Ahead of her Demo Kitchen residency, Jenny Chandler on how seeds aren’t just useful for growing food; they are in many cases foods in their own right
Seeds. The word stirs up memories of crumpled envelopes, yellow-edged, with photographs of carrots, courgettes and lettuce, crammed into dad’s old cigar box; such promise of great things to come. Aged seven, I planted radishes in my own tiny patch. I wasn’t particularly keen on the peppery taste if I’m honest, but the sheer magic of a tiny brown seed transforming into a crunchy pink, edible root never failed to thrill. For most of us, seeds mean exactly that: something to plant, to nurture and eventually to harvest; an extraordinary miracle of nature.
It’s easy to forget that the seeds themselves are at the very heart of our kitchens. Where would we be without cereals, pulses, nuts, oil seeds, coffee, cocoa? So many of our everyday ingredients are quite literally dormant seeds ready to burst into life given half a chance; just two days of moisture and a dry lentil will already have sprouted into a new plant. The very fact that a seed can be stored, transported and then planted when, and where, we choose has shaped civilisation—seeds grounded our nomadic ancestors, and from there our villages, towns and cities grew.
Seeds are the topic of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Cookery and Food, inspiring my July residency in the Demo Kitchen. During the month I’ll be making a tour of cereal, pulse and nut dishes from around the world.
We kick off in the Americas with the traditional Mexican and central American combination of corn and beans which, with a little greenery and citrus thrown in, offers a fabulous nutritional profile. Seeds, often seen as the fillers, or the ‘carbs’, can also offer all the protein required when eaten in a varied diet. I’ll be cooking with the butter beans and quinoa that I met back in my days as a student in Peru and finishing up with the classic rice and peas combo that pops up all over the southern United States and the Caribbean.
The eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and north Africa are, unsurprisingly, home to many of the best-known cereal and pulse dishes—this was where it all began, where we first domesticated seeds. Top of the menu is fuls medames, a lightly spiced fava bean stew, often considered Egypt’s national dish and a staple since the time of the pharaohs. Ethiopian injera flatbreads use teff, the most diminutive cereal on the planet, alongside more familiar wheat, and are perfect to scoop up the fava stew. We’ll finish with Noah’s pudding, or ashure, (from Turkey and the Middle East) a legendary mix of wheat, rice, chickpeas, beans, sesame and dried fruit, perfumed with rosewater—a true celebration of seeds.
We travel to Asia, the home of dal, that extraordinary dish where a handful of seeds cooked up in nothing but water and a few spices can deliver one of the most comforting and economical meals on earth, something I cook at home at least once a week. Flatbreads are made with a myriad of different grains all over south Asia and I’ll be making a stunning version from Sri Lanka with coconut and millet (no, it’s not just for the bird table). Buckwheat, soy and sesame come together in the last recipe from Japan, with a perfectly balanced plate of soba noodles, tofu and tuna.
Coming home to roost in Europe, we’ll start the day with a mixed grain muesli using naked barley, rye, camelina and pumpkin seeds—why limit yourself to oats when there’s so much on offer? We nip over to northern Europe for buckwheat and beetroot blinis, with flax and smoked mackerel, simple to make and charged with goodness. There’s a a rather indulgent Provençal almond and apricot tart to finish—the twist is in the pastry, where traditional wheat flour is replaced with English pea flour, a new gluten-free addition to my larder and proof that the potential for using seeds in the kitchen is, quite simply, never ending.