This is something I’ve been playing with now for years and years, and haven’t gotten quite right to my satisfaction until now.
Frank Herbert is a little bit coy with his descriptions of melange, but overall the sense is that of cinnamon, sometimes specifically “bitter cinnamon”. In Dune, Dr. Yueh waxes poetical, saying that the flavor is “never twice the same… It’s like life—it presents a different face each time you take it. Some hold that the spice produces a learned-flavor reaction. The body, learning a thing is good for it, interprets the flavor as pleasurable—slightly euphoric. And, like life, never to be truly synthesized.”
There are accounts in Herbert’s later novels of the spice giving off a blue glow, or of the sand where a spice eruption had taken place being a deep purple color. I really like the idea of that, visually, but as it’s complicated enough to get the flavor right, let’s just focus on that for the time being.
The flavor of this mix is pretty good, I think. The cinnamon is at the forefront, but the cumin, especially in the smell, lends it a bit of unfamiliarity. It’s a warm blend, and I have the impression that it’s somehow… sandy? This is especially true with the texture of the sugar mixed in. The other spices are there as well, but more subtle and they take turns after the big cinnamon punch on the front. The sugar, added because our bodies crave sweet things, softens what is otherwise a pretty bitter mix, but that too is in keeping with some of the original descriptions. I opted for turmeric for its health benefits, and the little pinches of extra unusual spices for depth and variety. Also because I love them. More on that later…
So there you have it! I can’t promise that this blend will give you visions or turn your eyes blue, but I’m pretty jazzed to try it in all kinds of dishes, not least of all as a rub on meat, where I think it really might be awesome. My first test in normal coffee was pretty tasty, but I’m inclined to think that coffee on Arrakis would be made Turkish style, in little pots over open flame, so that’s on the list for the (near) future, as well.
Melange Spice Blend, from Arrakis
- 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. turmeric
- 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
- 1/8 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
- pinch of ground grains of paradise
- pinch of ground mahlep (optional, see note)
- 1 Tbs. finely grated jaggery
Combine all the ingredients and store in a small airtight jar.
A note on spices:
(I don’t usually link to specific products, but many people have had trouble finding these items locally, so here are a few affiliate links to point you in the right direction! I might get a sliver of profit if you buy one of these, so it helps everyone out!)
To really amp up the flavor of this, go to your pantry and throw away that ancient bottle of McCormick ground cinnamon. Then replace it with some really good stuff, and you’ll be wowed by the difference. I recommend either King Arthur’s Vietnamese Cinnamon or some Ceylon Cinnamon. I’m usually all for the savings when buying in bulk, but spices are one of those things that are best fresh, so consider getting smaller containers for better flavor. After all, when did you last buy one of those containers of old dusty cinnamon that are kicking around the pantry?
And my other super awesome recommendation, although it’s optional, is Mahlep. I’ve got some of this on order to try out, but I’ve had other brands in the past and let me tell you, it’s a secret weapon in my spice cabinet. It’s made from the pits of a particular Mediterranean cherry, and the raw flavor is subtle and hard to define, but is something adjacent to cardamom with a hint of almonds. But where it really shines is in baked goods. Add some of this to any stone fruit and it deepens and enriches the flavors.
I don’t have a specific recommendation for Jaggery, but you can find it it many specialty/international food shops. It’s a cool flavorful old-school sugar, where the molasses hasn’t been spun out. It usually comes in blocks or cones.
And lastly, Grains of Paradise. This is probably your best bet for cost, but if don’t have an easy way to grind up spices at home, this one comes in a jar with a built-in grinder. If you’ve got a couple of my cookbooks, you may have noticed that I really love this itty bitty pepper. I first discovered it while researching and cooking up medieval recipes, and it’s been a staple of my spice cabinet ever since. In fact, I have this loaded into my pepper grinder (along with cubeb and long pepper, two other old peppers). The flavor is rich and complex, with hints of citrus and something exotic and woody, while the actual feel of the pepper on the tongue can be a sort of cool burn that lingers. It’s really cool. :)