One finds cooking inspiration in strangest of places...
I was absolutely, positively, one hundred percent sure that I will return from a trip to Vienna carrying a suitcase filled with chocolates, marzipan and candied violets from Demel. Just as I always do. But this time, things did not quite go in the same direction.
Business trips can be a blessing; they often take us to new lands and places we have not been to. They open up the doors of the cities we have never visited -- small cities in the American Midwest or the big ones across the ocean, homes to ancient empires, royal houses and imperial thrones -- all equally exciting in their own special way. But business trips are a curse too, because when the plane lands and the gates to the new open up, when the excitement of the unknown hits you with full blast, that is when you realize that there is only a short day or two to dig in. Then you subtract meetings, presentations and events, and you subtract time to prepare, and suddenly you are left with only a handful of hours to explore, learn, and fire up your camera.
Well, that is exactly what happened in Vienna this time around.
Faced with a tormenting choice of what to do with my handful of hours, I did what I thought is the best. I went to the market. I went to Naschmarkt... I could have gone to a museum, perhaps two, or I could have gone to an exhibition (and there were quite a few this time), but I wanted to breathe Vienna and see Vienna and walk Vienna, and Naschmarkt was just a couple of steps away from the conference venue, hence I ditched culture and walked to the market instead. Wouldn't you agree that markets and food stores and streets buzzing with people are the true soul of a city? It is the markets that paint the most accurate picture of a place, it is the markets that spin the most wonderful tales of its past, present and future. The markets of this world are the best storytellers of all, better than museums or tour guides, and to the market I went. And I bravely admit it.
Naschmarkt is a place that describes the amazing transformation Vienna underwent over the last twenty years in the most illustrious way. Less than two decades ago Vienna was a venerable central European city, deeply rooted in and loyal to its glorious past. Today it is a vibrant, international place, a city that kept its extraordinary history, while embracing new influences with extraordinary grace. And as the city grew new frontiers, the same happened to Naschmarkt. Once upon a time a traditional food and vegetable market dating back to the 16th century, today's Naschmarkt and its 100 plus stalls are a miniature gastronomic melting pot of different foods and culinary influences. Sauerkraut and Austrian wines hold hands with prosciutto, olive oils and artisanal cheeses. Produce stalls are a colorful matrix of fruits and vegetables from all over the world, there are infusions, there are herbs, there are spices from every cuisine imaginable. Traditional breads and Kaiser rolls hold hands with Lebanese pitas and Israeli flatbreads, wurst is befriending kebabs and Turkish lamb sausages next door, while Kaiserschmarrn, traditional Austrian dessert of shredded pancakes, dances merrily next to Polish and Middle Eastern sweets.
Now, imagine my surprise when I realized that out of all things at this market without boundaries, it is spices that grabbed my attention. A strange choice indeed, given that I live in New York, the city without boundaries, where all the spices of this world can be purchased in a New York minute -- which by all accounts is the shortest minute on this planet. A strange choice indeed, considering that Dr. V, my other and probably better half is from Sri Lanka, the magical kingdom of spices. A strange choice indeed, considering that my pantry and my kitchen drawers are already overflowing with precious powders from all over the world. Given all of the above, buying a bag of spice was a perplexing choice, but we are rarely in full control of our choices, hence I stopped at the spice shop and purchased a small bag of baharat and a small bag of Yemenese spice blend zhoug.
I carried the spices inside my purse for two days, during my short, almost stolen strolls through Vienna. I had them as I photographed colorful displays of Viennese chocolates shops, among the best in the world, and when I peeked through the window-looking-glass into the opulent history of Viennese antique shops. Together -- baharat, zhoug and I -- we stopped by the Sacher hotel to snap a photo of its famous photo wall, and by Demel to buy candied violets. Together we kept on getting lost in a maze of tiny old streets around Stephansplatz; every once in a while, as I stopped to look for directions, I opened up the spice bags and took a sniff. It was a strange thing to do. I stood in the center of one of the most exciting food capitals of the world, the bastion of fine pastries, good wines and fine cooking, yet all I could do is think about spices from countries million miles away and about glorious dishes that called their names. I was surrounded by Wienerschnitzels and apfelstrudels, without paying attention. Imagine all the glasses of sturm, the sweet and sour fermented wine juice, I could have drank, and all the plates of spicy Liptauer cheese, Palatchinken and Bohemian delicacies I could have eaten, yet the only thing I really, badly wanted to do is to sniff on a bag of zhoug. And I stood there, on a cobblestoned street of Vienna, sniffing zhoug, consumed by an all-pervasive feeling of excitement over the prospects of cooking with it upon returning home.
