There is no other country in the world that produces as many kinds of spices as India. So, it is not very surprising that India is known as the "Home of Spices". The country's climate is perfect and very suitable for almost all types of spices. These spices are important for the country from the point of view of both domestic consumption and export.
Indian spices are well known all over the world and cherished for their culinary value, tangy and aromatic flavors. They play a very important role in Indian cooking. Indians spice up their food, teas, drinks, sweets not only for the exquisite flavor it lends the dish but also due to the medicinal values they provide. We Indians believe that spices not only zest up the food but your life too!
These spices can be combined in amounts to make specific spice mixtures used in everyday cooking. A very well known spice mixture is the Garam Masala. The word garam means hot, not "hot" as in spicy chili hot, but due to the fact that the spices blended in the mixture are said to increase the body temperature.
Masala is a word very commonly used in Indian cooking and is simply the Hindi word for "spice." So, whenever a combination of spices, herbs and other condiments are ground or blended together, it is called masala.
You can have a wet masala, which includes water, yogurt or other liquids to the ground spices making it into a more paste like consistency. These are often used to marinate meats, vegetables and fish or are sautéed in oil before adding the main vegetable or meat. This helps the delicate blend of flavors release their aromas into the recipe.
Then there are the common powdered blend of spices. These can be bought in any Indian store or well stocked supermarket and depending on the quality, these can have a very good flavor and are comfortable to use.
The whole masalas often includes, as the name suggests, whole spices such as whole cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom and black peppercorns. These are fried in hot oil before other wet ingredients such as onions, garlic or ginger are added.
The classic Indian curry often combines the following spices - coriander, turmeric, cumin, ginger, garlic as well as other spices.
My mum, nani (grandmum) and my masis (aunts) and probably many Indian housewives around the world store their spices in what is called a masala dabba - an Indian spice box. This spice box is round and made of stainless steel with seven individual stainless steel bowls. It comes with a small measuring teaspoon and must have a tight fitting lid in between the compartment for the bowls and the main lid. This ensures that the spices do not get all mixed up.
Each bowl is filled with the seven most favorite and most commonly used spices in the household. I admit I do not have such a wonderful spice box, but have it on my wish list for the next time I am in Dubai or India.
For the first Bollywood Cooking session I thought I would introduce you to some of the different spices used in Indian cooking. It is not necessary to stock up on each spice mentioned here but having the basic spices in your kitchen will help to make certain Indian dishes in a breeze.
The Basic Spices
There are a few basic spices in Indian cuisine that go into most dishes. Often a very basic vegetable dish is made by adding cumin or mustard seeds and asafetida in some hot ghee (clarified butter) or oil until they sizzle and pop. Then the vegetables are added and steamed.
Cumin seeds - whole and powder:
This is mainly used in North Indian food and is used for its strong distinctive taste. When roasted, whole cumin seeds release more of the aroma and gives the dish a sweet flavor. Cumin seed powder lends a sweet and mild flavor to a dish and is one of the main ingredients in the Garam Masala.
Hindi name - Jeera
Coriander seeds - whole and powder:
Mainly used for its fresh, soothing and cooling taste, coriander seeds are very light weight and have a mild flavor. Although they come form the same plant, they should not be mixed up with cilantro. In powder form it is an indispensable spice in the spice box. The aromatic fragrance of the roasted coriander powder enhances the taste of any dish.
Hindi name - Dhaniya
This is mainly used in Indian dishes for its medicinal properties and for the gorgeous intensive color it gives to the dishes. It is mildly aromatic and has a delicate scent of ginger. Turmeric is a wonder spice and is used throughout Asia to treat cases of stomach and liver ailments. It is also used exteranally to heal sores and in cosmetics. As a matter of fact one of my childhood memories of my mum is her in her weekly turmeric, sandalwood and honey face masks - LOL!
Hindi name - Haldi
The Indian chili powder is made from ground chilies and is often hotter that the chili powder available in the US/European stores. It has a pungent, hot aroma with a strong bite to it.
Hindi name - Lal Mirch
This is often used as a digestive. It has a strong odor and a slight garlicky flavor. Do not taste this raw - it is NOT a pleasant experience. Using it in the recommended recipe however, works wonders. Just a pinch is used for cooking in dishes with lentils and beans.
Hindi name - Hing
Black mustard seeds:
In India the black mustard seeds are preferred over the larger yellow ones found in the western world. It has a strong but pleasing flavor and known for its digestive qualities. Mustard seeds are used in India to flavor vegetables, pulses and pickles.
