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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Saturday, February 19, 2005

IMBB12: Vegemite Risotto & Smelly Old Underwear

Cabbage with Cumin

Vegemite Risotto

This month's IMBB essentially has the theme of creating something disgusting or taboo for somebody not of your culture or writing about something you really hate yourself. Initially I thought I'd find that difficult. I mean, I live in Australia which a real cultural melting pot for cuisine, and the Australian character being what it is, we just take everything in our stride. "She'll be right, mate. Looks tasty!" Ahh, the great Aussie laissez-faire. But, with some thought I came up with two ideas. One to use a food ingredient I HATE WITH A BURNING PASSION (sorry, got carried away by my hatred) and one for a dish that will disgust many readers out there, and may even be considered taboo by the Italian establishment!

Something that will disgust many people, especially Italians!:
Vegemite Risotto:
There is one significant dish I grew up with that I used to love taunting school friends with when they would ask what I liked to eat.....Vegemite Risotto. Yep, you read that correctly and you're probably reeling in disgust. But I have to put my foot down and say WAIT! LISTEN!

You see, my father's family are Italian and came to Australia when he was very young. They are from Northern Italy, at the foot of the Alps in the Veneto region, where rice and polenta are staple food. Risotto was a standard dish of his childhood, but often he'd come home late at night and want something warm and fulfilling like risotto....but who could be bothered with all that stock and stirring rubbish? This is when he hit on the idea of Vegemite. I think he had the kind of thought like "Well, I'm an Aussie now. I like Vegemite. I think Vegemite in my risotto would taste pretty bloody good!" Who knows what he'd been drinking that night, but he tried it and just loved it. Naturally, *everyone* he mentioned it to nearly retched in disgust, but when you think about it, it's not so weird really. Vegemite is really just a concentrated vegetable stock, so stirring a spoon through cooked rice, is not so crazy. My Aussie grandmother remembers poor kids in her street during the Depression only being able to afford Vegemite soup for dinner - just a spoon of Vegemite mixed with hot water. Blaah.

Whenever mum was having a night off from cooking, or when dad had a craving he'd whip out the saucepans and get going. It was about all he could cook well, apart from vanilla custard and BBQs. In keeping with his bastardised Australian-ised dish, he also threw all classic risotto making technique out the window. None of this adding stock slowly bull$hit! Not for him! Italians rolled in their graves everywhere. All he'd do is boil up some risotto rice, drain it, and then stir through a huge knob of butter, a large spoon or two of Vegemite and lots and lots of freshly grated parmesan. Healthy it most certainly is not! Nor is it photogenic; it was always a dull, pale brown colour like poo. But it was simple, television food that filled any craving; it was hot, creamy, salty and filling. It was yummy stuff.

Now that my dad is no longer with us, it's my younger brother who has kept up the tradition of Vegemite Risotto, and I'll often find him at the stove stirring away, using up all our butter and parmesan. He doesn't even bother with bowls any longer; he enjoys it so much he can be found laying on the couch, with the saucepan resting on his stomach as he eats right out of it while watching TV. Truly comfort food. And truly nothing that should scare anyone away - except, perhaps affronted Italians!
Read on for my hated food:

My hated food:
Cabbage with Cumin
Now, finding something I really hated to eat was more difficult. I really enjoy all foods and am willing to try nearly everything. I don't hate anything really and in fact, I love a lot of things that many lesser souls find repulsive; my own boyfriend can't even be in the same room as me if I have a lump of stinky, gooey blue cheese. Hmph - all the more for me, anyway! I love all cheeses, the stinkier and mouldier the better, I adore haggis (it's just like spicy hamburger meat!) especially with buttery neeps & tatties, raw pickled fish, anchovies by the handful, crispy blood pudding, bitter endives, andouilette sausage bursting with offal...in fact I'm really starting to get into offal and ordering plates of things like ox tongue or pigs trotters when I'm out- often to people's horror. I even ate a plate of pigs blood and rice with my father on the tiny Pacific island of Yap. In fact, in writing this I kind of feel I've introduced the opposite thesis to what Jeffrey Steingarten did in The Man Who Ate Everything, where he lists his food hates and how he'll address them! I think it's the sign of an open minded person, and I have little patience with neurotic, obsessive types afraid of unfamiliar food. I guess I could go out and try witchetty grubs in the outback, but unless I hooked up with the Bush Tucker Man or a group of local Aboriginies, I can't see that happening any time soon.
But, there is one particular ingredient, one little spice, one thing used in tiny quantities that will turn me away immediately. If I spy it on a restaurant menu I'll immediately eliminate that dish from my shortlist.....and no, it's not cabbage.
It's cumin.
I just can't stand it. I don't know why I have this inordinate hatred of it, but it's been around ever since my mother would steam pumpkin and sprinkle it with cumin seeds. Even then I hated it.
And you know what it smells like? Ok, people with more delicate dispositions might want to cover their eyes here:


