Exotic Ingredients Part II

October 6, 2010 12:16 pm

Clockwise from right: Swiss chard, Fleur de Sel, Za'atar, Ras el Hanout and blueberries.

Fleur de Sel (meaning “flowers of the sea”) is a type of hand-harvested French sea salt. It is collected by scraping just the top layer of the salt marshes on the coast of Guérande, in Brittany, France, making this labour-intensive, scarce product one of the more expensive salts around. Light grayish in colour, it has a delicate flavour, flaky texture and a higher moisture content than regular salt, and is popular for making desserts. It is best used as a finishing salt rather than cooking it into the dish, which makes the salt lose its subtle, crunchy texture.
Fun fact: Back in the day, only women were allowed to rake Fleur de Sel, since men were thought to be too rough for such delicate work.
How can you use it? You can sprinkle it on your salad, meat and fish, and even on fruits. Or use them in salted butter cookies.
Where can you find it? Under the Le Guérandais label, the Fleur de Sel is available at Godrej Nature’s Basket (for all locations, see here); and Reliance Fresh, Tukaram Jivaji Marg, Grant Road. Tel: 2387 3147. Rs415 for a 150g jar.

Delightfully bluish-purple when whizzed into a smoothie or baked, blueberries are slowly cropping up across city markets (Hypercity in Malad keeps the freshest stock). The misty looking, tart berries are imported from the United States, the largest producer of blueberries in the world. Native Americans called them “star berries” because of the five points on the fruit. Blueberries are very rich in antioxidants, giving them a top spot among super-foods. As an added benefit, blueberries freeze well, so you can stock up whenever you find them.
Fun fact: American poet Robert Frost loved them so much, he wrote a poem dedicated to blueberries.
How can you use them? Blueberries are great when eaten on their own or thrown into a bowl of cereal. Blueberries with vanilla yoghurt make a delicious, healthy snack. If you want to bake with them, this blueberry almond cake or these blueberry crumb bars are a good place to start.
Where can you find them? Hypercity, next to Inorbit Mall, Malad, Link Road, Malad (West). Tel: 1 800 209 7172. Rs199 for a 150g box.

Swiss chard is a leafy vegetable, and the variety available here comes with veins and edible stems in gorgeous bright colours—hot pink, orange and yellow with an occasional white thrown in. It tastes like pungent spinach mixed with a hint of beets. Swiss chard is extremely perishable, so freshness is vital. Since there is no refrigeration at the market, the best time to buy Swiss chard is in the morning when the veggies have just come in.
Fun fact: Swiss chard is also known as strawberry spinach, perpetual spinach, silverbeet and mangold, among other things.
How can you use it? To keep things simple and preserve its nutrients, you can sauté the Swiss chard with a little garlic and olive oil. If you feel like baking, you could try making this leek and swiss chard tart.
Where can you find it? Swiss chard is available at the Trikaya stall at Crawford Market for Rs10 a bunch.

Ras el Hanout (pronounced “RAAS-el-HAN-OU”) is an intensely aromatic seasoning with rose petals and a distinct scent of cinnamon, lavender and cloves. Translated from Arabic, Ras el Hanout supposedly means “best of the shop”, since spice shops put together their best spices to make this heady blend. Ras el Hanout is used extensively in Moroccan cuisine. Every shop has its own secret recipe which uses several spices in a fabulous concoction of colours, smells and flavours. There are as many variants of the blend as there are spice shops in North Africa, and there is no one recipe that can be called upon as the best Ras el Hanout.
Fun fact: Depending on the complexity the spice blender wants to create, Ras el Hanout can use upto 50 different ingredients.
How can you use it? Think of it as an exotic garam masala. Given the robustness of the spice blend, it is especially nice with meats. You can also steep it in hot water right before pouring it over couscous to capture the warm aroma. Use Ras el Hanout sparingly to impart fragrance and flavour and not overwhelm. Refrigerate the bottle to prolong its freshness.
Where can you find it? Al’fez Ras el Hanout is available at Godrej Nature’s Basket, Samartha-Vaibhav, opposite Tarapore Towers, Lokhandwala Complex, Walawalkar Marg, Andheri (West). Rs185 for a 38g bottle. For other locations, see here.

Za’atar (ZAHT-ar) is a Middle Eastern herb blend that is mainly composed of thyme, sesame seeds and salt. It could also have cumin, roasted wheat, oregano or hyssop since the mixes for different regions vary. Pale green in colour, it has a vegetal, zesty flavour because of the thyme and sumac (a brick red, tart Mediterranean spice that is extracted from the sumac berries that grow in the region). Given that it can spruce up the blandest dish, it should be a staple in the pantry.
Fun fact: Za’atar is spelled in many different ways (zahtar, zaatar, zatr, etc) because of the Arabic origin of the name.
How can you use it? For a quick appetizer, cut up some pita bread into wedges, sprinkle on some za’atar and olive oil, and toast it in the oven for five minutes at 200°C. Za’atar is very often sprinkled on hummus, too. I like it tossed with some roasted potatoes and vegetables, and it always works as an excellent rub for roast chicken. The easiest way to enjoy za’atar is to make a paste with some extra virgin olive oil and spread it on toasted bread. Just like the Ras el Hanout, it’s best to refrigerate Za’atar.
Where can you find it? Al’fez Za’atar is available at Godrej Nature’s Basket; and at Food Bazaar, Phoenix Mills, Senapati Bapat Road, Lower Parel. Tel: 6662 6704. Rs135 for a 38g bottle.

Shaheen Peerbhai is the author of popular food blog The Purple Foodie, and enjoys writing, photography, baking and the colour purple.

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