's popular curry puffs take inspiration from Indian origins, but I like to think of them as spices coming home to where they were first grown. Even a classic Indian biryani is not so different in its construction to a Jordanian upside-down maqluba. If spices can make themselves fit in all over the world, there's surely a space for them in your kitchen.
Cheat's Samosas. Photo: William Meppem
Good cooking should enhance the flavours of ingredients but cooks often use spices to hide the flavour of ingredients that have been ruined. Who hasn't had the displeasure of a rubbery, bland chicken breast that tastes of little else than the jarring mix of spices it's smothered in?
Used elegantly and appropriately, spices bring warmth, complexity and character.
Moderation is the key. Cooking should always focus on good ingredients cooked well with any spices used as accents only. Just think of them as the bow tie, not the whole tuxedo.
Baba's meat curry powder is a staple in many Malaysian homes for its fragrant sweet spices, but you can easily substitute any curry powder you like.
• 2 tbsp vegetable oil
• 1 large brown onion, peeled and finely chopped
• 1 cup potato, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
• 1 cup sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
• 1 cup frozen green peas
• ½ tsp salt
• 2 tbsp Baba's meat curry powder (or your favourite curry powder)
• 4 sheets puff pastry
• 1 egg, beaten
• Coriander raita (to serve with both the samosas and the biryani)
• ½ cup finely chopped coriander
• 2 cups Greek yoghurt
• juice of ½ a lemon
• ¼ tsp salt
• ¼ tsp cumin powder
• a pinch of sugar
• 1 large green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the onion, potato and sweet potato for a minute or so until the ingredients start to soften. Add ¾ cup of water and continue to cook for about 10 minutes until the water evaporates and the potatoes are soft. Add the peas, salt and curry powder and cook for 2-3 minutes more. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Adjust for seasoning.
For the coriander raita, combine the ingredients together and keep in the refrigerator until needed.
Heat your oven to 190°C. Cut the pastry into quarters and place a large spoon of the filling in the centre of each.
Brush the pastry with egg and fold into rectangular parcels, pushing the filling into the corners and crimping the edges with a fork. Brush the top of each pastry with more beaten egg and place on a lined baking tray. Repeat for all the remaining filling.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. Allow to cool slightly and serve with a little of the coriander raita, reserving the rest for the biryani.
One-pot lamb and quinoa biryani
Biryani doesn't need to be as complicated as it looks. Here's a simple one-pot version that's full of flavour.
• 1 cup yoghurt
• 4 cloves garlic, crushed
• 1 tbsp grated ginger
• 2 tbsp garam masala
• 1 tsp turmeric
• 1/2 tsp chilli powder
• 1kg lamb leg, cut into 5cm pieces
• ¼ cup vegetable oil
• 1/2 cup cashew nuts
• 5 brown onions, finely sliced
• 1 cinnamon quill
• 1 tsp salt
• 2 cups basmati rice
• 1 cup mixed quinoa
• 2 potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
• 1 1/2 cups milk
• a pinch of saffron
• 1/2 cup sultanas
• 50g butter
• coriander leaves and 1 cup coriander raita (see samosa recipe) to serve
Combine the yoghurt, garlic, ginger, garam masala, turmeric, chilli and lamb pieces and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
Heat oil in a large casserole dish over medium heat and fry the cashews until golden brown.
Remove cashews and set aside.
Fry the onions until golden brown. Remove onions and set aside.
Add the lamb to the oil and fry until browned, then return the onions, reserving 1/2 a cup for garnish, and add cinnamon quill, salt and 3 cups of water.
Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours until the lamb is tender, stirring occasionally.
Wash the rice and quinoa and cover with 5 cups of water in a microwave-safe bowl.
Microwave on high for 7 minutes, then remove and drain.
Stir the potatoes and the par-cooked rice and quinoa through the lamb and add the milk, saffron, sultanas and butter.
Cover tightly and cook on very low heat for 20 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to stand for 10 minutes before uncovering.
Scatter with fried onion, cashews and coriander leaves and serve with the coriander raita.
The success of a biryani depends on getting the right amount of liquid to cook the rice. Don't lift the lid too often or you will let out too much steam. If your biryani is too wet at the end of cooking, just leave it uncovered and heat gently to dry it out.