Become a spice master at home

Image provided by Clarkson Potter

By Pat Tanumihardja
Northwest Asian Weekly

Smell is one of life’s most evocative senses. A whiff of cologne takes me back to a dim-lit street where I walked hand-in-hand with my high school sweetheart; the assault of trassi (Indonesian shrimp paste) on my nostrils recalls the days in my mother’s kitchen as she pounded this pungent paste with chilies and garlic in her weathered stone mortar.

Smell … that was how Christina Arokiasamy’s debut cook book, “The Spice Merchant’s Daughter: Recipes and Simple Spice Blends for the American Kitchen,” drew me in.

“It was the aroma,” she writes in her introduction. “The exotic scent of spices: rich, alluring, and almost magical. A scent that would sometimes overpower the freshness in the air and sometimes subtly mingle with it to create a tantalizing bouquet. A scent that would always bring me back to my childhood.”

Arokiasamy is definitely an authority on the subject of scents and spices. Her great-great-grandfather captained a spice-laden East India Company ship that plied the trade routes between India and Southeast Asia, and her mother ran a spice stall in a market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Today she runs the Spice Merchant’s Cooking School in Kent, Wash.

With such provenance, Arokiasamy inevitably developed a nose and a palate for the art of combining and using spices in ways both traditional and innovative. In “The Spice Merchant’s Daughter,” she shares recipes for her family’s masalas, or spice blends, including garam masala (a “warm” spice blend) and two different curry powders, one for fish and another for meat.

One of Arokiasamy’s strengths is her knowledge of a wide berth of cuisines: from Indian to Malaysian to Thai. Her 140 Southeast Asian-inspired recipes are as tantalizing on paper as they are as finished dishes. I enjoyed the lemon pepper wings. Additionally, the rich and fragrant cardamom butter rice with sultanas paired with the sweet-tart whole roasted chicken in tamarind butter sauce were a big hit at a dinner party.

In the vegetable chapter, a simple table matching spices with vegetables is a godsend for home cooks like me who enjoy throwing a dish together with whatever is on-hand.

A word of caution: Do read through the recipes once before attempting to cook as a few minor typos and vague instructions may mislead.
For example, one recipe that the head note says can be made in a “jiffy” instructs you to stir-fry thin sirloin slices with black pepper and coriander for 12 minutes, which in my experience would turn the meat into tough leather. I presume Arokiasamy meant “1 to 2 minutes.”

Overall, “The Spice Merchant’s Daughter” shines, not just with original recipes and cooking tips but with lovely-to-read anecdotes too. Throughout the book, Arokiasamy weaves vignettes of life growing up in her Indian-Malaysian family dotted with memories of people and places. If you grew up in, or even just visited, Southeast Asia, you’ll love being transported back to the sights, sounds and especially scents of this beautiful region.

For more information on the author, visit Arokiasamy has two upcoming book readings in the Seattle area on Oct. 25 and Nov. 2. See our calendar on page 6 for details. ♦

“The Spice Merchant’s Daughter: Recipes and Simple Spice Blends for the American Kitchen” by Christina Arokiasamy is published by Clarkson Potter. $29.95.

Pat Tanumihardja can be reached at

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