I'm so sorry. I just had to say it. I get a whiff of cumin seeds and immediately I'm transported to the toilets at my old all-girls' school. A disgusting image, I know, but I just can't help it.
Where did this come from? I don't know of anyone else who has such a strong reaction to cumin. Sure, they might acknowledge it has a strong smell, but they never turn green and screw up their nose. And I don't like that I'm like this! I don't like being the type off food-phobic person people roll their eyes about! I don't like immediately discrediting perfectly interesting and tasty-sounding dishes from menus because cumin is mentioned; especially now as Moroccan/North African food is so popular here.

So, it's time to address this. I wanted to find a recipe that showed cumin off in its true light. Sure there are lots of curry/tagine/stew type dishes that I could have made, but I didn't want its flavour to be muted and diluted. I wante to take the full-on or not at all approach. I would CONQUER THIS SMELLY, UNDERPANTS ENEMY!
I found a perfect sounding recipe in Jill Dupleix's Very Simple Food for steamed cabbage with cumin that promised to 'turn any cabbage hater into a cabbage lover'. Nothing about turning cumin haters into cumin lovers, but I was fearless. I like cabbage, so no fear there, and the whole recipe only involved me steaming some cabbage wedges, drizzling a vinaigrette over the top and sprinkling it with cumin seeds. Easy!

I announced to my mother and grandmother that I was making cabbage with cumin as part of our dinner and they looked at me in amusement.
'But you HATE cumin!'
'Yes, I know! That's the point' I replied blithely.
I'm sure they thought I was off my rocker, but they were keen. We are all cabbage lovers; I'm sure Orangette would love us! For safety, I went out and bought some bacon so if I totally hated it, we could at least fall back on good old Aussie cabbage and bacon...mmmmm.

But, I didn't totally hate it. At least, I didn't hate the cabbage and vinaigrette part. That was very nice; tangy and refreshing. It could have done without the cumin, though ;-P. It'd be quite a nice dish without the aroma of dirty laundry. Those cumin seeds RUINED A PERFECTLY GOOD MEAL!
Mind you, I was the only one who felt that. My mum and Nan happily ate up all on their plate and said they could quite enjoy eating that more often. But it certainly didn't turn this cumin hater into a cumin lover. I offered them my little pile of cumin seeds I'd painstakingly picked off, one by one and placed in a neat little pile on the side of my plate, but they declined my magnanimous offer. I really did eat a few mouthfuls of the cabbage with cumin, but I have to admit, I failed. Maybe not a dismal failure, but still. Failure.
I'm going to keep on trying, though. This will not get the better of me!

Cabbage with Cumin
Very Simple Food, Jill Dupleix

How to turn a cabbage hater into a cabbage lover: buy the smallest, brightest, crispest and heaviest cabbage you can find, cook it quickly and serve in a vinaigrette with cumin seeds.

1 small, tight Savoy cabbage around 1kg
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp caster sugar
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp cumin seeds

Serves 4-6
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Trim the base of the cabbage, but don't cut out the entire core as this will hold the wedges together. Cut the cabbage in half from top to bottom and then cut each half into three equal wedges. Discard the outer leaves that aren't up to scratch.
Add the salt to the boiling water and cook the cabbage wedges for 5-10 minutes or until they start to soften. Drain them well, upside down in a colander.
Whisk the olive oil, wine vinegar, sea salt and pepper together in a bowl to make a vinaigrette. Arrange the cabbages on a serving platter and spoon over the vinaigrette. Scatter with cumin seeds and serve.


  • Excellent write up! That Vegemite risotto has to be one of the most original dishes I've ever heard of! I've never had yeast extract myself, but you actually made it sound kind of good, when I've only ever heard *terrible* things about it. Hmmmm.....

    It was so funny reading about your hatred of all things cumin- it's one of my favourite spices. In fact, I'll have to try the cabbage recipe very soon- it sounds wonderful.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/20/2005 12:06:00 am  

  • I really do think Vegemite is an acquired taste, as it is *so* strongly flavoured, but its saltiness works really well. Think of it like a thick soy sauce; in fact there are quite a few recipes that use it, like meatloafs and things, which I've never tried; I love my vegemite on toast!