That was one strange feeling.
And then something else happened... Step by step, as if the cobblestoned streets knew and took me in right direction, or maybe it was the spices in my bag that led the way, either way, I stumbled upon Babette's, a small bookstore, spice shop and a restaurant on Am Hof 13, close to Judenplatz. It was pure miracle that I found it, among thousands of stores in the city center. Although, on a second thought, if you are a true believer miracles are more likely to happen, statistically speaking, because the Almighty Upthere, whoever she happens to be, will show you the way. And for those who truly believe, for those who treasure markets more than museums, for those who carry spices in their purses and their pockets, Babette's is a temple, the promised land of most wonderful cookbooks and spices, all neatly arranged inside a quiet, bright space that looks more like a sanctuary than a commercial outlet of a European metropolis. I spent a good hour inside Babette's, browsing through the books and sniffing the spices. I could have stayed longer, but it was time to close and I settled on two books on Vienna cuisine and seven vintage looking tins with spice blends, another baharat and another zhoug included. A day later, I came back for more.
As I already said, the workings of Kitchen Almighty are mysterious and one finds cooking inspiration in strangest of places... Chocolate and spice, it is an unusual friendship. Candied violets and zhoug. Marzipan and baharat. Old traditions and the new ones. The customs we inherit and the ones we open up to. And I could not help but think how for centuries the city of Vienna defied Ottoman Empire and forces from the Orient, but today in this big global marketplace we live in, it embraces their influences with more enthusiasm and elegance than any other city I visited. Hence, chocolate and spice, this unlikely friendship, is a glimpse into and an accurate account of modern day Vienna.
Here we go... This was the spice post. An ode to welcoming the new. Just in case you are terribly nostalgic about the old, I did write about it exactly a year ago, in the chocolate post. Feel free to stop by for a slice of history.
Mung Bean Salad with Lemon Zhoug Vinaigrette
* 2 cups Mung beans
* 2 tbsp Zhoug spice blend
* 1-2 lemons
* 1 lime
* 2 garlic cloves, minced
* 1/4 cup olive oil
* salt and freshly ground pepper
In a medium pot combine the beans and six cups of water. Bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce the heat to low to maintain the simmer and cook, covered, for about 40 minutes, until the beans are tender, but are not falling apart. Remove the beans from the pot, drain, discard the cooking water and leave the beans to cool completely.
Make the vinaigrette. In a large mortar, combine the zhoug, garlic and one teaspoon of olive oil, and work into a smooth paste. (Alternatively, you can use a blender.) Transfer the paste into a small bowl, add the remaining olive oil, lime juice and juice of one lemon and mix until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper.
In a large bowl, combine the beans and the vinaigrette. Mix well. Taste and add more lemon juice if needed. Before serving, leave the salad for about an hour in refrigerator for flavors to combine. Taste again for seasoning, and add more lemon juice and salt if needed. Serve.
Zhoug is a fragrant (and occasionally fiery) green spice paste from Yemen. It is a base for a wonderful pesto-looking relish that bears the same name, which can be served with pita, kebabs, added to salads, or used as a sauce for meat and fish dishes. I read a while ago that Yemenites believe that eating zhoug every day strengthens the heart and scares away illnesses. Zhoug can be made with fresh ingredients (sort of like chimichurri from Yemen), or with their dried counterparts, yielding a wonderfully aromatic spice blend.
* 3 parts cumin powder
* 2 parts dried parsley, smashed into fine powder
* 1 part caraway powder
* 1 part coriander powder
* 1 part ginger powder
* 1 part chili powder (or up to taste depending on heat preferences)
* 1/4 parts finely ground black pepper