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
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.
Adapted from Chinatown by Ross Dobson