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Exploring Indian spices

India is a nation that knows spice. Here we take a look back at the spice trade, examine the importance of flavor harmonies in Indian cuisine and offer a glossary of spices and spice mixtures.

To study the complexity of spices and their uses, you’d do no better than to examine the cuisine of India, which has perfected not only a variety of spice mixtures, but cooking techniques that evoke a spectrum of flavors of any given spice. What any average Indian can do with a pot of simple boiled lentils and a few spices is incredible and flavoring with spices has evolved into a true art form.

Various regions of the country, in fact, have their own characteristic blend of spices. In the northern part of India, the spice mix of choice is garam masala. In Bengal the choice is panch phoron, the Indian five-spice mixture. In the south, sambaar is the favored mixture, giving the distinctive flavor to the spicy dish of the same name. And while there are standard recipes for each of these spice mixtures, within any region you can find as many subtle and broad variations on them as there are households.

Like any country’s regional cuisines, India’s developed their unique qualities for different reasons. The land’s mountainous, forested center kept the northern and southern parts of the country virtually isolated from one another for centuries. The southern region, with its coastline and ports, had more access to the spice trade, which is why the north is often thought to have developed its cuisine more slowly.

But religions—and the food taboos they brought—also played a part in the evolution of India’s cuisine. Muslims won’t eat pork. The Hindus won’t eat the sacred cow. The strictly vegetarian Brahmins and Jains won’t use onions or garlic because of their association with cooking meat. There is also the impact of Ayurvedic teachings, which dictate the characteristics of a spiritually healthy lifestyle. According to Ayurvedic medical texts there are six essential tastes: pungent, acidic, salty, sweet, astringent and bitter. A typical meal should include dishes that reflect all of these different tastes.

The regional spice mixtures themselves are known to comprise a dozen or more ingredients, which can be manipulated in a variety of ways. There are toasting spices and popping spices. There are wet masalas and dry masalas. And there are various cooking techniques associated with certain spices and dishes. To make the relatively bland lentil dishes of the country more aromatic, the technique called Tadka will often be applied. Ghee, an Indian version of clarified butter (it’s cooked longer than our clarified butter), is mixed with various popping spices, like mustard seeds or curry leaves, and poured over the dish as it finishes cooking. Your nose stands at attention when the dish is laid before you.

The Spice Trade

From the hieroglyphics on the walls of the pyramids to the scriptures of the Bible, we find constant mention of the important role spices played in the lives of the ancients. For thousands of years frail ships clawed their way along the Indian coast, past the pirate-infested Persian Gulf, along the coast of Southern Arabia and through the Red Sea to Egypt. These were the typical ways in which spices would travel from Southeast Asia to the Western world.  While the term “spice trade” rings with historic tones, the ancient movement of spices around the world still reverberates today as you look at how various cuisines have evolved.

It’s no accident, for instance, that a review of cuisines shows more spice use the closer one gets to the tropics, where spices were more widely available several centuries ago.

In a recent study by neuroscientist Paul W. Sherman it was shown that based on traditional recipes from 93 cookbooks from every region of the world, spice use increased the closer one moved to the equator. “In 10 countries—Ethiopia, Kenya, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria and Thailand—every meat-based recipe…examined called for at least one spice, whereas in Scandavian countries one-third of the recipes did not call for any spices,” the study read.

Flavor Harmonies

Despite all the difference in culinary styles there is one unifying feature of Indian cooking: the endless possibilities for spice and flavor combinations. In Indian cooking, each spice has its own unique function and the ways in which they are manipulated and blended create unique tastes and harmonious flavors. Each of the many spices has its own unique function: some spices tenderize, some intensify heat while others cool, some augment color, some thicken and others bring necessary tartness.

Spice blends are called masalas. A masala in Northern India is composed of dry spices pounded to make a powder that resists spoiling and are said to get better with age. Southern India prefers fresh or green spices ground with water, lime juice, coconut milk or vinegar producing a paste that remains edible for limited periods. The exact combination for a masala varies widely by region and taste preference. For example, masala can be ground or whole spices, mild or strong, bland or sharp and dry or wet.

Indian cooks have mastered the timed roast of spices, releasing various flavors from the same spice based on its length of roasting. A spice is also manipulated by the way it is prepared. Roasted and crushed cumin, for instance, tastes nutty, but fried whole in hot oil it imparts a gentler, licorice flavor.

Indian Ingredients

Spices:

Cumin seeds (jerra): A basic and essential spice used mainly in the north. The seeds can be fried whole in oil, toasted and ground or ground and roasted, all with different results. Benefits heart health and stimulates circulation.

