The recipe has been in my diary since the summer, when I re-read Laurie Colwin’s “More Home Cooking”. Her food is down-to-earth and her stories gently funny; I liked the one on what to feed a jetlagged friend (something salty so they drink lots of water). The image that really stuck with me though was that of her sister (maybe? the book is still in the south of France) caught guiltily eating this spice mix, dukkah, out of the jar with a spoon.
Now eating Nutella by the spoonful, that I understand. But a mix of nuts and seeds, cumin, coriander and cinnamon? Surely that would be too dry, too strong?
Talking with a friend the other day – she is on the kitchen stool with a glass of wine, I am testing the recipe, blending the toasted spices and nuts, stopping and starting around the conversation – we realise that much as ex-smokers tend to be the most vehemently anti-smoking, people that have had issues with eating disorders tend to be largely impatient with others’ dietary requirements, intolerances, particular preferences. She says she is gluten-free now, last week it was lactose. He only ate half the piece of cheesecake, claimed he was getting love handles. Obviously I know that there are medically diagnosed problems, food allergies. I know that. She knows that. Nonetheless as if we are trying to distance ourselves from our past, our obsessions, we are the most judgemental.
Smell that. I open the lid of the food processor, releasing a toasty cinnamon air. Good right?
But when walls are broken down, when someone admits to suffering, to have suffered from disordered eating, it is amazing how quickly others will respond with me too! Without that kinship, it would be admitting to weakness, to vanity, to a preoccupation with the self in a world of much more tangible problems.
We each dip a finger to taste the crumbly rubble, not quite a powder. Oooh. We taste it again. It is like earth and fire, full of warmth.
It isn’t about being thin or pretty but feeling full or empty. From the beginning of university until not so long ago, I struggled with food. Push and pull. I ate my feelings, as everyone does occasionally. It went from once a month to almost every day, when I could count the ‘good days’ (tuna and rye crackers) one hand in that month.
We try it on some sourdough, spread with honey and goat’s cheese and topped with a baker’s pinch of dukkah (all fingers at once, not just finger and thumb). That will be breakfast and snacks for the next two days until the loaf runs out.
And then, slowly, sometime in the last year and a half it faded towards the horizon. It stopped being ‘I am’ this thing, this disorder that defines me, and became ‘I have’ and ‘I used to have’. I can feel its imprint on bad days, a worn pathway, a feeling of too much too full too frantic. Asked to describe it once, I said that when anxious I felt a balloon inflating in my chest and the only way to remove it was to fill myself up until I was a sack of concrete.
Now I remember how to feel physically hungry, not just emotionally empty. My feelings are not always in check – nor should they be – and sometimes it surprises me the forged link of hunger/sadness. Two days ago I finished class in a terribe mood, sure that everyone hated me, inexplicably miserable. Then, wait, I realised, I had been too busy to eat lunch. All I needed to right my self-esteem was a quick sandwich of baguette, cured ham and salad, with a sprinkle of more dukkah. (I ‘borrowed’ some from the jar in my handbag I was giving away as a gift. Sorry Jen!)
Where am I going with this? For one, more people than you would think will own up to those moments in the kitchen at midnight, guiltily nursing that spoon, if only you know how to ask the question. It is a relief to say, me too. Hopefully this does not read as melodramatic or self-centred. I just know that a few years ago I would have loved to know someone with the same experience, someone who made it out the other side. I would have felt less ashamed.
And secondly, this spice mix, dip, topping, whichever, is my favourite thing I have made all year. It is redolent with spices, savoury and sweet, salty. Hot with black pepper but tempered with the hazelnuts and sesame seeds, so that it can be used in generous spoonfuls rather than pinches. Of course, when I googled it I discovered it has been fashionable in the food world for at least a decade now, in all of my favourite blogs: 101 Cookbooks, Smitten Kitchen and now in David Lebovitz’s new book. And more importantly, in Egypt for centuries: street vendors serve cones of dukkah, or duqqa, with bread and olive oil for dipping. I cannot wait to serve it over boiled eggs, potatoes, soups, avocado toast… My flatmate makes home-made fermented-milk yoghurt which is incredible with dukkah and honey. I think Laurie Colwin would approve.
Friends and family in the near vicinity, you may be getting a jar of this for Christmas. For those of you far away, I won’t risk posting sachets of mysterious powder, so you will have to make your own. This makes a generous quantity, three jam jars full, or many spice jars (save empty ones from the supermarket for your presents). You won’t regret making a big batch, especially if you go to the trouble of buying coriander and cumin seeds, might as well use them. Adjust to taste: add more nuts for a milder flavour, more pepper for more heat. Enjoy on everything.
115g ( 1 cup) hazelnuts
150g (1 cup) sesame seeds
15g (3 tbs) cumin seeds
20g (1/4 cup) coriander seeds
15g (1 1/2 tbs) black peppercorns
15g (1 tbs + 1 tsp) coarse sea salt
12g (2 tbs) ground cinnamon
Toast the nuts / seeds / spices one kind at a time in a dry frying pan. Shake it every now and then to cook evenly. When they smell toasty, tip into food processor and do the next lot. (If you want to skin hazelnuts, tip them still hot into a tea towel and rub firmly to remove skins.) Add the salt and cinnamon, no need to toast, and blend everything to a rubble, not too fine a powder. My food processor does not do very well with the peppercorns so I crush them roughly first with a makeshift mortar and pestle: rolling pin and mug.)
Divide into jars. Eat on everything.