Spice blending is an art as much as a science, and every spice blender will have their own approach to creating a balanced spice blend.
Making a spice blend is good fun, and you learn a lot about balancing the five key flavour attributes when you start experimenting. The five attributes, and some familiar examples are:
1) Sweet: cinnamon, allspice, vanilla.
2) Pungent: cloves, star anise, cardamom.
3) Tangy: tamarind, sumac, amchur, kokam.
4) Hot: pepper, chilli, mustard, horseradish.
5) Amalgamating: coriander seed, fennel seed, paprika, turmeric.
Every spice blend has a story, and Herbie’s Balmain & Rozelle Spice Blend is no exception!
What is the Balmain & Rozelle Spice Blend?
Herbie’s Spices opened its Rozelle shop in 1997. Not long after that, the promotions manager for Tourism NSW (now known as Destination NSW) was organising an event in the Balmain and Rozelle area called Eat Streets as part of the ‘Feast of Sydney’ promotion. Herbie and Liz were approached about making a special Balmain and Rozelle spice blend to give to attendees at a glittering media launch.
Now, in all his 30 years in the spice business up to that time, Herbie had never been asked to make a suburb-specific spice blend! How does one capture the essence of Balmain and Rozelle? The best approach, like many things in life, was to have a bit of fun without trivialising the importance of making a balanced and user-friendly spice mix.
The objective was to make a blend which would be a testament to the depth of Australia’s broad food heritage. Herbie needed to encapsulate Balmain’s historic working class origins as well as its modern trendy image and cosmopolitan feel. Therefore the blend needed to contain Asian spice flavours along with Indian, Middle Eastern, European and of course one of our own Australian native herbs that used to grow wild on the Balmain peninsula.
The result and the rationale
So, what did we put into the Herbie’s Balmain & Rozelle Spice Blend? It took some thinking, but Herbie settled on the following ingredients:
- Kaffir (Makrut)
One of the most characteristic Asian flavours is the kaffir (or makrut) lime leaf. Kaffir lime trees are small, shrubby trees, 3-5 metres tall with needle-sharp spikes and unusual double leaves. When torn or cut, kaffir lime leaves emit a heavenly scent that is a cross between lime, orange and lemon, but not like any one of these on their own.
The taste of kaffir lime leaves is similarly citrus-like and reminds one of the zest of a mandarin, yet it is lacking in the acid tones usually associated with members of this family.
- Lemon Myrtle
The Australian native herb that is the most fragrant and easy to use is lemon myrtle. Of all the useful Australian native culinary plants, the magnificent rainforest lemon myrtle tree is Herbie’s favourite. The aroma of lemon myrtle is similar to a blend of lemon verbena, lemongrass and kaffir lime, with a haunting eucalyptus background, something that is particularly noticeable after rain.
The flavour is distinctly lemony and tangy, with lime zest notes and a pleasantly lingering, slightly numbing camphor aftertaste.
Then it was time to look further west to the exotic climes of India, where we find that wonderful colouring and flavour contributor, turmeric. Turmeric is the rhizome (the part of the root system that grows off the primary tuber) of a tropical perennial plant which, for harvesting purposes, is grown as an annual.
Powdered turmeric is dark yellow, has a distinct earthy aroma and surprisingly pleasing, sharp, bitter, spicy, lingering depth of flavour. Herbie felt the earthiness of turmeric and cumin would be reminiscent of Balmain’s working class origins!
Although mostly associated with Indian cuisine, cumin features strongly in Mexican, Moroccan, Persian, Israeli, Palestinian, Turkish and Egyptian cuisines. The aroma of cumin is pungent, warm, earthy, lingering and sweet, and yields a hint of dry peppermint. The flavour is similarly pungent, earthy, slightly bitter, warming and makes one think predominantly of curry.
Ground cumin seed is a coarse-textured, deep-khaki, oily-feeling powder. While to many cooks, cumin may seem to be overtly pungent and tiresomely reminiscent of curries, do keep in mind that its flavour need not dominate. With subtle, judicious application, cumin can be surprisingly effective in balancing and rounding out the bouquet of other spices.
When Herbie was developing the Balmain and Rozelle spice blend, to go with fish and chicken, the flavour felt too harsh, and just did not seem right. With the addition of a small amount of cumin too little for the majority of people to overtly notice, the mix became full-bodied and balanced.
Now for some tang and complexity, achieved by adding ginger and its close relative galangal. The aromas and flavours of ginger and galangal may vary depending upon the types of cultivars they come from, the stage at which they are harvested, and the region in which they grow.