Hindi name - Mohri
The mixture may include a variety of ingredients from cumin, fennel, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, poppy seeds, saffron, pepper, chilies, and black cumin seeds and more. It can be used whole or in powdered form. It is often added at the end of cooking, so that the full aroma is not lost. Here is an interesting recipe, if you want to give making your own Garam Masala a go.
In our vegetable dish from above, a complementary spice, like fennel or nigella seeds may be added. The dish may be flavored with ginger and sprinkled with turmeric and coriander powder.
Although this is a basic Indian spice, it is not essential. It is mainly used in North Indian cuisine and posses digestive qualities. If you often visit Indian restaurants you will find these coated with colored sugar and offered after meals as a mouth freshener. Fennel seeds are also often used to spice up teas and drinks.
Hindi name - Saunf
This spice, which is actually a lentil, is used throughout India for the distinctive flavor it gives the dish and for its wonderful healthful properties. As a matter of fact, after turmeric, fenugreek seeds is the most medically useful item in an Indian kitchen.
Hindi name - Methi
Also known as onion seeds, these are often used in North India to enhance vegetable dishes. Toasting the seeds briefly brings out the flavor. Oh ... and no they are not really seeds from onions.
Hindi name - Kalonji
These have a strong peppery-thyme flavor. This poppy seed like plant comes from the lovage plant. It is very popular in North Indian cooking. It is used in preparing many Indian vegetables and pulses.
Hindi name - Ajwain
Aromatic Secondary Spices
Going back to our vegetable dish, you can choose to additionally add any of these secondary spices to jazz it up. Before adding the vegetables, add chopped onions, tomatoes and herbs to the spices above. Now you can add any of the secondary spices. Then add the vegetables and steam with a bit of water.
Green Cardamom - whole and powder
This is used throughout India to flavor curries, vegetables, rice, dessert and the ever famous masala chai.
The pod itself is neutral in flavor, it is the brown sticky seed inside the pod that gives that wonderful flavor. The pods should be kept whole, as ground cardamom quickly loses flavor. It is recommended to grind small quantities at home using a coffee mill. When a recipe calls for whole cardamom, the pods should be cracked open slightly to release the full flavor of the spice. This is such a versatile spice and is often used to flavor many desserts and cakes as well as savory dishes.
Hindi name - Choti Elaichi
This is larger in size and darker in color. It is often used to flavor meat, poultry and rice dishes. The spice is coarser in flavor than the green variety. The inner seeds are often one of the spices used in Garam Masala
Hindi name - Kala Elaichi
It is the bark of the cassia tree that is mostly used in India. The real cinnamon stick, as we know it, found in most supermarkets have a more delicate flavor than the Cassia bark. Cinnamon sticks lend the dish a sweet and mellow flavor. In India it is often used in many curries and puloas to give the dish a rich flavor.
Hindi name - Dalchini
Cloves - whole and powder:
Cloves are strong, pungent, and sweet. They are used in many meat dishes, marinades, pickles and in many garam masalas. Cloves are used whole or in powder form. In India clove oil is also used due to its medicinal value. Many Indians chew on cloves to relieve toothaches and it is used also as a mouth freshener after a meal.
Hindi name - Laung
This is usually used in powdered form, grated freshly using a whole nutmeg. Often it is used to flavor Indian sweets, but may be used in some savory dishes.
Finally there a few other spices and flavorings used in the Indian kitchen. These all help to add a special tastes and seasonings to the dish. Most households probably already have them stocked in their pantries.
Fresh mint leaves
Coconut - fresh, dried and milk
In most Western countries, our complex formulas of dried and fresh spices are often substituted by simple dry powder mixtures like the yellow curry powder. It is a myth to believe that this invention is used in any Indian household. As a matter of fact this powder mixture was invented by the British who, when they left India after the British Raj, craved the wonderful flavorings of the dishes they had enjoyed. Loosely interpreted the name is probably derived from curry as in gravy.
Indian food is almost always prepared with fresh ingredients accompanied with the delicate combination of many fresh and dried spices. The exact recipes often vary from one household to another.
I really do hope I was able to bring you a little closer to the multitude of spices used in traditional Indian cooking. For me, it was always so very tedious to figure out what spice and spice mixture is used when and where. However, as I started to enjoy cooking Indian food more at home I put together this list to help me understand the larger value behind each spice. The flavorings, aromas and the medicinal benefits it lends the dish.
It was my mother who explained the usage of each spice category - from basic to complementary to secondary - by using the exact same example of the vegetable dish I have provided here for you too. This one simple example changed all my misconceptions about Indian cooking being too complicated.
I hope I was able to do the same for you.
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