    Yes, I can't explain my cumin hatred. I wish I could! I'd love to not have this aversion to anything with cumin in it...it's just crazy!

    By Blogger Niki, at 2/20/2005 12:38:00 am  

  • Because I don't like vegemite in the same way you don't like marmite... I think your risotto might suit me better if it was made with marmite. Umm - sounds like real comfort food. I might try the marmite version one day.

    And as for your brother? Do Ozzie girls actually put up with their guys eating their dinner out of a pan perched on their belly whilst watching TV. That would scare me much more than any vegemite risotto or toasted kangaroo toenails!

    and BTW - I love the thin Marmite soup - marmite and boiled water. It was a regular in our household, served from a mug, though. A warming winter drink.
    My mum would make a similar thing with oxo cubes too.

    By Blogger Sam, at 2/20/2005 02:45:00 pm  

  • Hi, my first time here and am enjoying your blog.

    My introduction to Vegemite was years ago in a workshop at the UniMelbourne (I come from the Philippines). So it's supposed to be eaten with butter on toast? Funny how I spread it, thinly, on its own and I liked it.

    Your Vegemite risotto intrigues me but I don't think I'll find the main ingredient here. :-(

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/21/2005 04:43:00 am  

  • Hi AugustusG. I can really identify with your prized jar of Vegemite. Travelling through Europe last year, I was craving it. I really don't like sweet foods at breakfast, especially jams and honeys for toast, but other than Vegemite there's really no choice here in Australia, so that's what I end up having every morning...which is fine, but it'd be nice to have a change now and then.
    Delia's potatoes do sound good...good enough to me that I might even give them a go, even with their cumin!

    Sam - I think when I wrote 'blaah' to Vegemite soup I was thinking of it in the way my Nan described how the poor children had it, which was very watery and lukewarm. I think I'm going to try it myself with Vegemite; I imagine it will taste quite like a strong beef stock...and I like that idea. I have heard of the Oxo cube soup too...and Bonox!
    Nah - my brother very rarely collapses on the couch with a saucepan, but I did see him just last week do it after a long day working in the back garden. I have been guilty of doing the same thing myself when I know I'll be too lazy to go back into the kitchen and the get seconds I know I'll want....eh, just take over the whole pot!;-)

    Hi Karen, and welcome! Ah yes, lots of butter is a major player in the enjoyment of Vegemite toast, but I'm really impressed that you tried it without and still liked it. Good on you! Incidentally, I was a student at the University of Melbourne for about 8 years, and even lived at one of the colleges there!

    By Blogger Niki, at 2/21/2005 09:46:00 pm  

  • I'm not keen on cumin either. But even worse I detest coriander. But I love marmite and vegemite.

    By Blogger Barbara, at 2/22/2005 07:29:00 am  

  • Thanks for the warm welcome! I stayed at the Business School Hostel in 1999 (I think). We were with the faculties of Geography, Engineering and Economics for an environment and energy workshop.

    Now I remember it was an Aussie-Italian fellow from Adelaide who goaded me into eating Vegemite, and he didn't say there had to be some butter first. No wonder he was surprised when I finished the whole toast. :-)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/22/2005 08:35:00 am  

  • I hate cumin. I mean, I hate it. My grandmother would make potatoes, and I would be fed them, and then I would nearly throw up. And I agree on the smell, actually. Ugh.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/01/2005 08:42:00 am  

  • Cumin is quite a distinctive and pungent aromatic spice and should be used quite sparingly in most recipes. It is fairly indispensible in at least Mexican and Indian dishes.

    I find sprinkling raw cumin seeds on top of cabbage quite an odd way to use it; most (?) recipes would call for sauteing it, either whole or ground to a powder.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/03/2005 07:27:00 pm  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/09/2008 01:09:00 am  

  • Quite some time after you made your post, but I just had to comment. :) I don't think raw cumin is the way to go (as pointed out by Matt). Also cumin should be paired with peanut oil not olive. Try this cumin-seasoned rice pilaf.

    1. Take 2 tablespoons of peanut oil in a frying pan over the stove.
    2. Add a generous pinch of cumin.
    3. Wait till the cumin starts to froth and splatter the oil.
    4. Add half a large red onion chopped lengthwise.
    5. Add quarter a handful finely chopped ginger and Jalapeños.
    6. Sauté till onion turns a rich brownish red and crispy.
    7. Add frozen peas. A Handful.
    8. Add cooked Basmati rice to the peas and onions and stir around for a bit till everything is an even temperature. Add salt to taste.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/18/2008 02:31:00 pm  

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