Indian spices are the cornerstone of most Indian recipes. Used moderately in the right balance, Indian spices can turn an ordinary meal into a smorgasbord of flavors on your palate. It’s time to wake up the taste buds.
1. Many Indian spices are smoky, not spicy:
An over spiced or bitter outcome to a recipe using spices shows one of 2 things: that there is an unbalanced spice mix or too much red chili (which is actually spicy in taste) in the dish. My recipe for Oven-Roasted Spiced Brussels Sprout is a good blend of smoky and spicy flavors.
2. The three forms of spices are:
Fresh spices (think ginger, garlic, green chili, bay leaf, curry leaves), whole dried spices (cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, red chili, nutmeg, cardamom) and of course, the most popular form is the roasted and ground version (chili powder, cumin powder, turmeric, fenugreek powder.)
3. The most commonly used ground Indian spices are:
Cumin powder, chili powder, turmeric, coriander powder and garam masala. If you keep just these five spices in your pantry, you will be ready for any Indian food cravings that strike. The bulk section of grocery stores is a good place to try out a new spice for the first time. For stocking your spice cabinet though, I would buy them sealed from a spice merchant like Penzeys Spices (you can order online and they have stores in most cities) or from your closest ethnic Indian food store or get a good spice brand like McCormick’s from your regular grocery store.
4. It’s like there is an unofficial mathematical ratio for blending Indian spices:
And my favorite ratio looks like this- 2:2:1:1:1/2 of red chili powder: cumin powder: turmeric: coriander powder: garam masala. Most Indian food cooks have created their own ratio for each dish over the years knowing that some dishes demand more of one spice over the other.
5. Garam Masala (literally translates to Hot Spices) is actually a warm Indian spice blend:
Made using many comforting spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, black pepper (the list can be long); one garam masala differs greatly from another. It’s the spice that brings all the flavors together like in this dish and should always be used sparingly.
6. Black pepper wonder:
You will rarely find an Indian recipe that asks you to season meat or vegetables with black pepper. This is because black pepper is already a key ingredient in most blended spices like garam masala, chai tea masala, vindaloo masala and so on. Always look for the Malabar Tellicherry variety which comes from Southern India (the principal exporter of black pepper) in a pepper grinder (we buy ours at Costco.)
7. Acid after roasting:
This is perhaps the most important tip to using Indian spices. Always cook spices and let them blend in together first before you add the acid element (tomatoes, vinegar, lemon, lime) of the dish. Acid slows the cooking of the spices and you could land up with a raw spice flavor in your meal. This is how the cooking steps look in an Indian recipe.
8. Glass bottles, please:
Exposure to moisture, air and heat reduces the shelf life of ground spices. Once opened, they are best stored in glass bottles in the pantry. Plastic gets discolored by absorbing the spice’s color and flavor.
9. Let your nose guide you:
Ground spices can technically be kept for 1-3 years and whole ones last even longer. It all depends on how well you store them and how many times they have been exposed. If you can smell the spice while roasting in the pan, it works. Spice blends like Garam Masala have a shorter lifespan and are easy to make at home. Here’s my recipe.
10. How do you count the ways?
Generations have revered the numerous benefits of Indian spices. They are antioxidant rich and offer high levels of vitamins B & C as well as minerals and iron. From turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties to…ginger as a known digestive aid to…red chili and garlic’s link to inhibiting cancerous growth; the list of benefits are increasing every day. (Did you know that spices are known to increase your metabolic rate?)
The Spice Box or ‘Masala Dabba’
My piece on spices would be incomplete without a mention of the quintessential ‘Masala Dabba’, found in most Indian homes. Generally a circular stainless steel box with six to eight small bowl inserts, it is filled with small quantities of the most commonly used spices in Indian homes (the five listed above plus a few whole spices like cumin seeds and mustard seeds.)
Growing up, I would see my mom holding the ‘Masala Dabba’ in her hands like an artist’s palette, filled with amazing colors. With a thoughtful expression on her face, she would put a little bit of this and a little bit of that till the perfect blend of aromas was achieved. The final piece would always be worthy of display as the centerpiece on our dinner table.