Off the Wall

Your New Obsession: Vadouvan

I wasn't joking when I mentioned that I had become somewhat obsessed with vadouvan. It's an easy trap to fall into, so beguiling is the heady array of flavors and aromas running through the stuff. It's one of those flavors that are immediately arresting and gratifyingly delicious, but also has such a wealth of nuance as to make it eternally interesting.

Based around deeply roasted members of the onion family, augmented with an array of warm, earthy and pungent spices, there's a lot going on in vadouvan. It manages to smell and taste both deeply exotic and utterly comforting. It's also relatively easy to make, though a significant time investment is involved. Here, in basic format, is how it's done.

The first step is to BUY ALL THE ALLIUMS. While that may be a slight exaggeration, you do need an awful lot of onions, shallots and garlic for your vadouvan. I usually just estimate, but I'd say I'm using about a 2-1 ratio of onions to shallots, with probably half as much garlic as shallot. Peel it, chop it, weep.

After you get all your onions chopped (doesn't have to be too fine, especially if you plan on grinding it down to a paste later), sweat them in a bit of olive oil until they just begin to brown. Next, you need to turn your attention to spices. A blend of cumin, cardamom, mustard seed, fenugreek, turmeric, nutmeg, crushed red pepper and cloves is a good starting point, with that order determining relative ratios, sort of. I don't measure anything, usually just eyeballing and guessing. It makes each batch come out a bit differently, but I'm okay with that. If you can find them (it's not that tough, really), vadouvan really ought to have sliced curry leaves in it as well.

Start with maybe a tablespoon or so of the first few ingredients, dwindling down to a spare pinch once you're to the cloves. It shouldn't taste like dessert, after all. If you find yourself in need of more specific measurements, there are plenty of those available, a couple of which I combined for my basic formula. I like using them as reference rather than rule, taking the liberty to alter ratios to suit my taste. For example, I love fenugreek, so I tend to up the ratio of that ingredient. My kids don't do very well with spicy foods, so I tend to downplay the crushed red pepper. I've thought about going off-formula, too, tinkering with additions of other spices. I think sumac, for example, might add an interesting element.

The spices get lightly toasted and ground, because it would be kind of silly to use pre-ground spices for this. Then, everything gets combined with a bit of oil and roasted at 350 degrees until it's done. How long will that take? An hour. Maybe two at the most. Stir it a few times during the process, or it will burn. I forgot about a pan, once, and wound up with a half-sheet of vadouvan ash. Amazingly, even that was delicious, adding charred and bitter undercurrents, but retaining the savory/sweet/spicy flavor that makes vadouvan so arresting in the first place. The charred stuff worked particularly well when I worked it into a citrusy vinaigrette to top a warm salad of roasted root vegetables, or when I folded it into a condiment of confited eggplant and peppers.

I will warn you that your house will smell amazing during this process. So amazing that you'll have to defend the vadouvan once it's out of the oven cooling. Even my kids sneaked in and tried to poach handfuls from the pan as it sat on a rack. I can't say that I blame them.

From here, it's just a decision of how you want to use it. If you want to use it more as a condiment, you'll want to roast it until it's not quite dry, so that you wind up with a sort of oily paste. You can also roast it till fully dry, to employ it more as a spice. In either event, you can decide what to do with texture, choosing to leave it chunky, or to grind it to a fine paste/powder. I've done both, and have come around to a preference for fully drying. You can always add additional oil back in to achieve a pasty consistency after the fact, and the drier version lasts a bit longer.

So where do I use vadouvan? Everywhere. I rub it on grilled or roasted meats. I use it in vinaigrette and compound butters. I've got my head stuck on vadouvan-duxelles, to roll inside of some sort of stuffed-roasted-meat or other.

Vadouvan morphs, in a way. It has so many layers of flavor -- bitter, savory, sweet, spicy, earthy, pungent, etc. -- that it can work well with a wide variety of foods. It's aggressive, so bear that in mind. If you toss a ton of vadouvan on something with mild flavor, the spices will completely dominate. If you use it sparingly, though, it can add an interesting twist to an incredible variety of foods. Just this second, it occurred to me that it might make a deliciously interesting ice cream. I'll let you know how that goes.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall