In his account of the early years of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation, F. Robert Hunter reports how people in Gaza, under siege at that time, were surviving on bread and something called dukka. They wryly referred to it as ‘eating dust’, because of its finely ground consistency. I would rather think of it as gunpowder, since dukka is no ordinary spice mix: it is fortified with protein-rich ingredients and, in the case of the Gazan version, has a hot pepper kick.
Better known as an Egyptian recipe, dukka is usually a mix of roasted nuts (hazelnuts being the most common), sesame, coriander and cumin seeds. There are many variations, some of which may replace hazelnut with another nut, or add other seeds or spices. The ingredients are pounded down (dukka derives from the Arabic for ‘to pound’) to varying levels of fineness, according to preference – I prefer mine coarse enough so you can still taste the individual elements. Dukka is traditionally eaten with olive oil and bread, as a meze or for breakfast. But as many culinary adventurers have already discovered, it is also delicious on anything from avocado to egg to beetroot and burrata salad.
The Gazan version of dukka is made with roasted wheat berries, and often dried lentils or chickpeas, instead of nuts. It is flavoured with additional spices such as sumac, hot chilli and dill seed, these latter two giving it its characteristically Gazan edge. The present-day Gaza strip is said to have a unique spice repertoire because the former Gaza region was once a prominent stop on the spice route. Then a symbol of movement and exchange, it is now referred to as “the world’s largest open-air prison”. The now 10-year-old Israeli military land, sea and air blockade, and the closure of borders with Egypt, mean that what enters and exits the Gaza strip is strictly controlled, and 80% of Gazans are dependent on food aid. In spite of the lack of access to most of their traditional ingredients, they take pride in their cuisine, if this informative feature is anything to go by. I hope to try out some more dishes from there in the future.
Below are three recipes for dukka, including the Gazan version. After making it, I discovered that I don’t yet have a firm grip on the contents of my spice cabinet: I had added in juniper berries masquerading as dill seeds (yes, the two do look and taste totally different). They were in a box of Scandinavian appearance clearly marked dill seed, and boasting that dill seed was good for much more than sauerkraut. I observed the unusual colour and shape, inhaled the fruity aroma, and thought perhaps that dill seed was completely unrelated to the lovely fresh herb I am used to. I was wrong. This accidental Tabbouleh Diaries innovation deprives the dukka of aniseed-y undertones but replaces them with an added fruitiness that goes well with the sumac. If you want to give that a try, just substitute juniper berries for the dill seed in the recipe below – some lucky people have already received the Tabbouleh Diaries version for Christmas.
Otherwise, feel free to do your own dukka with whatever is known or unknown to you in your own spice cabinet. The roasting of the nuts and spices –if in seed form- is key. Store in sterilised jars or airtight containers.
Hazelnut dukka, from Palestine on a Plate
Sweet crunchy nuts, warm and fruity spices, with mild bitter-sweet fennel undertones.
50g hazelnuts, skins off
3 tbsp coriander seed
2 tbsp cumin seed
1 tbsp fennel seed
2 tbsp hulled sesame seed
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp dried marjoram
1 tsp sea salt
Roast the hazelnuts in a 180 degree oven until lightly golden (5-10 minutes, but check and stir hazelnuts in the baking tray once or twice). Fry the coriander, cumin and fennel seed together in a medium-hot dry frying pan until aromatic (about 2 minutes), stirring regularly. Fry the sesame seeds, separately, in the same pan over a medium-low heat, until golden brown, stirring often so they roast as evenly as possible.
Either pound the coriander, cumin and fennel in a mortar, or blend them in food processor, to a coarse powder. Mix with the paprika, marjoram and salt, followed by the roasted sesame seeds. Pound or chop the hazelnuts into small pieces and add to the mix.
Gazan dukka, from the Palestinian Table
This adds wheat berries (whole wheat kernels) instead of nuts, and is ground more finely (important because otherwise you would break your teeth on wheat berries). Other Gazan recipes, such as this this one, also include lentils for a protein punch. The sumac adds a citrus note, and the chilli some spicy heat.
1 ½ cups (180g) unhulled sesame seeds
1 cup (160g) whole wheat berries
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp dill seeds
2 tbsp sumac
2 tsp salt
1 tsp (or less or more, to taste) hot chilli powder
Dry roast the sesame seeds in a frying pan over a medium-low heat, for 7-10 minutes, or until dark golden. Set aside, and place the whole wheat berries in the same pan. Roast for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring regularly. Remove and set aside, then place the cumin, coriander and dill seeds in the same pan and roast until fragrant (about 3 minutes), again stirring regularly. Add to the roasted wheat and leave to cool.
Once cooled, mix 1/3 of the sesame seeds with the wheat and spices, and add the sumac, chilli and salt. Grind in a nut or spice grinder to a powder. Add the remaining sesame seeds and mix well.
Egyptian dukka, from A Book of Middle Eastern Food
This is apparently the first dukka recipe to have been published outside Egypt, in Claudia Roden’s 1968 classic credited with introducing the UK to middle eastern cuisine. This version is simple and heavy on sesame seeds. A good base from which to innovate.
500g sesame seeds
250g coriander seeds
120g ground cumin
Salt and pepper
Put the seeds and nuts on separate trays and roast them in a preheated 250C gas 8 oven for 5 – 10 minutes or until they begin to colour and release an aroma. Put them together in the food processor with salt and pepper and grind them until they are finely crushed but not pulverised. Be careful not to over blend or the oil from the too finely ground seeds and nuts will form a paste. Dukkah should be a dry crushed mixture, not a paste.