Sunday, February 3, 2013
Spice mix: Du'ah (Dukkah)
Ah yes, already a month into the new year and I've finally sat down to do this entry. And it's one I've been wanting to do for quite some time.
In fact, a few people have emailed me about Du'ah (dukkah, duqqah, dukka). The word derives from the arabic word to pound, since the spices are toasted and then pounded using a mortar and pestle.
And it's a spice combination specific to Egypt. The Levantine region has its own mix, called Za'tar.
To be honest, I never gave du'ah much thought, it was just always something sitting in the fridge. My father, however, has always been obsessed with it, and up until recently I couldn't figure out why. But every time we sit down to a dinner of pasta, he whips out this massive jar of du'ah and instead of grating some parmesan cheese, he proceeds to flood his pasta with mounds of this spicing. Or he simply eats it just as it is with a spoon.
The problem with buying this ready-made is that because it is a mix of spices, there are many, many variations. So to minimize any disappointments at the dinner table, my father has taken to bringing back a few bags to Canada after each visit to Egypt. His cousin has the connections to the person who makes this, so this delicate balance of spices is just perfect.
Apart from its use in pasta, we never used it for any other purpose at home. Although, growing up, my father said how my grandmother and her friends would all get their du'ah from the same person, or one of them from the group would make a big batch for everyone. Either way, it was kind of a big deal getting your fill of du'ah. At home, she would use it for sandwiches, just sprinkle it on the bread to give it some flavour before adding meats or cheeses.
Not too long ago, I went to some hip bar in New York City two years ago, and on the 'ethnic' menu for starters was du'ah and warmed pita bread with some olive oil. I ordered it and while it wasn't awful....the combination of the spices was off. But I'll admit, hipster joint aside, it was refreshing to see an item like that on the menu, even if the server herself had no idea about the dish.
In fact, it is commonly eaten in Egypt as a starter with some olive oil and warm pita bread. So the hip bar wasn't wrong after all. It's also used during fasting season (any religion) as a light way to break the fast. But it's not a terribly common sight, nor is it used for spicing in dishes as one would see with za'atar in salads or lebanese-style pizzas (manooshe).
But the different spices used in the mix sort of throw all of the country's history into one even blend.
While the mix differs from person to person, at the base of it are: sesame seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and pine nuts. These are all items that can be traced back to the times of the pharaohs, and have been found in ancient egyptian tombs.
However, either hazel nuts or peanuts are used as the main nut in the mix. The one I grew up with had peanuts, but many recipes call for hazel nuts. Either way, neither nut is native to Egypt. Peanuts originate from South America and were brought over by the European explorers and eventually traded around the Mediterranean. Hazel nuts can be traced back to Syria, Turkey and even further back to China. So the nut component of the mix is a relatively new addition, and was probably introduced to egyptian foods through trade due to its geographical position.
Whether you opt for the hazel nut or peanut version, the best thing about this mix is that the flavouring comes from its dry roasting, so it is about as healthy as you can get and it can keep for a very long time.
The recipe I am using is one based on the mix I have always had; but getting the recipe was another story. It was a no-go. My cousin in Egypt was unable to really pinpoint the exact recipe, so after some trial and error in the kitchen, I managed to recreate what tastes familiar to me. All that to say is that you can change the proportions around to suit your tastes.
Also, the recipe I have makes enough for a little jar of spice. But you can double the proportions for more, or half them for less, just make sure the ratio stays the same.
Total preparation time: 20 minutes
1/4 cup ground peanuts (or hazel nuts)
1/4 cup sesame seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon pine nuts
pinch of salt (to taste)
1. Using a frying pan, dry roast on medium heat, the sesame seeds.
2. When the sesame seeds have begun to change colour, add the peanuts (or hazel nuts).
3. Allow these two to mix for about a minute.
4. Add remaining ingredients, except the salt.
5. Continuously stir ingredients to prevent burning.
6. After about ten minutes, the roasting should be done. Taste the mix to make sure you can taste the smokiness from roasting, and not something burnt. The colour should be significantly darker at this point.
7. If you have a mortar and pestle, add everything to the mortar with about a teaspoon of salt.
8. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, add everything to container for blending. Add a teaspoon of salt.
9. Grind everything to a powder. You cannot get too fine of a powder with this mix.
10. Because of the nuts, there may be a bit of moisture in the beginning making the mix clump a little, that's alright, let the mix dry out first, and then you can keep it sealed in a small jar.