The joy of zhough

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Readers often e-mail us to ask about favorite cookbooks or recipes or dishes we always come back to. Well, over the weekend, I made what is probably my answer to all three. It’s zhough, a green chile paste from Yemen that I first discovered in the pages of Deborah Madison’s 2002 cookbook, Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.

It’s a simple sauce, something like a cross between a pesto and a salsa verde, but hotter than either and with an intricate flavor profile -- a tangible spice route, with Middle Eastern and North African footprints. Madison’s recipe is simple (see below): fresh green chiles, cilantro and parsley, garlic, black pepper, cardamom, cumin and caraway are all blended together with a bit of salt and olive oil.

I use a combination of jalapenos, serranos and Anaheims, and I toast the black pepppercorns, cumin and caraway seeds in a saucepan before I grind them in a spice grinder and put them in with everything else in a food processor. I also quadruple the recipe ...

If you think quadrupling a sauce recipe seems, well, excessive, all I’ll say is make it first and see what happens to you.


Zhough (sometimes called zhug in other cookbooks) is an awesome thing, with enough heat to satisfy chile fans, but not so much that it overwhelms the other flavors and spices. Like many spicy sauces, it mellows over time, the flavors deepening and coalescing.

And you can put it in almost anything.

A spoonful enlivens a bowl of vegetable or bean soup; it can transform a simple pasta or grain dish. Zhough even makes tofu taste good. Use it to marinate shrimp, make a terrific crust (with breadcrumbs or nuts) for salmon or a rack of lamb, or spoon it under the skin of a chicken or Cornish game hen before roasting. I’ve used zhough as a dipping sauce for pita bread or roast potatoes, and as a bruschetta and pizza topping (with burrata and wilted greens); it’s also fantastic stirred into a bowl of green lentils with garlic sausage or beluga lentils with grilled octopus (that last one is amazing).

Here it is in a salad of red quinoa, wild arugula, scallions, crumbled Feta cheese and a lime vinaigrette. I could go on. But it would be more fun if you did.

Zhough (green chile paste), adapted from Deborah Madison’s ‘Local Flavors’:

4 ounces fresh green chiles (jalapenos, serranos, Anaheims, poblanos or other fresh green -- or red -- chiles)

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley

1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

olive oil to moisten

pinch sea salt

1. Remove the seeds and veins from the chiles, and chop by hand (use gloves!) or in a food processor (stand back; the oils can be strong).

2. In a saute pan over high heat, toast the black peppercorns, caraway and cumin seeds until fragrant and just beginning to pop. Grind with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder.

3. Blend the chopped chiles, ground spices, cardamom, cilantro, parsley, garlic in a food processor (or a mortar and pestle) until well combined. Add the salt and enough olive oil to make a paste and continue blending until the sauce has the consistency of pesto. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.

-- Amy Scattergood

Photos of Deborah Madison’s cookbook with bowl of zhough and quinoa salad by Amy Scattergood.