Saturday, January 12, 2008

The new day always brought dukkah

Australia is my second home. In fact, I think in some previous life I inhabited Australia. Nothing else could explain the powerful hold a large landmass on the other side of the planet has on me. It's always calling me, beckoning me to come back soon, maybe even sell my worldly possessions (OK, the ones that don't ship easily) and move to its shores ASAP. I have recurring dreams about being on Qantas flights over the Pacific. I would sell my soul for a Tim Tam.

This all began in 1990, when I was 15 years old. I had wanted to be an exchange student since my older sister went to Sardinia in 1985, and I had been a voracious INXS fan since Kick. (What teen aged girl wasn't? I mean, had you seen Michael Hutchence?) My love of this Australian rock and roll band inspired me to want to visit their homeland, and I figured the only way I was going to be able to do it was if I made Australia the destination of my exchange-student goal. I was wait listed in an international program, then finally placed with a family for a summer exchange. I was on a marathon flight to the opposite side of the Earth before I knew it.

I had no idea that the experience awaiting me in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney would change my life forever. I fell in love with the place, and the people that inhabit it. My host family was (is!) perfect in every sense of the word: they made me a part of their family in such a way that today -- 17 years later -- I still often forget that there are no genetics involved in our relationship. I returned the next year, in 1991, for a visit (I had gotten a job at the local paint and wallpaper store to save enough money for my plane ticket). Then in 2004, when my older host brother got married, I took a long vacation from work to attend the ceremony. When I got married in 2005, Husband suggested the only honeymoon destination that made any sense: Australia. He is a good man.

Two days (three if you count the day we skipped passing over the International Date Line) after our vows and our cake and the Hora and my gorgeous dress that I love and still wish I could wear every single day, we touched down in Sydney for my fourth visit, Husband's first. It was the kind of honeymoon that people dream about -- nearly three weeks of enjoying each other's company, forgetting about everything else, not knowing what day it was and diving into experiences that were far from run-of-the-mill.

We only made a few reservations: the first four nights at what I would argue is the finest hotel in all the world (see the above photo, taken from our room, if you don't believe me); our cabin aboard the Spirit of Tasmania from Sydney to Devonport; a car rental in Tasmania; our ferry trip back across the Bass Strait to Melbourne; a one-way car rental from Melbourne to Adelaide and a plane trip from Adelaide back to Sydney. The rest of the time we drove around with our guide books and eyes open, stopping wherever we wanted to, finding singular and marvelous experiences (and food!) along the way. When we woke up each morning we didn't know what the day would bring -- we just knew for certain that it would bring adventure and joy.

And dukkah.

The new day always brought dukkah.

Prior to this trip, I had never heard of dukkah. Australians, apparently, were not so clueless. Though the dish didn't originate in Australia, everywhere we went there was dukkah on the menu. It's the perfect appetizer: a mixture of toasted and coarsely ground nuts and spices that one sops up with an olive oil-soaked piece of rustic bread. The crunch of the bread crust and the dukkah itself marries so nicely with the soft goodness of the olive oil, creating a textural sensation that we couldn't get enough of. That's not even to mention the taste. Dukkah is a nutty, spicy (but not hot), downright inspired concoction that represents the best of what a well-stocked spice cupboard has to offer. We would all do well to begin each meal with it; like with so many other things, the Australians have gotten it right.

Naturally, when we arrived home I started making it. I was driven to replicate those flavors and experiences -- create a honeymoon-in-a-bowl, if you will. And isn't that the best part about traveling, anyway? Everything tastes better on the road, whether its coffee or bread or yellowfin tuna straight out of the Pacific or meat pies. The challenge is to bring those flavors home with us, make them parts of our everyday lives, bring the exotic and far-flung right to our kitchens. Of course, it never tastes as good as it did when you were away, but food (like music) provides an innate and instinctive connection to experiences, times and places. It almost doesn't matter how it tastes -- as long as you're trying -- because nostalgia is a force with which to be reckoned and I can't think of any powers greater than the five senses to awaken memories both recent and long-past.

But no worries: this dukkah tastes great. Since it's less of a recipe and more of an amalgamation of crunchy bits, I spent many of our meals in Australia dissecting the dukkah -- separating grain from tasty grain, making mental notes, smelling and nibbling. It seems that there are probably as many ways to make dukkah as there are individual pistachios in my freezer, but what you read here is a pretty darn good approximation of the culinary joy that was our honeymoon.

In addition to its bread-sopping application, dukkah makes a phenomenal breading for chicken and fish. It adds more complexity and flavor than any breadcrumb -- even nicely seasoned panko -- ever could. But since we experienced it on our honeymoon in dippable form, that is the iteration I'm advocating here. As always, let your mouth and your imagination guide you; but in the immediate, please do yourself a favor and toast up some dukkah tonight. Trust me, from this day forth, without a dish of dukkah waiting for them, bread and olive oil will seem like little orphans.



1 c. shelled pistachios

1 c. whole almonds

1 T. whole coriander seeds

1 T. whole cumin seeds

1/2 t. dried thyme

1/4 c. whole sesame seeds

1/4 t. kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Toast the pistachios and almonds on a dry cookie sheet for about 12 minutes, watching and smelling carefully to avoid burning. Remove and cool on the cookie sheet.

In the meantime, toast the coriander, cumin and sesame seeds on a separate dry cookie sheet for about 8 minutes. Keep a very close eye on them as they will toast more quickly and become burnt little worthless nuggets before you know it. Please use your nose as your guide as oven temps can vary. Cool the spice and sesame seed mixture on the cookie sheet.

Combine all toasted ingredients in a food processor. Add thyme and salt; grind the mixture until it resembles small breadcrumbs. It should be dry and crumbly, not a paste (over processing can turn your beloved dukkah into some sort of pistachio-almond paste which, while I'm sure would be delicious, is not the dish we're going for here).

Transfer dukkah to a small bowl, and serve with bite-sized pieces of crusty bread and a shallow dish of your very favorite olive oil. A word to the wise: don't dump all the dukkah in the serving bowl at once. Just serve a little at a time, refilling the bowl when the supply runs low. Failure to do so will result in the entire batch becoming very oily, as it sits in the olive oil that dripped off previous chunks of bread that were dipped into it. The trick is to preserve the dry textural integrity of the dukkah as much as you can, considering that family and friends -- and perhaps strangers who just caught a whiff of your kitchen as they passed by your house -- are dragging oil-dipped bread through it.

Serves about 4 people as an appetizer, and you'll probably have a little left over. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature before serving it again.

No comments: