Once, I had a difficult plane flight from Frankfurt to Nairobi. I’d purchased my ticket from Bulgarian Airlines about 30 hours before departure, at the height of the summer travel season. The plane stopped in Sofia, where I was told that I did not have a seat on the flight to Nairobi because I did not confirm that seat 48 hours in advance. The next flight to Nairobi would be in a week. I asked what could I do? They said just wait. The plane to Nairobi would leave at midnight, and I’d find out later if there was room for me. It was around 2 pm. The confirmed passengers were taken to a hotel to hang out. Several people were in the same situation as I, waiting in a little stuffy room at the airport.
We all got on the plane at about 11:55 pm, entering a cylinder of cigarette smoke. The left side of the plane was nonsmoking, the right side, smoking. I sat beside another person who waited, a woman named Aisha from Mombasa, Kenya. Several wonderful things happened. Here are three.
First, I saw an enormous yellow cricket the size of my finger wandering around the baggage rack.
Second, the plane flew over the middle of the Sahara desert at dawn. I had the window seat. The view of dawn was this: as far as I could see, bottom to top, left to right, were red and black swirls of cloud. No horizon, no topography. It was as if I was flying in a spaceship over a red planet.
Third, whole spices entered my life.
Because Aisha and I had a chance to make friends on our difficult plane flight, I visited her at her home on the coast outside Mombasa. She was a good cook, and I tried to help, but I did not know how to be useful. Rice, for instance, had to be checked for pebbles, and I was very inefficient about it, until she showed me to make one pile of unchecked rice, and whip rice into a checked pile. In a short time, done.
I watched her heat cumin seeds and whole peppercorns in a dry frying pan. She poured the hot seeds from the pan into a square of newspaper, folded the newspaper over into a closed packet, put the packet on hard pavement and hit it with a hammer a few times. The cumin and peppercorns were perfect, fragrant and ground to fine powder. They tasted a world better than the pre-ground stuff from the store. I was completely taken with this method, never having gotten the hang of mortars and pestles and pepper grinders.
For years after I came back to the United States, I roasted cumin in a pan, put it in paper, and hammered it. So satisfying.
Eventually I converted an annoying coffee grinder into a respectable spice grinder. Whole seeds are definitely the way to go.