I remember when I first learned about the dangers and hardships to which the spice traders of yesteryear would subject themselves in pursuit of cooking supplies. I thought it odd at the time. But since finding myself trapped in a kitchen with little more than tomato sauce and cauliflower, I’ve been re-appreciating of the value of spice.
Last summer, confronted with a tomato surplus, I froze an ambitious quantity of oven-roasted tomato sauce. Last week my wife overdid it at Costco with the cauliflower. After exhausting every possible permutation of the two, and combining them with the likes of garlic butter, garam masala and fishy Asian sauces, we were ready for something new. I busted open a tin of dukkah spice mix, and my boring old ingredients donned a spiffy new outfit, with extra crunch, extra body and a lot of extra spice. It tasted like a dish I would have been very happy to have ordered at some exotic restaurant.
Dukkah (pronounced doo-KAH), is an Egyptian spice mixture that comes in countless regional variations, with as many family recipes as there are families. In that region, dukkah is more than just a spice mixture. It’s sustenance. When times are tough, it can be the entire meal. On a good day, some dukkah in oil, along with flatbread and yogurt, can make an entire meal. Since discovering it, I spoon dukkah on everything, and directly into my mouth.
Dukkah’s many alternate spellings (duqqa, do’a, دقة) are all derived from an Arabic word, a verb meaning “to pound,” as with a mortar and pestle. This verbiage applies to all of the components except the sesame seeds, which are left whole. It is those seeds, as well as the pounded nuts, that set dukkah apart from most other spice mixtures. The seeds and nuts impart oil and texture, as well as individual flavors.
Any dukkah worth pounding should contain cumin, coriander, sesame seed, dried herbs and nuts. Ana Sortun, of the legendary Oleana and now Sofra in Cambridge, Massachusetts, prefers pumpkin seeds to nuts. Sam Risho of Silk Road in Missoula — producer of the retail dukkah spice mix that reprogrammed my cauliflower — swears by Oregon hazelnuts.
“They have a unique rich flavor and good oil, but aren’t overpowering like peanut,” Risho said.
Silk Road dukkah also contains fennel and black pepper and mint, as well as the essential ingredients. It’s aromatic and crunchy and exotic, and not at all sweet. Risho, understandably, wasn’t at liberty to share the exact recipe.
“The ingredients are listed on the tin, in descending order,” he offered.
In addition, Risho was more than happy to show me the secret to making any dukkah recipe, and to making most other spice mixtures too, for that matter.
All of the seeds must get toasted before being pounded, Risho explained. Doing so releases essential oils, increasing the intensity of flavor. Those oils also increase the shelf life of the mixture by coating it with oil, which keeps away the oxygen.
The seeds can be toasted in many ways, including in the oven. Risho recommends the stovetop for the home cook, and demonstrated by roasting a batch of seeds and spices in roughly the same proportions as they appear in his dukkah.
First he toasted the sesame seeds. Not raw sesame seeds, but toasted sesame seeds, which are better preserved because they have been toasted.
Risho wanted to toast them again, and toast them he did, working the pan actively over the high flame to keep the seeds moving. He working in a circular motion, moving the seeds around the perimeter, then flipping the seeds toward him from the far edge of the pan like a thousand little pancakes, until they were a darker shade of brown. He dumped them onto a plate and set them aside.
“The sesame seeds have to be added in after they grind everything else. You don’t want to pulverize them or you’ll get a tahini,” he said. There is more discretion with the nuts, which can be crushed fine or coarse, or anywhere in between.
Professional spice grinders like Risho, who are going for absolute perfection, will grind every spice separately, but the home chef can combine the fennel, cumin and coriander seeds to the pan together, as they all toast at roughly the same rate. After he set those aside, he toasted the black pepper alone because it takes the longest too cook, about five minutes. But they were well worth the wait. As the black peppercorns toasted, they became softer and puffed out, like a very peppery crispy rice cereal.
Since then I’ve been making a lot of dukkah, including dishes that could fairly be described as dukkah-flavored dukkah with dukkah on top.
Dukkah with yogurt, olive oil, salt, lime juice and garlic, which Risho suggested makes a great marinade for meat, also is amazing when eaten straight, like a crunchy, aromatic savory muesli cereal. Mixing dukkah with mayo for a dip does something similar. Sprinkling it on fried meat, as it’s frying, re-toasts the seeds and releases more aroma.
Life is just better on the dukkah side.