Recipes: Sophie’s choice on spice trail

Sophie Grigson loves spices.

Not just the taste and the smell of them, but their history and provenance.

“I recently came back from a trip to Jordan,” says the highly successful food writer and television presenter.

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“There they just love cardamom. They have it in everything, especially their tea where often they have it 50:50. It takes your breath away to start with but you do eventually get used to it.”

Her latest book Spices chronicles her love of the pungent seeds which ground can add excitement to any dish and includes 90 mouthwatering dishes from across the world.

In this intriguing and practical guide, each spice has a dedicated entry, exploring its origins and voyages, its various culinary forms, and offering a selection of tempting recipes that exploit its unique aroma and flavour. In addition, there is a compendium of spice blends, ranging from the familiar to more exotic spice mixes

“I love spices so for me it was the book I always wanted to write. It is the most fascinating subject. I drew on research I have done over the years.”

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I meet her at the Oak Tree Inn, at Helperby where she is preparing to give a food demonstration organised by Steenbergs Organic, the Yorkshire Fairtrade spice importer, among other things.

Sophie is as enthusiastic about Fairtrade as she is spices, and mentions Steenbergs in her book.

“I think we have a duty to care about the people that produce the luxuries we eat,” she says. “If we buy chocolate, then we should care that the people who produced it are paid properly and that their children are able to go to school.”

She even wrote a cookery book a couple of years ago entitled The Fairtrade Everyday Cookery Book which aimed to show people just how easy it is to cook with Fairtrade produce.

She is now on something of a similar mission with spices.

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“We really don’t use that many spices in this country, possibly cinnamon and nutmeg in baking. Although a lot of people forget that pepper is a spice.”

In fact, the rise of the red peppercorn is her hot spice prediction for the future, that and sumac.

She says one of the main problems is that many people don’t know how to use or store them properly.

“If you have a spice rack of ground spices on your kitchen side throw it away,” she says. “Light is the worst thing for ground spices.” She also maintains that jars of ground spices should not be kept longer than three months – six months at tops.

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“Whole spices can be kept pretty much indefinitely. They even found some in the pharaohs’ tombs and I bet they were fine to use, although they might have lost a little something.”

Despite her clear passion for food and writing about it, Sophie never particularly set out to be a food writer. Her mother was a successful food writer, Jane Grigson, and she always loved cooking from an early age but really fell into it as a career. “I was a mathematician and then made pop videos,” she says.

“Then I was at an event with my mum and this guy asked me if I cooked and if I’d write something.”

The “guy” turned out to be the Editor of the Sunday Express Magazine and Sophie’s career in food writing had begun.

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“The first thing I wrote was 50 ways with potatoes, and then 50 ways with rice and then 50 ways with beans – that was tough.”

Her television debut came in 1993 with a series Grow Your Greens, Eat Your Greens on Channel 4. She now presents a series for the Travel Channel in which she combines her love of cooking and travel.

Prawn, mango & avocado salad

Serves 4


16–20 shelled large raw prawns

1 ripe mango

1 ripe avocado

60g small salad leaves

juice of 2 limes


3 tablespoons sunflower oil

1 tablespoon drained red peppercorns in brine

small handful of coriander, roughly chopped

To serve: 1 lime, cut into wedges


The strange, aromatic heat of soft, ripe red peppercorns gives a vivid edge to one of my favourite combinations: prawn, mango and avocado with lots of lime juice. If you can’t get red peppercorns, try it with brined or fresh green ones instead.If they are damp, pat the prawns dry on kitchen paper. Peel, halve, stone and slice the mango and avocado thinly. Mix the sliced fruit with the salad leaves and divide between four plates. Squeeze over the juice of one of the limes and season with salt.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the prawns and fry for four minutes or so, turning once, until they have turned a good-humoured pink. Scatter over the peppercorns and shake the pan for a few seconds to heat them through. Now take the pan off the heat, squeeze over the juice of the other lime and season with salt.Spoon the prawns, peppercorns and pan juices over the salads. Scatter over the coriander and serve swiftly, with lime wedges.

Vanilla chicken with peppers & white wine

Serves 4


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1 free-range or organic chicken, about 1.5kg, jointed into 8 pieces

3 red or yellow peppers

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

100ml dry white wine

few thyme sprigs

Spice rub:

½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste, or the seeds from 1 vanilla pod and

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon coarse sea salt

½ teaspoon thyme leaves

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil


The scent of vanilla wafts through this dish quietly, but with assurance. I doubt that many will guess the mystery ingredient, but they will love the taste anyway, and that’s what counts.

For the spice rub, just mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl.

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Add the chicken pieces and turn them in the mixture, massaging it all over them. Cover and leave to marinate for at least an hour, but far better a full 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 220°C/Gas mark 7. Halve, core and deseed the peppers, then cut into broad strips. Put the peppers and olive oil in a roasting tin or shallow ovenproof dish with a little salt (not too much as some will leach off the chicken), and turn to coat the peppers lightly in oil.

Add the chicken to the tin, distributing the pieces amongst the peppers. Pour over the wine and scatter over the thyme sprigs. Roast for 45 minutes or so, turning over pieces and stirring around twice, until the chicken is cooked through. Check the seasoning. Serve with rice.

Spices by Sophie Grigson is published by Quadrille (£20). To order a copy through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call 0800 0153232 or go online at Postage and packing costs £2.75.

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