From time immemorial, whole spices have held the highest place of honor in an Indian kitchen. India produces 70% of the world spices, mostly in the southern region around Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerela; and turns out, is also its largest consumer, creating a true example of indigenous consumption.
What are Whole Spices?
Think of whole spices as dried dormant seeds, leaves, bark and roots, full of aromatic oils with magical spice flavors within, just waiting to be released.
Whole spices have a longer shelf life than pre-packaged ground ones, retaining freshness until their intense flavor is extracted.
Which is why, even today, many Indian home-cooks will not contemplate having just store-bought ground spices in their kitchen, with the exception of turmeric and red chilies; both are best ground by a trusted spice merchant.
It’s amazing to see the large catalog of varied spices with their distinct uses, and Jill Norman does a pretty good job of it in her book ‘The Complete Book of Spices: A Practical Guide to Spices and Aromatic Seeds.’
Impressive Health Benefits of Whole Spices:
From cinnamon’s ability to lower blood sugar clubbed with cardamom’s diuretic properties, to the cancer fighting attributes of turmeric and cumin seed’s digestive benefits, on to whole coriander’s potential to fight bad cholesterol, and antioxidant-rich dry red chili’s anti-inflammatory ways; the list of health benefits from spice consumption is endless and cannot be ignored.
How to Extract the Magic:
Roast them, toast them, grind or boil them; there’re many simple and flavorful ways devised by Indian cooks over the generations to release the flavor of whole spices in food.
Let’s start with the most subtle technique to bring out the aroma of whole spices and work our way up in intensity…
Add whole spices to cooking liquid to extract their flavors and infuse the food; a method best used for making Basmati rice or Chai-Indian tea, as also for stews, soups and certain milk-based desserts like Kheer-rice pudding and caramel pudding.
I call this ‘Waking Up The Spices’; a process called ‘tempering’ or ‘tadka/tarka’ in Indian cooking where oil is heated and whole spices along with aromatics like garlic, ginger, onion and curry leaves are added, to extract maximum taste from all these ingredients.
Check out how the process works in a recipe here and here and here. Two notes of caution while making ‘tadka/tarka’: watch out for splatter, and have everything on hand before heating the oil since spices burn quickly.
Whole spices like black pepper, coriander seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are crushed with a mortar-pestle or coffee grinder (this Krups one has been my trusted spice grinder for years) to help release stunning fresh spice flavors to any meal. In a crunch, use a rolling pin to crush spices. Basically, this is the rustic homemade version of store-bought ground spices, best done right before use but can also be stored for a year.
4. Toast and Grind:
A popular way to use whole spices among Indian home cooks, and also the most fragrant one. Toast whole spices without any oil or liquid on a flat hot griddle or cast iron pan (buy an inexpensive one like this pre-seasoned Lodge stove top griddle, they last for years) to bring out the intensity of spice oils; subsequently grind them in a coffee grinder reserved for spices or use a mortar/pestle for smaller quantities.
Critical distinction between this technique and the previous one is that once the spices have toasted and released essential oils, they are best used immediately. If required, they can be stored in an airtight jar for about 6 months. Watch this process in action in the homemade Garam Masala blend and in this popular Indian-inspired spice rub for pork ribs.
Best Way to Store Whole Spices?
In Airtight Glass Jars. Period.
Option two, if needed: Double Ziploc bags to make sure air doesn’t get to them.
Although, in the good ole days when airtight glass jars and Ziploc bags were unheard of, whole spices could easily be stored in muslin cloth and jute bags as long as air and moisture didn’t get to them. Most whole spices stay just fine for about 2 year, reducing in flavor and pungency as they age.
Well, now that you’ve discovered the hidden talents of whole spices, try one of these recipes below or share some of your favorite ways to use whole spices in the comments.
- Quinoa Pulao with Caramelized Onion and Walnuts
- Grilled South Indian-style Lamb Chops
- Buttermilk and Thyme Chicken Tikka Kebab on the Grill
- Tex-Mex ‘Chili’ Inspired by Indian ‘Kheema’
- Mamaiji’s Caramel Pudding
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