Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Cumin roasted potatoes from Sichuan

It's a firm culinary rule in China: the further west you go, the more you'll run into cumin. This is definitely not a spice that finds itself welcome anywhere on the eastern seaboard, where it is treated more as an oddity, a gustatory artifact of the less refined cuisines out in the hinterlands. 

But cumin is a spice that seems made for chilies, for garlic, for onions. Ask the Mexicans and the Indians, the Arabs and the people who live along the ancient Silk Roads, or any of the people who every day get to enjoy the enlightened cuisines in the Levant, and they'll tell you: these are what cumin was meant to be paired with.  

The really strange thing about this super simple dish is that all of the main ingredients came from somewhere other than China. Potatoes, the chilies, and the cumin all are foreigners. But, like the great Qing dynasty court painter Lang Shining, who was actually an Italian Jesuit named Giuseppe Castiglione, they became adopted by their new home with such great enthusiasm that they became Chinese by association.

A battery of aromatics
No matter where you go throughout the northwest or west, cumin winds its way into the foods with delicious abandon. It all makes perfect sense, of course, since cumin arrived in China via the spice merchants from the Middle East. 

The name for cumin, ziran, is so unfamiliar to most people in China that it doesn't even appear in many Chinese dictionaries. So, don't be confused if no one knows what you are talking about. Unless you are eating in the West or Southwest, of course.

Not to be confused with caraway (its close relative, along with fennel, anise, and parsley), cumin can be used whole or ground. I buy small amounts of it whole, as it stays fresher that way, and pulverize it in a spice grinder. 

When I really go on a Sichuan binge, I'll grind up a couple tablespoon's worth and store it in a little bottle. The seeds don't need to be toasted first, but as with so many warm spices, it doesn't hurt. Here, though, the spices will all be roasted together in the oven, so that saves an extra step. 

This is a lovely way to prepare new potatoes because they are first steamed thoroughly until they are soft and sweet. Then, they are tossed with some oil and the many aromatics before being baked. This extra step crisps up the skin and fluffs up the insides of the potatoes while infusing the oil with all the flavors of the spices and garlic and onions. A healthy dose of salt rounds out the flavors and keeps a nice, sharp edge to this dish.

Fingerling potatoes
If you are serving this with something salty or fried, use the lesser amount of salt. On the other hand, if you want to have these little potatoes as a bar snack or as a savory side for, say, steamed fish, then use more salt to add more punch. If you're not sure, use the lesser amount and provide extra salt at the table.

Now is the time of year to enjoy new potatoes. I used Fingerlings for this dish, as there was a fresh pile of them at the market the other day, and they looked so pink and good that I had to get them. When you buy new potatoes, try to get them more or less all the same size, as then you won't have to trim them. Pass over any that have a green cast to them, as these have been exposed to the sun and will be poisonous.

I never peel these little gems, but merely scrub them under running tap water with a soft brush to remove any grit in their folds. That really is about it. If you are buying them a couple of days ahead of time, don't wash them, but merely wrap them up in a brown paper bag and store them in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator. They should keep well that way for quite a few days.

Cumin roasted potatoes  
Ziran kao malingshu 孜然烤馬鈴薯
Serves 3 to 4 as a side dish

A generous pound of new potatoes (any variety)
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 green onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground chili powder
1 to 2 teaspoons sea salt (see note above)
1 green onion, finely chopped, for garnish
A few stalks cilantro for garnish, optional

1. Scrub the potatoes until clean. Steam them for around 15 minutes until tender.

2. Heat the oven (see Tips) to 350 degrees F. Place the potatoes on a small baking pan and toss them with the oil. Mix together the green onion, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, cumin, chili powder, and salt, and sprinkle this over the potatoes. Roast the potatoes for 15 to 20 minutes until browned, tossing them occasionally as they cook.

Salt & spice & everything nice
3. Garnish the potatoes with the extra chopped green onion and optional cilantro. Serve hot.


A small toaster oven is great for this, as the size is perfect.

Use whatever ratio of spices and aromatics you like. Ginger is a good addition, and if you love chili, add more. Smoked paprika goes very well in the mix, as does extra garlic.