Spices 101

Spices 101

Anjum Anand
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Jonathan Gregson

Spices were once more valuable than gold, and their worth in the kitchen remains priceless.They can be seeds (mustard), fruits (mango), roots (turmeric), barks (cinnamon) or even flower stamens (saffron). You need to know the different qualities of each to be a truly excellent curry cook. Some are earthy, others sharp; they can be musty, citrussy, tangy, peppery, pungent, hot or even herb-like. Here’s the essential guide to navigating them. Many will require a trip to an Asian store, or a little shopping online (see bottom right). But if you cook curries regularly - and you probably do if you’ve bought this book - you only need to shop for spices every six months, as they will last well in an airtight container, in a cool, dark place.

Common ground spices

Chilli powder (lal mirch) The heat of this varies from one batch to another. Generally speaking, the darker the shade, the milder the heat. The mildest is Kashmiri chilli powder (degi mirch in Hindi). Chilli powder will add wonderful colour and heat to your dishes but little flavour, unlike fresh chillies.

Coriander (sabut dhania) These large, pale, spherical seeds are mild and almost citrussy in taste, with a fabulous aroma. Once powdered, they are one of the most commonly used spices in Indian food, rounding off and softening stronger flavours.

Cumin (jeera) This very familiar spice is used all around the world. You’ll find it in Mexican, North African and Malaysian dishes, as well as in Indian food. It is earthy and savoury and can be fried or dry-roasted to a darker shade with a nutty loveliness.

Garam masala A famous blend of warming spices that differs from home to home but usually contains cloves, black and green cardamom and cinnamon as well as bay leaves and black peppercorns. Milder mixes will also contain coriander and cumin. It can be added either towards the end of cooking for a real punch of aroma, or closer to the beginning for a more rounded, subtle taste.

Turmeric (haldi) This vibrant, mustard-yellow powder is essential in Indian cooking. It is prized both for its colour and for its fantastic medicinal properties. It should be used sparingly as the subtle, musty flavour can be unpleasant in large quantities.

Common whole spices

Black cardamom (badi elaichi) These large, woody pods have a lovely smoky aroma and are loved by many north Indians. Use in lamb and chicken curries and pilafs.

Black peppercorns (kali mirch) This spice needs little introduction... except to say the taste and aroma of freshly ground peppercorns is so superior to shop-bought powder that the latter is not worth buying.

Brown mustard seeds (rai) When fried in hot oil, these small brown seeds release a nutty, mild mustard flavour. When powdered, they have a stronger taste. When you grind this spice, be careful to not overwork it or it can become bitter. I very briefly blitz a large amount at a time in a spice blender and then store.

Cinnamon and cassia (dal chini) Cassia bark is similar to cinnamon and is more commonly used in India. I prefer to use both whole in my curries or pilafs. I add cassia bark in large shards but, as cinnamon is more delicate, it’s best to add it in quills so it breaks up less. The two are interchangeable in Indian food.

Cloves (laung) Often used in small quantities in curries, these have a distinct, strong and slightly sweet flavour.

Curry leaves (curri patta) These are an important part of coastal food. They are highly aromatic when fresh, but lose much of their flavour when dried. You can buy them fresh in decent quantities in Indian stores and freeze them for future use; they keep perfectly.

Dried chillies Used a lot in India, especially in the areas where fresh chillies are hard to find. There are so many different types, each with its own heat and flavour profile, so be careful the first time you cook with any unfamiliar variety. If you are grinding them, break them in half crosswise and shake the seeds straight into the bin, as these hold most of the heat. You can now buy Kashmiri dried chillies in some supermarkets; these are mild with a lovely dark, rich colour. You can also buy crushed dried chillies, which can be added late in the cooking process to correct a recipe’s heat level. This is a godsend if you taste a dish and find it too mild.

Fennel seeds (saunf) A sweet, licquorice-like spice that can either be added whole to hot oil or ground.

Fenugreek leaves (kasturi methi) These dried leaves have a unique savoury and pleasingly bitter flavour when you crush or crumble them into your curry. They are especially delicious in lentil and chicken dishes, or with spinach and even cauliflower.

Green cardamom (chotti elaichi) Gently-flavoured pods with a subtle but unmistakable aroma and are used in sweet and savoury dishes, pilafs and in Indian spiced tea. Grind them either with or without their green skins (the skin has lots of flavour but is harder to grind finely).

Green chillies While most westerners think of chillies in terms of heat, I use them more for their flavour. Keeping them whole in a curry, as I tend to, means the heat stays within the chilli and you mostly get their taste. I use the Indian thin finger-like chillies that you can buy in Indian stores; they keep in the fridge for weeks. You can buy green chillies from supermarkets, but they won’t have the same flavour or heat.

My top ten unusual spices

Asafoetida (heeng) This pungent powder makes food easier to digest; some think it tastes like cooked garlic.

Carom seeds (ajwain) A small, dark green seed with a flavour reminiscent of thyme. Use with fish, hard-to-digest vegetables and in some Indian breads.

Chaat masala A blend with a wealth of flavours, such as cumin, mint, carom, asafoetida, mango and ginger. It’s tangy and often sprinkled over tandoori dishes.

Dried mango powder (amchur) Tangy but not sweet. Use it instead of lemon juice for tartness without liquid.

Dried pomegranate powder (anardana) The powdered seeds of a variety of pomegranate. It has a tart fruitiness that’s great with chickpeas and lamb.

Fenugreek seeds (methre) Hard, strong-tasting seeds, these can be bitter. Cook in hot oil until they darken well.

Nigella seeds (kalonji) These delicate black teardrop-shaped seeds have a peppery flavour but no heat. Lovely with seafood, vegetables, or naan bread.

Panch phoran A Bengali mix of whole seeds including fenugreek, mustard, fennel, cumin and nigella. Often used with fish, vegetables and lentils.

Saffron (kesar) The dried stamen of a variety of crocus, with a delicate, musky flavour; a little goes a long way. Store it in the fridge.

Star anise (phool chakri) Immediately recognisable, this spice looks like the spokes of a wheel, or a flower. It has a lovely, slightly aniseed flavour and strong aroma.

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