Some like it hot
The PNG spice trade
It’s no wonder Ian Hemphill has a nose for a good spice. Australia’s foremost spice merchant grew up on a herb farm and has been refining his sense of smell since he was a child. After 45 years in business, the spice expert is very fussy about the ingredients that he adds to his well-known Herbie’s Spices range. On a recent visit to Papua New Guinea, he was so impressed by local spices that he decided to immediately stock three of them: hot birdseye chilli powder, green chilli powder and Sogeri wild hot ginger. “If I can get something that’s really good, really out of the box, that’s what I’ll put in my range,” Hemphill says. “It’s definitely the flavour and the quality that make these spices so good.”
Author of The Spice and Herb Bible, TV presenter and Sydney Morning Herald Food Hall of Fame winner, Hemphill is following in the footsteps of his parents, herb pioneers John and Rosemary Hemphill, of Somerset Cottage, who commercially introduced herbs and spices to Australia in the 1950s.
After working for 10 years in the corporate world, Hemphill set up Herbie’s Spices with his wife, Liz, in 1997. The family business expanded, with daughter and chef Kate recently joining them to work on recipes.
Hemphill had a shop in Sydney for 20 years but now concentrates on running his factory on the NSW Central Coast and an online store, which stocks more than 100 spices from around the world.
He travelled to PNG for the first time last November as an advisory consultant to Paradise Spices in Port Moresby. He was impressed by the company’s processing techniques and he visited the Rigo District to talk to chilli farmers.
The farming methods are a cross between wild gathering and ordered cultivation, he says. Instead of ordered rows, the plants self-seed and grow in a haphazard way. The farmers clear areas between the plants and then harvest the chilli.
The birdseye chilli is very hot, with a beautiful flavour profile. It is a bright orange-red colour with rich caramel notes and scores a 10 out of 10 on the heat-level gauge.
“A light sprinkle on my breakfast eggs sets me up for the day,” Hemphill says.
He was also excited to discover green chilli powder in PNG, as it’s difficult to source. Most of the world’s chillies are harvested when ripe (red). This has a fresh green flavour profile without the high sugar levels of red chilli.
Paradise Spices slice the fresh green chillies and place them in a dehydrator to dry them under controlled conditions.
“Going to see the farmers in Sogeri was fabulous,” Hemphill says. “The farmers do everything by hand. They’re not using any chemicals because they can’t afford them. They could be certified organic but the cost of getting certification would be ridiculous.”
The Sogeri ginger is unique to the area and has a beautiful aroma. Most gingers are sweet but this hot one is ideal for curries and Asian dishes, Hemphill says.
Ian Hemphill ... impressed by the flavour and quality of PNG spices.