Ginger rhizomes would generally be described as having a sweet, pungent aroma and lemony freshness. The flavour will be similarly tangy, sweet, spicy and warm to hot, depending upon when it has been harvested as, to a large degree, early-harvested ginger is sweet and tender, while later-harvested rhizomes are more fibrous and pungent.
Galangal is a little sharper than ginger and has a characteristic Asian note to it. Herbie used both galangal and a sweet, fresh-tasting ginger to bring extra life and freshness to the Balmain and Rozelle spice blend.
Although garlic is sometimes considered a polarising flavour, the use of a small amount along with other spices greatly compliments many spice blends. Garlic need not dominate a dish, it is often surprising the extent to which a small amount can heighten the taste of many foods, including delicate vegetables, and how it can balance with other flavours, be they sweet, pungent or hot.
Garlic is found in most cuisines, especially Mediterranean, Indian, Asian and Mexican, making it one of the essential elements in the new Balmain and Rozelle spice blend.
We all know that a small amount of chilli will titillate the taste buds, and also enhance the flavours in a spice blend. Although there always seems to be an inordinate preoccupation with the heat in chillies, the tremendous flavour contribution made by dried chillies should not be overlooked. The flavour of dry chilli is quite different to fresh, in the same way as a sun-dried tomato has a different taste to a fresh one.
Upon drying, usually in the sun, the caramelisation of sugars and other natural chemical changes create more complex flavours. While fresh chillies have a distinct heat, fresh capsicum top notes and sweetness, dried chillies deliver an initial full-bodied, fruity, raisin-sweetness with varying degrees of tobacco and smokiness depending upon the variety of chilli.
Herbie uses just a little medium heat chilli powder and cayenne pepper (another chilli type) in the Balmain and Rozelle spice blend, to compliment the other spices.
- Coriander seed
At this stage we have a relatively strong combination of herbs and spices that requires some ‘taming’ and rounding out. The best spice for this purpose is coriander seed, the one Herbie calls an ‘amalgamating’ spice.
Coriander seed is one of the most useful spices to have in the kitchen. This is because, as an amalgamating spice, it mixes well with almost any combination of spices, whether sweet or savoury. It’s interesting to note how the essential oil has often been used to make medicines more palatable.
Ground coriander seed effectively balances the sweet and pungent spices in many diverse blends, from a sweet mixed spice to a fiery Tunisian harissa paste. In the same way, ground coriander seeds bring all the various herbs and spices together in harmony. It’s almost impossible to use too much coriander seed, in fact some North African dishes use it by the cupful rather than the spoonful.
- Caraway seed
Finally, the most unusual and surprising addition to this unique spice blend is caraway seed. Caraway is used in many European cheeses, the fresh anise and fennel notes helping to balance the fatty richness and robust flavours. It has a special affinity with fruits with cores, such as apples, pears and quinces, is used in pork and sausages, and complements cabbage surprisingly well.
Caraway is an important ingredient in harissa paste, where it provides a refreshing backdrop to the heat of chilli, the power of garlic and the earthiness of cumin. The best blends of the popular Indian spice mix garam masala will always contain a reasonable proportion of ground caraway seed.
Developing the blend
The next step was for Herbie and Liz to cook up a storm using the Balmain and Rozelle spice blend. Although they had to sometimes go back and tweak the ingredients to get a blend to perfection, this time Herbie nailed it first go. What started off as a promotional exercise became one of Herbie’s Spices most popular blends.
At Herbie’s Spices, these herbs and spices are all carefully ground or granulated and gently blended with a little salt, so that the ingredients not only make a distinct flavour contribution to food, but make it look amazing as well. This Sydney Spiced Lamb Salad by Kate Hemphill is a perfect example of the versatility of this spice blend.
How to use your Balmain & Rozelle Spice Blend
The old saying of “the possibilities are endless” applies to Herbie’s Balmain & Rozelle Spice. You can sprinkle this blend onto chicken, fish or lamb about 10 minutes before cooking whether grilling, barbecuing or baking. Try a little on stir-fried vegetables while cooking, with the addition of a little coconut milk for a lovely kick. Potato and cauliflower soup transforms into a new taste experience with Balmain and Rozelle spicing.
Our mantra for the use of this spice is: use it with anything white. But Herbie and Liz attended a food function where Balmain & Rozelle Spice was sprinkled on lamb cutlets prior to barbecuing, confirming that the possibilities are indeed endless!
For more detailed information on herbs and spices, and to learn about the principles of making balanced spice blends, purchase a copy of The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill.