Across my Table

Across My Table - Julian Amery

Friday, July 26, 2013Me! In words

When you see him standing behind his counter of exotic spices, you wonder about the story behind it all. How does one introduce Julian Amery – well he did it rather well for us during the course of this interview – “a Buddhist Englishman settled in Denmark, who has gone on yatras in the Kailash, now talking on spices with a South Indian in a mall.” - such is the variety of experiences he has to share and such is the variety of spices at his counter.

Julian is the mind behind Asa (pronounced Asha), an organic spices brand that brings together some of the best and most exotic as well as well known spices from around the work. In his own words, Asa is the "culmination of all the images, tastes and scent of my journeys".

Hope - Julian's 30 year old Mercedes Bus

At the beginning of 2008, Julian Amery left London and a 20-year career in the London restaurant and hotel business to embark on a solo, overland trip, heading East. He has done it all - from hearing the call of Buddhism in Baltistan to witnessing the K2 from the Burji-la pass to prostrating before the Sikh gurus in Amritsar, Julian credits his wonderful travels as his inspiration. He has trekked through leeches, blisters and cloudtops to glimpse the pinnacle of Everest; played Connect 4 with Sherpas; crossed the Khumbu Glacier and collected crystals on the north face of sacred mount Kailash. He has shared barbecue on the beach in Goa and washed at the roadside water tanks of Gujarat. A constant companion has been his 30 year-old Mercedes bus named “HOPE.” Julian and HOPE travelled extensively for two years exploring the Eastern side of the world. It is from here that spices became an integral part of Julian’s life and  He shares more in this interview.

The story of spice and Julian getting together: My father was a surgeon and once bartered a surgery for once-a-month meals at the patient's restaurant. This was my first introduction to Indian food, spices et al. I now think back and believe it was a Punjabi restaurant. I was always interested in strong flavors – it was the chutneys and the pickles that attracted me – I was always drawn to the intensity and you can say that is what has driven me through this journey. I want the truth, the absolute truth of the thing, the essence of it. I really like to eat well and I realized I have to be really rich to pay someone else to do it or else learn it myself. All of those came together and I worked in the restaurant business and I picked up tips and I became interested in how to combine flavors in a very basic palate and that was elevated out of basic cultural context – and mix of maybe grapefruit with something salty like feta cheese and sweet like honey – basically take these different flavors combine them and see if they reach a harmonious sort of blend. And of course every now and then you make a terrible mistake, especially with spices where it may be just too much or too discordant. A good metaphor would be that of music – where you hear a collection of notes and it can be harmonic or it can be discordant. It feels either wrong or right or beyond concept.

A unique spice or herb that you think people must try: Something new for the Indian market to try, I would recommend the pink pepper from South America  – its sweet fragrant and aromatic. It’s not hot and it’s a kind of fruit. One could also try some of the herbs I have, organic and bio-dynamic in nature. Cornflowers are definitely a must-try especially since they are beautiful and can be used to decorate tea or a dessert or a salad.

One could also try some of the unique spices mixes we make – like the organic peri-peri mix for BBQ and my own version of garam masala –which is sweeter, leaning towards the Punjabi version with its richness and tones of sweet.

A spice experience you can recall: It has to be from South Asia – the cuisines from this part of the world are one of the greatest across the globe and to consider international cooking without considering South Asian cooking is – you are missing something really big.

I remember being struck by the seasoning of strawberries with black pepper and then I tried seasoning fresh strawberries the other day with garam masala and that worked well. I soon started experimenting with seasoning sweet dishes - fresh peaches and feta cheese, with a touch of garam masala. Garam masala is perfect – it can go into sweet, savoury, it can go into puddings and all dishes. Szechwan pepper and chilli was a huge thing for me. You must eat it the way the Sherpas in Nepal do – mixing a very hot chilli with a Szechwan pepper in a pickle. Szechwan pepper has an anaesthetic feeling on the tongue, so you get the flavour of the chillis but not the heat because your mouth has been anesthetized. That’s really interesting.

In India we have the concept of garam masala, tanda masala used seasonally. Anything like this at all in the nations you have visited. 
In classic Italian cooking in the height of summer, they pile a lot of fresh herbs into their cooking, when autumn and winter come along, it’s more of the dried herbs, salted meats – this was all historically before the supermarket. There was pickled fruits and pickled vegetables and then there is the late winter early spring came on they would be hanging on to the last of the potatoes and then in Christian culture they would fast for 40 days and have Easter, which heralded the rise of the new crop. If you look back before the industrial revolution, all cultures have a food cycle or a food consumption cycle which is based on the available produce

Eating food was about sustaining life and now eating food is a leisure activity as well – and you can visit Peru tonight and Szechuan province tomorrow and Sweden at lunch time because you have the choice and you have the money.

Any new twists to staple Indian spice mixes - say the garam masala, chai masala, tandoori masala or veg masala - new combinations that you may have come up with.
I made a Danish masala for the Danes. I am an Englishman living in Denmark and I am constantly teasing the Danes – they have this reputation of never leaving Denmark or only in groups and then they feel they don’t get the same bread, so I am teasing them with something like the Danish masala which is a curry powder with no heat – it’s what you can an entry level masala for them.

If you were to cook up a 3 or five course spice based meal - what would be on the menu
I don’t like to use something too hot too soon as I find my palate gets stumped. I would like to use all that is seasonal, so at the current time all of the fruits and vegetables are in season and fresh. Fresh peas would be in season now, so I would make a cold pea soup with fresh mint and I would garnish with a little bit of chèvre, a bit of lemon juice, cider and some crème fraiche. If I am cooking for a meat eater I could take all of the hard stalk herbs – sage, rosemary, thyme , strip them, chuck them in a blender with three cloves of garlic with 3-4 splashes of good oil, some salt and pepper and I would blitz that into a paste. Next, I would take a whole leg of lamb and butterfly it (take off the bone), score it and then take this paste and rub it all over. You roll it up like a sausage and you put it in plastic and let in marinate in the fridge for a night. You light up your BBQ in the morning, beers in the cooler and when the BBQ has passed high point, you put it on there. It shouldn’t be too thick a layer or it won’t cook evenly for 30-40 minutes, let it rest for 20 before you slice off the back of a knife. In Europe right now I would serve it with a potato salad again with fresh herbs thyme, parsley, chives, mint. I might may a home-made saffron dip, chilli mayo, a bit of this peri-peri spice and for dessert if I am here in India I would make a pista saffron kulfi with big chunks of pista.

Foodhall hosts the exclusive Spice Station in collaboration with ASA. This will be a dedicated spice station that will host an extensive variety of organic herbs and spices, such as whole Cinnamon Quills from Sri Lanka, Vanilla Pods from Uganda, Smoked Paprika from Spain, Pink Pepper from the Camargue, Juniper berries and Cornflowers from Scandinavia, and many more. This innovative, interactive spice station will also provide customers with in depth knowledge about the spices, their origins and different ways to make use of them. 

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