Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ice Ice Baby and other vanilla inspired things from a spice island

It’s been a long, long time. Many people have pointed it out and I've mumbled stuff about being busy, feeling tired and other rubbish excuses that popped in to my head. I could sit here and apologise until I’m blue in the face, or we can just get down to the good stuff and do what we came here to do. Plumping for the latter? I thought so... Don't think I haven't chastised myself though. There will be a weekly post from here on in.

I’m fresh off the plane from a trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar – two of the most interesting places I’ve visited to date. Unfortunately the Tanzania side of things was limited to Dar Es Salaam, but on the plus side, we had plenty of time to mooch around Zanzibar and discover the hidden and not so hidden delights of this crazy-sounding island.

For me, Zanzibar has always summed up images of the exotic. Everything from its name to its moniker of the ‘spice island’ has always suggested beating hot suns, deliciously fragrant and punchy cuisine, verdant scenery, amazing beaches and postcard perfect panoramas – basically as different from dear old Blighty as you can get. Thank god, ever since getting back to one of the most depressing and finger-numbing winters known to man, I’ve been entranced by thoughts of sunkissed skin, floaty dresses, cool, thirst-quenching drinks and all those other things you take for granted when the sun is shining.

But back to the Spice Island: What could be more zesty and exotic food-wise? Tumeric, cloves, cinnamon; you name it, they grow it in lush plantations buzzing with potential flavours that are every foodie’s delight. And who was this foodie to resist?

The first thing I did on settling down in Stone Town, the island’s capital (and only) “city” was jump in a taxi and hot-tail it down to the Kizimbani spice plantation about a half-hour’s drive out of town. Fingers crossed that it wasn’t going to rain (it was the middle of the wet season), Farzana and I were introduced to Rashid, our guide for the afternoon.

“For such a small island, Zanzibar produces a lot of spices,” Rashid started solemnly “we are the world’s leading producer of cloves for example – did you know that?” he smiled as we dutifully shook our heads. “But enough of that, you didn’t come here to find out about facts and figures. Guess what this is...”

Taking a few leaves from the nearest plant, he scrunched them and rolled them between his fingers then held it up to our noses for us to smell. We were hit by blasts of the pungent aromas of basil, but not quite as we knew it. Finally one of us hazarded our guess – we were half right, it was Zanzibari basil.

Unveiling the tumeric

And so the pattern continued as Rashid led us from plant to plant, picking a few leaves here, a pod here, getting us to guess what they were and explaining their tastes, medicinal benefits and a brief history of where they were from originally. While I was undoubtedly excited by the discovery of curry leaves, ginger, peppercorns et al, it was the appearance of the vanilla that really caught my attention.

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even think to associate the green, full pods with the shrivelled, black stalks that I’ve picked up time and again from the shelves of my local supermarket. They looked so fresh, I thought they were runner beans! (What, I never claimed to be a horticulturalist or plant expert...) – it was only when he cracked the pods open that we found out what it was.

Of course, I couldn’t go home without buying a pod or two to bring back with me and I’ve been itching to lay my hands on them ever since. So tonight I got them out into the kitchen and did a little bit of experimentation. I wanted something that used the vanilla in a different way to the normal sweet treats I dish up at the table.

Much as I’d like to do a Vanilla Ice and claim a fake cultural background for this dish to make it seem a little more from the Zanzibar hood, I can’t in all honesty say that the dish I came up with was particularly inspired by Zanzibari cuisine – apart from the fact that they do eat a LOT of seafood there and it is a seafood dish. It was adapted from a recipe on the Vanilla Pod’s website.

What I will say is that once I tried it, I couldn’t actually give a toss where it could have hearkened from and I sincerely hope that you feel the same...

Pan fried scallops with a vanilla reduction, port and pear compote and rocket salad

18 fresh scallops
Zest of one orange
1 cinnamon stick
3 star anise
180g sugar
50ml rose wine
50 ml balsamic vinegar
50ml orange juice
4 firm pears peeled and finely sliced
200ml ruby port
2 vanilla pods
Madras curry powder and salt to season

Take one of the vanilla pods, the three star anise, orange zest, cinnamon stick, 100g sugar, rose wine, balsamic vinegar and put on a low heat in a pot to reduce. Once the liquid has turned a light caramel colour, add the orange juice and simmer to a workable consistency.

Place the other vanilla pod, the port and the remaining 80g of sugar in another pot and simmer until it creates a syrup. Add the sliced pears and continue to simmer until the liquid has been absorbed. Remove the vanilla pod and blend the mixture into a compote.

Lightly season the scallops with the Madras curry powder and salt, pan fry at a high heat until seared on each side. Serve immediately drizzled with the vanilla reduction and aside a spoon of the pear compote and a handful of rocket.