Ian “Herbie” Hemphill smiles. A lot. Well, why wouldn’t he? The owner of Herbies Spices, Australia’s undisputed Spice King has made his passion his career, a sure recipe for happiness, says Lyndey Milan, Happy Ali’s Food Editor and an award-winning multimedia presenter, author and TV chef.
When Ian “Herbie” Hemphill talks spices, he brings you along with him, igniting both interest and wonder about these exotic ingredients.
Little wonder, as Herbie started out at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) in Sydney in 1968. He’s a natural performer. He also worked for his parents, John and Rosemary Hemphill in the family herb business, Somerset Cottage. He had already been given the nickname “Herbie” at school and then found he liked the spice business more than show business — but not before the love of his life, and willing partner in spice adventures, Liz.
Herbie says, “When Liz and I first lived together I put a blend of sweet paprika, black pepper, cinnamon and salt on grilled chicken. I think that’s why she decided to marry me 50 years ago!”
So, just why do spices make Herbie so happy?
“In the same way that different instruments in an orchestra come together to create a symphony, spices add a symphony of tastes to everything one cooks. Most spices are not hot, and every spice has its own character, defined by colour, texture, aroma and flavour.
A plain beef stew becomes a rich, satisfying comfort meal when cooked with Baharat (Paprika, Pepper, Cumin, Cassia, Cloves, Coriander Seed, Cardamom, Nutmeg). What could make one happier than the sight of scrambled egg with a sprinkling of Aleppo Pepper, or a fresh garden salad sprinkled with Sumac?”
This love affair goes back a long way. As a boy still at primary school, he saw a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy asked Charlie Brown what he was eating, and his reply was “sugar lumps with honey, and they are good with cinnamon too!” Although Herbie’s parents had already started their herb business and sold cinnamon, he’d never thought of it as a spice until then. Spices have been part of his life for 60 years.
His favourite spices are cardamom first, along with pepper, chilli, turmeric, cumin and coriander seed. According to Herbie, cardamom complements all dishes, whether sweet or savoury, and even a small amount adds a bright freshness.
Pepper has a wonderful aroma and taste, as well as adding a pleasing warmth to food.
Chillies are not always hot, and many are used for the depth of flavour they add, especially when dried. He calls them “the spice version of sun-dried tomato”.
Turmeric has many well-documented health benefits and adds not only colour but an earthy depth to food.
Cumin is not just for curries but is found in cuisines from the Middle East, through India and even in Mexico.
Coriander seed is the great amalgamating spice that goes with every other spice. “You could call it the ambassador that brings allspice flavours together,” he says.
As for any specific spices which might make us feel happy, Herbie advises, “the warmer spices like pepper and chilli release endorphins that give one a sense of wellbeing. All other spices make us happy by making food taste great”.
When asked about the magic of spices, his answer is simple: “Who would have thought that adding an ingredient at less than five per cent could make an extraordinary meal? That is the case with spices. For example, adding just 20g of Ras el Hanout (meaning “head of shop” or “top shelf” with up to 50 individual spices in the blend) to 500g of chicken and vegetables makes a delicious Moroccan tagine.
To me that really is magic, and economical.”
For readers who have never used a spice in cooking, Herbie advises starting with a recipe to ensure that the right quantities of spices are used. Mild spices such as cinnamon, coriander seed and sweet paprika are good ones to start with, and, if using a blend, look for one with only natural ingredients and no additives.
And remember, not all spices are hot. Who doesn’t love vanilla ice-cream?
Evocative of far-flung countries, this spice has long been regarded as the spice of happiness in traditional Eastern medicine. In fact, a 2015 study in Iran, where some of the best saffron comes from, shows that saffron has the same effects as antidepressants. Saffron is believed to target problems relating to mood and depression. Use it in Indian cuisine, Spanish paella, Italian risotto and Southern France’s bouillabaisse.
This hardy herb grows in bushes easily and has tremendous medicinal values especially in cases of physical or mental fatigue, burn-out and depression. Rosemary tisanes can help with insomnia and to calm nerves. It is used in Mediterranean cuisine and is particularly delicious with chicken and roast potatoes.
Beloved for its Christmassy aroma, cinnamon is one of those wonderfully versatile spices that is not only warming in winter but also stimulates neurons. It is available as sticks or ground, and cinnamon can influence brain function by boosting concentration, memory and attention. Ceylon cinnamon is finer and more expensive; Chinese cinnamon (or cassia) is cheaper and coarser. Use it in Moroccan tagines, to stir hot chocolate, and add it to desserts.
Thyme is used everywhere in Provence and is often sprinkled on tomato dishes and tians. Like rosemary, thyme helps in cases of stress, mental fatigue, and insomnia. It contains lithium, a mineral with antidepressant properties, as well as the amino acid tryptophan, used to make serotonin, which is a necessary component for sleep. Thyme also calms the nerves and therefore makes a great herbal tea especially when combined with rosemary.
Like saffron, this spice’s ocher yellow will brighten any dish but it is also known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Like thyme, it stimulates the release of serotonin, the happy hormone and is usually used in Indian dishes or mixed with coconut milk in many Southeast Asian curries. The best turmeric comes from the region of Kerala in India, as it has higher concentrations of curcumin.