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Lisa Messinger


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'The Spice Merchant's Daughter: Recipes and Simple Spice Blends for the American Kitchen' by Christina Arokiasamy (Clarkson Potter, $29.95).


The spice of life may just come in a spice blend. That's what I've found by reading and rereading my favorite spicy cookbook, and turning a dash of this and a dash of that into some of my family's favorite dishes.

Most home chefs are probably not as dedicated to creating spice blends for their cooking as Christina Arokiasamy. After all, she's "The Spice Merchant's Daughter" and chronicles this flavorful experience in her cookbook, which is also a tasty memoir.

Although readers might not share the spicy life story of Arokiasamy - who grew up working in her mother's spice stall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before cooking in a slew of Four Seasons resorts in Southeast Asia - they would be advised to copy, like me, her lush seasoning blends.

This is one practice that's old-fashioned (many of them trace back directly to her mother and earlier generations, like her great-great-grandfather, who captained an English East India Co. spice merchant ship), yet couldn't be more modern in the timesaving and flavor-enhancing attributes they can contribute to today's busy kitchens.

After thoroughly describing individual spices that should fill every pantry and useful techniques, such as pounding fresh aromatics with a stone mortar and pestle, Arokiasamy gives simple instructions for about two dozen blends, rubs, powders, pastes and sauces - a fiery curry powder for meat, a seafood rub, roasted chile paste and what she calls her "perfect peanut sauce."

Even with enticing adjectives, these are flat directives on paper. However, on food, they are as instantly memorable as the childhood adventures that fill Arokiasamy's tale.

A crushed cinnamon stick, cloves, crushed cardamom pods, broken pieces of dried red chiles, black peppercorns, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds and ground turmeric is the curry blend that, when cooked until fragrant, ignites meat. Roasted chile paste relies not only on chiles but also on shallots, garlic, palm sugar syrup or brown sugar, sweet soy sauce, tamarind and toasted shrimp paste. That perfect peanut sauce reaches its heights with help from garlic, chiles, fresh galangal, fresh chopped turmeric, coconut milk, coriander, cumin, kaffir lime leaves, palm sugar syrup or brown sugar, sweet soy sauce and the juice of a whole lime.

These concoctions alone are worth the price of the unique book and can add countless variations to everyday meals. However, Arokiasamy, who is of Indian descent, spices up the rest of the book with classic and innovative recipes that employ seasonings and condiments.

Her pine nut and orange pilaf is a scented affair that is also filled with fresh ginger, bay leaves, thyme and fresh cilantro leaves. Her split yellow lentil soup is rich from butter but gets its bang from black mustard seeds, fresh cilantro leaves and fresh curry leaves.

Recipes like this are worth a trip to the ethnic market for ingredients, though many more are simple, such as the pumpkin coconut pudding Arokiasamy would whip up often at the Four Seasons Resort in Bali.

What's even more fun is reading about Arokiasamy's adult adventures at exclusive enclaves juxtaposed against an equally romantic, yet far different, exotic culinary upbringing.


1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, crushed

1 1/2 teaspoons cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons green cardamom pods, crushed

1 cup dried red chiles, broken into small pieces, or to taste (see Note)

1 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns

1/2 cup coriander seeds

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

Yields about 2/3 cup.

Combine the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, chiles and peppercorns in a small skillet over medium-low heat.

Cook for 7 minutes, until fragrant. Remove and set aside on a plate to cool.

Next, add the coriander, cumin and fennel to the pan. Cook until the seeds release a fragrant scent and become slightly darker, about 5 minutes, making sure the spices do not turn black. Transfer the spices to a plate to cool.

Combine the toasted spices and the turmeric in a coffee or spice grinder, and grind into a fine powder. Allow the ground spices to cool completely. Sift the ground spices and place in an airtight glass jar. Store in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight. Use within 3 months.

Note: To tone down this recipe, use only half the amount of chiles. When handling chiles, experts recommend wearing rubber gloves and not touching your skin or eyes during or afterward.


3 tablespoons canola or peanut oil

10 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound medium prawns or jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 teaspoon white peppercorns, crushed

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon sweet soy sauce

3 scallions, both white and green parts, chopped

1 cup fresh Asian sweet basil leaves, coarsely chopped

Yields 4 servings.

Heat a wok or large nonstick saute pan over medium heat for 40 seconds, and then carefully add the oil around the perimeter of the wok so that it coats the sides and bottom. When the surface shimmers slightly, after about 30 seconds, add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes, until golden.

Add the prawns and cook, stirring, until bright orange, 4 minutes. If you have too much liquid in the wok, which comes naturally as the prawns cook, raise the heat to high to evaporate the liquid.

Add the white pepper, oyster sauce, sweet soy sauce and scallions and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Toss in the basil leaves and cook until wilted, 1 minute. Remove from the heat, transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately.

Lisa Messinger is a first-place winner in food writing from the Association of Food Journalists and the author of seven food books, including "Mrs. Cubbison's Best Stuffing Cookbook" and "The Sourdough Bread Bowl Cookbook." She also writes the Creators News Service "After-Work Gourmet" column. To find out more about Lisa Messinger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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