If spices were able to tell the tales of just some of the exciting history they have experienced we would would be captivated for days by their amazing adventures. The spice trade began over 4,000 years ago in the Middle East. Spice merchants from the region bringing their wares to Europe would create a sense of mystery by not revealing the origins of their spices and weave fantastic tales about monsters and creatures that had to be fought to pick the spices growing on steep cliffs or rocky mountains.
The prices of these spices were kept high and The Silk Road was the most significant route connecting Asia with the Mediterranean world, including North Africa and Europe. It was the trade on the Silk Road that was one of the most important factors in the development of some of the greatest civilizations - India, China, Egypt, Rome and Persia. Spices have been the inspiration for trade, for expeditions, war, love and poetry since the beginning of civilization. That ground pepper, crushed and covering your steak was once worth its weight in gold; the nutmeg grated over creamy mashed potatoes once fuelled a war and in the 16th century London dockworkers were paid their bonuses in cloves - are just some of the true stories about these valuable ingredients.
Spices are sensual, pleasurable ingredients used not only in food, but also to scent oils and infuse perfumes They have been some of the most sought after items in human history and they have been served as appetizers, digestives and aphrodisiacs. We have been fascinated for centuries by them and the fascination centuries later is still as captivating as ever.
With my personal project, Spice infusions I am paying my homage to these valuable ingredients. As an Indian, spices regulates my everyday life. My cooking is shaped by the wide variety of spices available - the traditional spices, the ones I have grown up seeing and tasting in my nani’s and mum’s intricately prepared dishes and remedies - or the newer ones I encounter as I travel the world.
Together with 3 other talented ladies Simi Jois, Dolphia Nandi-Arnstein and Deeba Rajpal we have embarked on a magnificent trip to discover spices over the upcoming year. Each month we will take three spices and present them visually. A creative project helps to look at things differently and be inspired on a different level. I look forward to seeing what my friends shoot and how they style the same objects each month. So make sure you check out their websites too.
It was back in 2007 that I created my Enspiceopedia - and introduced my readers to the Indian Spice Kitchen. I divide the spices into 3 categories: basic spices like cumin or coriander; the complementary spices like fenugreek or nigella and then the aromatic secondary spices like cloves or cardamom. With this simple breakdown it becomes easy to pick, pair and play around with the spices. Using the example of a simple vegetable dish - I guide you through how to pair and highlight the basic spices with complementary spices and enhancing the flavors with the aromatic spices.
With Spice Infusions I am looking forward to continue not only my discoveries and research on the various spices but I also cannot wait to shoot them from all kinds of angles and in every style I can think of.
This month I present you 6 spices (from January and February)
Nigella seeds are so well known for dotting naan bread, but I also use them in lamb korma or with creamy thick yellow dal. My mango chutney or papaya relish always gets a good sprinkling of nigella seeds.
The seeds have little aroma, although when they are rubbed between the fingers they give off an aroma reminiscent of oregano. Flavorwise they are slightly bitter and peppery with a crunchy texture.
Ajwain / Carom Seeds
Ajwain or Carom seeds almost always flavor my breakfast chilas - Indian chickpea pancakes, I use them in parathas or in a simple green bean and potato spiced dry curry sometimes I throw some into my pasta ragu to boost it’s flavor. Often, I pour hot water over the seeds, a few slices of ginger and lemon and let it steep - my remedy for a poorly stomach! It has a perfume reminiscent to thyme and a thyme-like flavor with a little more kick.
Cinnamon is a warm, aromatic, sweet and wonderfully fragrant spice, bringing up memories of my mum’s falvorful rajma (kidney beans curry), where along with a few other spices cinnamon played a pivotal role in the dish or my nani’s succulent chicken biryani that she infused with cinnamon sticks for an unmistakable taste. In Germany, it is often associated with sweet dishes and my son loves sprinkling his rice pudding with ground cinnamon and sugar or what would Christmas cookies or mulled wine be without without a good dose of cinnamon. I personally love it in my tajines or mixed in my masala chai.
Cloves, are sweetly pungent, astringent and can easily over-power a dish particularly when ground. Buying whole cloves is a lot better than the powder as the powder looses its flavor over time. I associate cloves with my perfumed basmati rice and studding oranges with cloves for a natural air freshener. I also add a few in winter soups like a steaming Mulligatawny soup for that extra warmth on cold days.
Fenugreek, reminds me of those aloo methi parathas (potato fenugreek leaves Indian flat-bread) my nani made. The leaves grew wild in a field next to their home in Delhi. The stony seeds are a yellowish-brown and look like very tiny pebbles. The bittersweet bouquet is almost like burnt sugar and has a warm penetrating aroma when they are roasted. Grind the seeds into a powder when required as the powders are often of an inferior quality. I often use fenugreek in my curry powder mixes and I love adding it to fish curries and it always used in my Indian chickpea pancakes. It is often also incorporated in my chutneys and pickles and if i can find the leaves I often use them in my dal.
Star Anise, I have to admit is a spice I learnt to love when I moved to Germany. My mother-in-law uses it to spice up her red cabbage or gravies for goose or duck. I often use it for my Asian style dishes with beef and poultry as it brings out a gorgeous evocative flavor of anise seed and licorice - it adds an unique touch in these dishes. I also add a small pod to my tomato sauces or braised beef dishes, which takes the dish to an entirely new level. A little goes a long way in terms of flavoring the dish so spice with care.
Spices transform the dishes by adding a new range of flavors. Whether it is a hint of sweetness or a kick of heat, a simple meal is taken to a higher level by a sprinkling of spices. Seasoning with spices can for some be a little intimidating, but with a little time and practice it will become easy to understand how each one adds flavor to your dishes and how to pair them with other spices. My Enspiceopedia is a great place to start but also check out my Food Guide category where I share lots of valuable information about many herbs and spices and of course take a peek at my Indian Spice pantry. Cook Smarts has a few fantastic info-graphics for spices by cuisine, popular spice blends and a spice guide to flavoring.
Looking for spicy ideas to cook up? Well you certainly are at the right place for that.
- The basics of a chicken curry
Everything you need to know about making an aromatic chicken curry, spiced with subtle cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, coriander seeds, cumin seeds
- Lamb Balti
A gorgeous melange of spices like feenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds that makes my balti dish uniquely aromatic and simply delightful
- My mum’s Sautéed Spiced Indian Cabbage and Fennel
A simple homey dish of cabbage and fennel sautéed with spices like mustard seeds, cumin seeds and turmeric
- Szechwan Pepper and Ginger Mixed Sprouts
Lemony tones of Szechwan Peppercorns infuse this Asian inspired easy dish
- Green Tea Honey Saffron Poached Pears on Skyr
My divine breakfast or dessert dish has hints of cinnamon, star anise and saffron
- Cardamom infused challah
What would my yeasty sweet challah be without one of my favorite spices - cardamom
- Knallebullar - Swedish Cinnamon Buns
Or those amazing soft pillow-y buns flavored with cinnamon and cardamom.
I hope you enjoyed my first edition of Spice Infusions. I hope that with this project I am able to present and share the incredible value and pure joy spices bring to our kitchens and homes. Make sure you join me next month again as my other spice sisters and I share three new spices.
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