Speaking strictly about food, we could have done much worse than to be colonized by the Spanish.
Spain has one of Europe’s richest culinary traditions, a richness that was in no small measure influenced by the “Moorish” occupation of the peninsula from 710 to 1491 AD, a whopping 782 years. Over 200 years longer than “European America” has existed, just to put it in perspective. For more than seven centuries members of the three Abrahamic religions coexisted mostly peacefully on the Iberian peninsula, leaving their imprint on everything from architecture, to – of course – food. It’s not surprising then that Spanish is peppered with words from Arabic, the language of the peninsula’s former rulers, and that the cuisine is influenced by their food and love of spices. Coincidentally, Columbus traveled to America in search of a new “spice route” shortly after the Spanish monarchs retook Granada, the last Muslim stronghold.
All this is a long way to explain how a dish of vegan chickpeas with Moroccan spices is so appealing to me: It’s probably already in my blood.
When we travel to Europe in the summer we always have to make a pilgrimage to one of my favorite places in Denmark: the Exotic Bazaar in Odense.
The place is simply fascinating: vendors from many countries, but especially from North Africa and the Middle East sell their products in a large, clean, bright indoor market. Not exactly what you expect of an “exotic” bazaar. But with a combination of Danish quality control and products from faraway lands it’s like a small oasis in a sea of cream and butter-based cuisine.
An obligatory stop for me is the Middle Eastern candy stand. Hundreds of dried fruits, nuts and coffee-based handmade candies. I feel like I don’t know where to start. Or stop. There’s also the fruit vendors, where I can find the kind of fruits that are common at home, not so much in Denmark, and where I’ve found yuca (cassava), batata (camote, sweet potatoes), plantains and avocados. The olives stand beckons me, I love olives and there are so many varieties, I always end up buying a few of all of them. And the visit always ends at the spice vendor, who mixes his own blends. Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian and Moroccan blends that make this the most aromatic corner of the bazaar. I always bring some home, wrapped in plastic bag after plastic bag, so our clothes don’t end up smelling like they are edible.
Sometimes it makes me wonder what customs officials think of the contents of my suitcase.
The spices are long gone. And one day I wake up obsessed, and craving chickpeas with the spicy flavors of Moroccan blend. As if it was destiny, Ilana brought me a jar of Moroccan pickled lemons. What’s a girl to do?
I consulted my cookbooks and the internet, and found out that Ras El Hanout, the traditional Moroccan spice blend is fairly easy to make, and I had all the ingredients at home! I told you, it was destiny.
There is no fixed recipe for this blend. Its name translates as “top of the shop”, meaning it is the best blend of spices a shop has to offer, and each shop has its own blend. In the end I mixed the quantities according to my own taste, and unlike the blends I found on the internet that are based on ground spices, I ground my own. The result was a spicy, smoky dish that reaches your senses well before you have the first taste. The strong aroma calls to you, and then it takes possession of your sense of taste with the first bite. You can still taste it, and crave it long after dinner time.
I’m boiling chickpeas again as I write this.
- 2 tablespoons of cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon of turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon of freshly-ground nutmeg
- 6 cloves
- ¼ teaspoon of aniseed
- ¼ teaspoon of cumin
- 1 teaspoon of peppercorns
- Small piece of cinnamon (about 1” [2.5 cm])
- ½ teaspoon of coriander seeds
- 3 allspice dry berries
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 large onions , chopped
- 1 lb [0.45 kg] potatoes , peeled and chopped
- 1 large carrot , chopped
- 1 lb [0.45 kg] auyama (West Indian or kabocha pumpkin), peeled and chopped (optional)
- 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds
- 6 cups of boiled chickpeas
- 2 teaspoons of salt , or more to taste
- 2 1/3 cup of water (may need more).
Mix all the spice and grind to powder in a spice grinder or food processor.
Heat the oil in a 3 quart pot [3 lt] over low heat. Add the onions and cook and stir until they become translucent. Sprinkle in two tablespoons of the spice blend you made before, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and mix well. Add potatoes, carrot, pumpkin and sesame seeds. Cook and stir for a minute. Add the chickpeas, and 1/3 cup of water (best if it was the water in which the chickpeas boiled).
Simmer covered over low heat until everything is cooked through, stir and add water as it becomes necessary to prevent it from burning. There should be some sauce in the end, so add water and heat through. Season with salt to taste. Taste and add more of the spice blend if you’d like it spicier.
Serve with couscous or white rice.