Turmeric (haldi): Used mainly for its bright yellow color in soups, stews and dhals. It can be used either fresh or in the more easily obtained powder.

Coriander seeds (dhaniya):  Used for its fresh, cooling and soothing taste in a wide variety of dishes and spice mixtures. Useful in improving digestion.

Asafeotida (hing): Called the stinking weed, it is used by strict vegetarians (Brahmin/Jains) as a substitute for garlic (which is associated with cooking meat) and has a strong sulfur taste. Used by temple singers to strengthen the voice; also used as a digestive.

Fenugreek (methi): One of the five spices in the Bengali panch phoran, fenugreek is used throughout India for its strong bitter taste. Used for inflammatory disorders, joint pains and diabetes.

Ajowain: These tiny, oval grayish-green seeds are curved and ridged and look like small cumin seeds. The fragrance is similar to cumin and the taste is somewhat hot and bitter.

Pomegranate seeds (anardana): Although they are called pomegranate seeds in English, anardana actually comprises the dried seeds with the flesh of the pomegranate. Reddish-brown and sticky, but the texture of dried tea leaves when ground. Anardana has a sour smell and a dry taste with a note of astringency.

Nigella seeds: Also called “kalonji,” nigella seeds are a basic but not essential spice. Used mainly in the north, it has a strong oregano-like flavor and is often sprinkled on naan.

Green cardamom (elichai): The third most expensive spice in the world (behind vanilla and saffron), green cardamom is used throughout India and is one of the spices in the popular garam masala. It is used to flavor curries, masal chai and paysams (puddings), and because it loses its highly fragrant natural oils quickly, it’s best to grind only small amounts at a time.

Black cardamom (kala eliachi): Used primarily in northern India for its warm mellow flavor with meat and poultry dishes. Often used in garam masala. Used to improve digestion.

Dried mango (amchoor): Raw, dried, ground mango, which is tangy and sour.

Black salt (kala namak): Actually pinkish-brown, black salt is used in pickles and chat masala (a north Indian spice mix sprinkled over fresh fruit).

Spice mixtures:

Garam masala. The most aromatic and fragrant of spice blends, it is used throughout northern India in all types of dishes, from appetizers and soups to yogurt salads and main courses, such as Murgh Masala, a chicken dish made with onions, garlic, tomatoes and garam masala. “Garam” comes from the Hindi word meaning “hot.” The ingredient combination and methodology vary locally and by region but generally contain the “hot” spices (cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and black cardamom). The garam has evolved to include cooling spices (green cardamom, coriander, curry leaf and cumin), which act to balance depth of flavor.

The spices of garam masala are dry roasted before use and used as a finishing ingredient. Garam masala compliments chicken and lamb most successfully.

Sambaar powder. Associated with the cuisine of southern India, it is used in the preparation of sambaar (a spicy stew of vegetables and legumes) and rasams (a broth-like soup served at the beginning of a meal). Its primary ingredients are coriander and cumin.

Panch phoron. A classical “five spice” mixture associated with the cooking of Bengal. It is used with fish, vegetables, chutneys and legumes. Cumin seeds, fennel seeds and black mustard seeds are main ingredients.

Chaat masala. A tart and salty blend whose dominant taste derives from amchoor. A salad-like preparation called chaat, made with shredded cooked chicken and mixed fruit, is the most frequent home use of this spice mixture, but it is also found to adorn simpler dishes such as fried potatoes and chips.

Xacutti masala. A specialty of Goa, the region of west India on the Malabar coast, includes coriander seeds, cumin, black peppercorns, fenugreek and chili blended with coconut, roasted until black-red in color or fried to give a toasted, nutty taste.

Tazaa masala. Denoting the concept of “fresh” in Hindi, tazaa masala is a green spice paste based on fresh cilantro leaves, mint, garlic and ginger. The mixture flavors meat and fish stews or vegetable dishes for a more potent flavor.

Tandoori masala.  A unique cooking style of the Punjabi region of India is the use of a clay oven called a tandoor. The tandoori spice mixture usually includes fenugreek, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, garlic and ginger. It is mixed with plain yogurt and is used to coat chicken, then it is slow roasted in the tandoor.

Guarjarti masala.  A powerfully hot spice mixture, it consists of dried red chilies, sesame seed, fennel seeds and ajowain seeds.

Kashmiri masala. Closely related to the garam masala, kashmiri has a lighter aroma and flavor dominated by the fragrant green cardamom. Kashmir, located in the far northern region of India, is home to this spice mixture, which is used to season foods prepared by the “Dum” method (baking in a sealed pot).

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