2019 was the year of Middle Eastern flavours, with spice blends like za'atar and baharat taking their place in the spice rack. This year, as the neighbouring Caucasus region grows in popularity as a tourist destination, we could well be seeing native spice blends like khmeli suneli taking up space alongside their Middle Eastern cousins.
Blue fenugreek, a warming and subtle spice which is milder and less bitter than regular fenugreek, is one of three spices which epitomise the flavours associated with Georgian cuisine, according to food, wine and travel writer Carla Capalbo, author of Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus.
Together with ground coriander seeds and yellow marigold flowers, the trio is used to give subtle seasoning – and lend a golden colour – to a wide range of dishes, from meat and vegetable stews and casseroles, to phkali (a Georgian antipasti-style dish featuring steamed green vegetables, garlic, ground walnuts and pomegranate seeds). The three, sometimes with the addition of chilli, can also be found in the khmeli suneli spice blend.
Capalbo, who is currently penning a book on Georgian seasoning, prefers to use the three spices separately to adjust levels accordingly, but says the blend is made commercially in Georgia and widely used by Georgians.
She believes that khmeli suneli, svaneti salt (sea salt typically seasoned with dried garlic and spices including dried coriander, cumin, dried dill, blue fenugreek, yellow marigold and red chilli) and particularly chilli paste ajika have enormous potential to grow in popularity in the UK.
In Tasting Georgia, three of Capalbo's 70 recipes are for making ajika, a paste of red or green chilli peppers, garlic, salt and dried herbs which originates from the Abkhazia area of Georgia. She praises it as a versatile ingredient that is adaptable to a range of dishes, both Georgian and British, needing a fiery kick.
“You'll find it made all over Georgia. It's quite hot. Some make it like a thick paste which is very dry and others are more loose,” she says. “It is very popular and the Russians in particular are besotted by it and other Georgian spices, so you'll already find it in jars in Russian grocery stores here in the UK.”
Indeed the spicy condiment, which can be used as a rub for meat, a marinade for vegetables or an addition to dips among other ideas, is already being made by a company in Doncaster (Kortava's Ajika Abkhazian) and has been highlighted by Ukrainian chef and food writer Olia Hercules, author of cookbooks Mamushka and Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan and Beyond.
Spicing up vegetarian-friendly fare
Keti Maglakelidze, who moved to the UK from Georgia 19 years ago and runs three food businesses specialising in ingredients and food from Georgia, has seen interest grow in the last five years.
Sales of spices and spice blends through her business Suneli – the first legal importer of Georgian spices to the UK – have been steadily rising, according to Maglakelidze, who also runs street food business Georgian Feast and restaurant Geo-Cafe in Caversham.
“We've definitely seen interest rise in Georgian cuisine since we started. We have a lot of people who come to our food workshops and learn more about food from Georgia,” she says. “At Geo-Cafe we've adapted our menu for British tastes – like our grilled chicken wraps with baje walnut paste and ajika.”
While seasonings are used to flavour many meat dishes in Georgia, the Orthodox church dictates that no meat, fish, eggs or dairy can be eaten on certain days, so many traditional dishes are made with vegetables and pulses.
“There are a lot of vegan and vegetarian dishes made in Georgia, so there is always something for every diet,” adds Maglakelidze, who sees this strengthening its appeal in the UK.
Through Russia, with love
While there are no typical Russian spice blends, the nation is fond of using spices like coriander and coriander seed, cloves, cinnamon and pepper in their cooking. Herbs like dill and parsley, plus garlic and horseradish, also feature heavily, says Russian-Jewish food writer Lea Zeltserman.
“Russia was also on the various trade routes from central and far-east parts of Asia, so Russians were introduced to a lot of spices early on. Russians enjoy a lot of the spices and seasonings from Georgia and Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics,” she says.
“Although these dishes are not Russian, the Soviet authorities explicitly pushed the cuisines of all the republics – and Georgian cuisine was loved by Russia, even before Soviet times – so even now, these dishes and their spices are all part of the Russian table. If you go into a Russian store, you'll see packets of spice mixes for khmeli suneli, Korean carrot salad (a Soviet legacy), plov (an Uzbek rice dish) and ajika.”
Nations around the Caucasus are also fond of pickling, preserving and fermenting foods, using spices and herbs during the process. With these techniques also becoming more widely adopted by British chefs, there is potential for the aforementioned flavours to bring a new twist to menus.
The growing interest in this region has already been spotted by online food shop Sous Chef, which is planning to introduce a new range of spices from the Caucasus to purchase from the website this year.
"Over the last five years, we've seen a real surge in interest of Eastern European flavours, techniques and recipes – spearheaded by chefs such as Olia Hercules and Caroline Eden,” explains Sous Chef founder Nicola Lando.
“The food of Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan makes wonderful use of traditional techniques, such as home-baking, pickling, preserving and fermenting. And the spices are very recent entrants to the UK – such as blue fenugreek and the marigold-flower-based blend khmeli suneli. I've been tasting these from spice traders this year and am excited to introduce them to our customers soon.
“The region is a treasure trove of recipes that have remained relatively unexplored by many other European cooks, there is much to discover!"