I am a huge fan of cooking with whole spices. Ground cinnamon can never substitute cinnamon sticks in a braise. Ground Sichuan pepper doesn’t have the same punch as whole or crushed peppercorn. And I’m prone to ignoring a recipe’s call for ground cumin, when whole cumin has been the friend that never disappoints.
The fragrance of freshly toasted whole cumin can make me delirious with hunger. I know that whatever’s touched with cumin will be smoky, substantial, and evocative of a far-off land blessed with pungent spices. If the food on this site seems cumin-heavy, that’s because I use heaping spoonfuls and, when working off other recipes, double or triple the amounts. Is there a support group for this kind of spice addiction?
This eggplant and black bean salad is a great backdrop for another cumin invasion. The spice adds a nutty dimension to the eggplant, and highlights the saltiness of the black beans. (Salted black beans, also called fermented black beans, is usually found in the preserved goods section of a Chinese market. Rinse before use.) Try this appetizer not only with Chinese main courses but also Middle Eastern dishes.
What’s your spice fetish?
Eggplant, Cumin, and Black Bean Salad
Adapted from Chinatown by Ross Dobson
Serves 4 as an appetizer
- 3 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 2 tablespoons salted (fermented) black beans, rinsed
- 2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons caster sugar
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
- 1 Asian eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
- 2 tomatoes, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
- 3 to 4 scallions, cut to 2-inch lengths, plus curly shreds for garnish
- Toast the cumin seeds in a wok over high heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove and let cool.
- For the dressing, combine the cumin, black beans, vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and garlic in a small bowl. Stir until sugar dissolves.
- Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Add eggplant and cook until lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Add dressing, stirring so eggplant cubes are well-coated. Add scallion stalks and cook for another minute. Remove wok from heat and let cool for a few minutes. Put everything from the wok and tomatoes in a bowl and toss to combine. Plate to serve and garnish with shredded scallion.