Indian Spices 101 – Cooking with Indian Spices

There is an art to using Indian spices. Indians spice their dishes in layers harmoniously blending subtle spices with aromatic ones and layering it with herbs, ginger, garlic and lime juice or tamarind. For practical purposes Indian spices could be divided into 3 stages.
The dance of spicing is as follows.

1. BASIC OR ESSENTIAL SPICES – –
There are certain basic spices which go into most dishes – We heat a pot – add ghee in it then we add cumin seeds or mustard seeds and asafetida till they sizzle.
Then we add red chili powder, coriander seed powder and turmeric powder. We also add our minced ginger at this time. We then add our vegetables, salt and steam the dish.

Asafetida (hing, heeng), is used mainly for its strong taste on the same lines of garlic.

Cumin Seeds – is a basic spice used in most dishes in North India. It has a strong but pleasing flavor. Cumin may be fried whole in oil, or ground, or roasted and ground, or ground and then roasted, all with very different results.

Turmeric (haldi)is also a basic Indian spice and is virtually used in most Indian savory dishes. It has no real taste and is mainly for its medicinal properties and the lovely color that it gives to the dishes.

Coriander seeds (dhaniya)is the third basic spice in Indian cooking and is mainly for its fresh, cooling and soothing taste.

Chili Powder – is used mainly for its special pungent and fiery taste.

Mustard seeds is mainly in south and west India. Used for its strong but very pleasing flavor.

At the time we add cumin or mustard seeds as specified above we could also add fennel seeds, nigella seeds (for root veggies we may add ajwain seeds.
Other Indian spices (to complement the above)that are basic spices but not eaasential spices are:

Fennel seeds (sounf)- is used mainly in North India. Used for its strong but very pleasing flavor. Fennel may be fried whole in oil, or ground, or roasted and ground, or ground and then roasted, all with different results.

Fenugreek (methi)seeds – is valued for its bitter taste and health qualities. If it is burnt it gets very bitter and should be thrown away.

Nigella Seeds or Kalonji is used mainly in North India. Used for its strong but very pleasing flavor. Small black seed, sometimes called onion seeds, although they are not really seeds from onions. It is often sprinkled on naan (bread)

Carom (ajowain)is mainly used in North India to flavor breads and root vegetables.

AROMATIC or SECONDARY INDIAN SPICES (also called garam masala) to enhance the above 2 sections – we may or may not add these to our dishes – we add them for tomato curries and thick onion curries. To the above spices we would add chopped onions, tomatoes and herbs and any of the following secondary spices. Then add potatoes, meat, cauliflower or ingredient for your curry and steam with a bit of water.

Dried Ginger powder(adrak, or sont)is again a basic but not essential Indian spice. Used mainly in North India.

Green cardamom pods (eliachi) – A secondary and not essential Indian spice. Used throughout India – both in North and South Cooking. Used for its strong but very pleasing flavor. – One of the spices in Garam masala – It is best to grind small quantities at home using a coffee mill. Cardamom loses its natural oils quickly, it also loses its flavor. Cardamom is an expensive spice. – Used to flavor curries, masala chai and certain vegetables and Indian desserts

Black cardamom (kala eliachi) – A secondary and not essential Indian spice. Used in North Indian Cooking. Used for its mellow and warm flavor. – This larger dark brown variety is used flavoring meat, poultry and rice dishes. The inner seeds are often used for making Garam masala.

Black Peppercorns

Cinnamon (dalchini) – A secondary and not essential Indian spice. Used throughout India – both in North and South Cooking. Used for its sweet and pleasing flavor. It is the bark of the cinnamon tree – One of the spices in Garam masala – Used to flavor curries, masala chai and certain vegetables and Indian desserts

Cloves (lavang or laung) – A secondary and not essential Indian spice. Used throughout India – both in North and South Cooking. Used for its pleasing flavor. – One of the spices in Garam masala – It is best to grind small quantities at home using a coffee mill. It easily loses its flavor. – Used to flavor curries, masala chai and certain vegetables

Nutmeg – A secondary and not essential Indian spice. Used throughout India – both in North and South Cooking. Used for its warm and pleasing flavor. – One of the spices in Garam masala – It is best to grind small quantities at home using a coffee mill. It easily loses its flavor. – Used to flavor curries, masala chai, coffee and certain vegetables and Indian desserts

Mace (jaivitri) – A secondary and not essential Indian spice. Used throughout India – both in North and South Cooking. Used for its warm and pleasing flavor. – One of the spices in Garam masala – It is best to use the blades whole and remove them after cooking – Used to flavor curries, masala chai and certain vegetables and Indian desserts available whole or ground

Garam masala – powdered blend of spices that may include cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, black peppercorns, nutmeg, mace. – garam means “hot”, but not chili hot, hot in the sense that these spices are said to increase body temperature. Interestingly, many of these spices are used in deserts in western cooking (i.e. cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace) – different regions use different mixtures (masalas) and proportions. Garam masala will also vary from household to household. – powdered garam masala is often added at the end of cooking in small quantities whole garam masala is used in north Indian cooking, especially meat dishes. – A whole garam masala could include whole cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom (black or green), whole mace, and black peppercorns. – Often these are fried in hot oil before other wet ingredients such as meat, onions, garlic, and/or ginger are added. Cooking with these spices release a wonderful botanical odor that fills your house and neighborhood.

WET SPICES Wet spices are fresh herbs and ingredients that are ground with some water and added to the spice base and include coconuts, mint leaves, cilantro leaves, fresh ginger root and garlic.
INDIAN SWEETNERS Try out Indian jaggery or Gur to sweeten vegetables like squash and zucchini and lentil dishes.
INDIAN SOURING AGENTS Dried mango(amchoor, Tamarind (imli), tart yogurt and Lime Juice is used to add a tart taste to Indian dishes
THICKENING AGENTS poppy seeds, sesame seeds, cashews and almonds are used to thicken gravies.

SPECIAL SPICES
Saffron (kesar or zafran)to color and flavor rice and desserts, by soaking its threads in hot milk for about 15 minutes before using to bring out the color in fancy Mughal dishes, not usually in everyday cooking.
Black salt is used in pickles and Chat Masala (a northern Indian spice mix sprinkled over fresh fruit)
Fenugreek leaves

© Kavita Mehta
photo credit Kavita and Vinay Mehta

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