According to Julianne Margvelashvili, author, in 1991, of The Classic Cuisine of Soviet Georgia, "utskho suneli" means "a strange and fragrant smell from far away." It is an herb, rather than a spice, and an important ingredient in Khmeli Suneli. Khmeli Suneli, literally,"a mixture of dried smells",is a Georgian blend of herbs and spices which figures prominantly in the cooking of the region. The blend varies quite a bit from family to family. It contains coriander, dried powdered marigold petals, utskho suneli, and a number of other herbs and/or spices, sometimes including allspice, dill, mint, or cinnamon.
Ms. M (a Canadian living part of the year in Georgia) bought her Khmeli Suneli from her favorite "spice lady" in the market near her Georgian home. She spent a considerable amount of time and energy, assisted by Marian Burros, of the NYTimes, tracking down the illusive utskho suneli. It turns out that it is trigonella cerulea, or "European Blue White", and is cultivated for food almost nowhere else. The leaves are dried, and crushed into a fragrant green powder. Experimentation revealed that powdered feungreek leaves, or petals, were a close match and an "available" substitute.
This is what happens to me when I take funny looking cookbooks out of the library. I just wanted to know what this flavor was like. But I wanted to know badly. The first thing I found out was that not only are powdered fenugreek leaves/petals pretty sparsely "available", but powdered marigold is not exactly all over the supermarket shelves either. It is less available than powdered fenugreek petals. In fact, it is less common even than culinary quality rosebuds, if you were wondering. (Don't ask.)
I had pretty well given up when, noodling around the internet, I found a little outfit selling Khmeli Suneli (and other spice mixes) on ebay, but also through its own website. They "masterfully prepare" other herb and spice blends too , and package their concoctions in rather touchingly decorated little boxes, as you see. Concerned with freshness, they have hand written expiry dates on the interior ziplock bags. These folks are called Chumley and Stella and their khemli suneli contains mint, fenugreek leaves, marigold petals and "spices." Like the Georgian market ladies, they are coy about their exact mix.
Anyhow, it arrived promptly and smelled very good, so I decided to give it a try in this chicken stew. This recipe is a sort of Georgian cacciatore, adapted from the library book. It is called "Chakokhbili". If you would like to make some too, this is what I used- or you could try making your own khmeli suneli, if you live near a well stocked herb shop of the exotic sort. I live near a Penzey's, but they don't do powdered marigold.
In addition to a tablespoon of khmeli suneli, you will need:
1 small chicken, cut up*
butter 2 tbsps
medium onions chopped fine 2
chicken stock 1 cup
potatoes, peeled and cubed 4 large
tomatoes, peeled and seeded (canned okay) 6
hungarian paprika 1 tsp
garlic 2 cloves
finely chopped fresh parsley 2 tbsps
finely chopped fresh coriander 2 tbsps
finely chopped fresh basil 2 tbsp
Melt the butter in a heavy skillet and brown the chicken on both sides. Remove to a 3-4 qt flameproof casserole. Add onions to skillet and cook until just golden. Add to chicken. Deglaze pan with chicken stock, and pour over chicken. Add remaining ingredients, except for the fresh herbs, bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, cover and cook til chicken is almost done and tender. Add 1/2 fresh herbs,and cook 10 minutes more. Decant into deep bowls with the juices , sprinkle with the rest of the fresh herbs, and maybe tuck in some toasted flatbreads to dunk.
I liked the distinctive khmeli suneli flavor very much. It is not a strange taste; it seemed rather familiar in a way, even. Stewed chicken is not usually my favorite, texture-wise, but I enjoyed this. I think I liked it in large part, because of the potatoes, which gave the combination some body, partially breaking down and thickening the juices. And the second day, like so many braised and stewed dishes, it was far more delicious; the flavors were intensified and blended nicely.
There's a recipe in this book for a kind of spinach/ walnut dip or pate calld ispanakhi pkhali, which also appears in a slightly different form in Please To The Table, Anya von Bremzen's excellent compendium of Russian recipes. I'm planning on making some of that, and some flatbread to scoop it up with. Stay tuned, as they used to say when the Box had antennae on top.
Of course if you notice seeds for the european blue white in a catalogue somewhere, you'll let me know, won't you?
*According to my library book, a Georgian cook is judged in part on his or her ability to neatly cut a chicken into more parts than you would think possible. I divided the back and breast sections in half. This would not impress a Georgian, but the pieces were pretty small, in my view, totalling 12. Wing tips were frozen for stock.
Addendum: There it is, the european blue-white, a clover and a fenugreek relative- photo added! I also have a few tiny seedlings sprouted, in a pot on my porch. I think I'll plant a few pot marigold seeds as well, and see if anything comes of them.