At the moment I’m reading a book called “Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination” by Professor Paul Freedman. As you probably remember from your school days, the procuring of spices was one of the major motivations behind the age of exploration–the search for new routes to faraway lands in pursuit of spices changed the course of history. If you think about it–that’s pretty odd. What was it about spices that inspired such daring and costly voyages? Why were they considered so valuable? As Freedman explains in depth in his fascinating book, the answer in part is that spices weren’t used just to flavor food. Freedman also debunks the common misconception that spices were used to mask the flavor of spoiled meat (spices were very costly and meat was plentiful–it would be like putting a hundred dollars worth of truffles on a Big Mac to make it taste better). Spices in fact held a very lofty position on medieval life–they were used medicinally, in church ceremonies, to perfume the body and the home, and their scents were thought to promote general well-being. They had a spiritual, even sacred, appeal–spices were thought to originate in the garden of Eden. Because they were so exotic and expensive they were highly sought after symbols of wealth and status.
Spices no longer have this mystical aura and of course are no longer status symbols– a few dollars and a trip to Hannaford’s is all you need to procure spices now. But they still do provide health benefits and they certainly make cooking a lot more fun. Using spices in your cooking is a good way to add flavor without adding extra salt or fat, and many spices are now known to indeed have those medicinal and health-promoting qualities. Reading this book got me thinking about how lucky we are that now more than ever, all these exotic spices are readily available to us. Growing up, I never saw anything more exotic than thyme or nutmeg in my mom’s kitchen, but now it’s easy to find garam masala, turmeric, and coriander at your local grocery.
So what does one do with garam masala, for example? Or turmeric? Or coriander? Well, one answer to all of these questions happens to be: make Indian food. Consider this part one of a series. I’ll talk about some basic spices and cooking techniques and with these you should be able to start trolling the internet or cookbooks and whip up a few restaurant-worthy dishes. Just as a point of interest, I’ll mention some of the purported health benefits of the spices, also.
Because it’s an essential element of curry, the first spice I think of is turmeric. Turmeric is a root that is dried and ground. It gives dishes a characteristic yellow tint similar to saffron, but it has an earthy slightly peppery flavor. Turmeric has a long list of promising health benefits from fighting cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, to helping cure psoriasis and other skin ailments.
Also a staple in Mexican cuisine, cumin is put to much use in Indian food. The seeds, used whole and ground, resemble caraway but they have a nutty and peppery flavor. It’s good to have both on hand but you can buy the whole seeds and then toast and grind it into powder for a fresher more intense flavor. Cumin seeds are rich in antioxidants and can aid in digestion.
Coriander seeds are actually the berries of the cilantro plant, but they really don’t taste much like it. It has a very fresh grassy aroma. Coriander can be bought whole but most recipes call for ground. Coriander is said to promote memory and can also be used as a sedative and digestive.
Black or brown whole mustard seeds are usually used just as they are. Mustard seeds have been used to treat muscular pain, colds and flu.
Fennel seeds, usually used whole, have a mild licorice flavor. Fennel shows promise as a diuretic and a potential treatment of hypertension.
Dried red chilies are used whole as well as ground. Hot paprika is a good substitute if you can’t find Indian chili pepper. I think cayenne is a bit too hot and what’s sold as American chili powder often has other spices so that should be avoided in cooking Indian food.
Sold in dried green pods or shelled, cardamom has a very distinctive aromatic, spicy-sweet flavor. Cardamom has been used to treat headaches, depression, and even hiccups.
The familiar clove, usually whole, is frequently used.
The seeds and dried leaves of the fenugreek plant are used in many dishes. The seeds have a mild maple-y odor and have a mellow curry-like flavor. They are usually roasted to soften their bitterness before adding. Fenugreek is used a digestive aid and for cough and sore throat relief, among many other things.
Of course, you can use curry powder to make Indian food, but if you really want complexity of flavor, you’re better off using individual spices. However, a spice mixture you might consider buying or making yourself is garam masala. Recipes for it can very widely, but it’s usually a wonderfully fragrant blend of cardamom, coriander, cumin, pepper, clove, and sometimes cinnamon.
There are many more spices and flavorings, like nigella seeds, powdered mango (also called amchoor), asafoetida and tamarind, but you may have to go farther afield than Hannford’s to find those. The ones I’ve listed along with others you probably already have, like cinnamon, will give you a good start. Other pantry items good to have on hand are fresh ginger, cilantro, plain yogurt, basmati or long grain rice, lentils or split peas, and chick peas.
Indian food doesn’t need to be intimidating, knowing a few techniques will help you achieve an authentic flavor. One technique that is often used in Indian cooking is called “tempering.” This is the process of frying whole or ground spices in oil. The spices are added one at a time to hot oil at the beginning of the cooking process, before adding vegetables or other ingredients, or at the end of the process and poured over cooked legumes like dal. The heat of the oil extracts and heightens the flavor of the spices. One of my family’s favorite side dishes is “soothe aloo” or dry potatoes. Boiled, peeled and cubed potatoes are fried in the tempered oil until they are crispy and spice-encrusted. Whole and ground spices are also sometimes roasted in a dry pan to release their aroma and flavor before being added ground or whole to food. The cooling yogurt sauce, raita, is often made with cucumbers, ground coriander and toasted whole cumin seeds.
The familiar rich sauces of indian food aren’t created with the use of cornstarch or flour. Instead yogurt, coconut milk, and spice pastes are used as thickeners. Vegetable and meat recipes often begin with spices, garlic, ginger, onions and a little water blended in a food processor to make a paste. This paste is then fried well in oil and then spices and the rest of the dish’s ingredients are added. A simple dish of green beans can be made spectacularly tasty with this technique. In a food processor blend to a paste one onion, 3 cloves garlic, a one inch piece of fresh ginger, all peeled and coarsely chopped, a canned tomato, coarsely chopped and 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric. Fry the paste in about five tablespoons of oil, adding water if it starts to stick. In another skillet add three tablespoons of oil and fry 2 teaspoons ground coriander, one teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds, 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds, and a whole dried red pepper. Once the spices begin to darken and pop add 1-1/2 pounds sliced green beans and the paste from the other skillet. Fry for five minutes, add salt to taste and 2 teaspoons lemon juice, cover and cook for about 35 minutes, checking occasionally to make sure the beans aren’t sticking to the bottom. If they are, add a few tablespoons water and continue until they are tender, spice-infused, and delicious.
Believe it or not these Indian dishes are quite forgiving: as with many home-cooked specialities, there are as many recipes are there are households in their country of origin. Once you get a feel for the flavors of the spices you can add and subtract to your liking.
As you may know, I have a collection of over 400 cookbooks, and yet when I’m looking for a recipe I usually head for the internet. There are lots of good places to start looking for Indian recipes, but the first lady of Indian cooking is definitely Madhur Jaffrey. Check out her website or recipes on mykitchentable.co.uk for delicious dishes like Eggplant Fried with Turmeric and Lemon, Chicken in a Spinach and Mustard Sauce, and fish steaks, marinated in a mixture of ginger, garlic, garam masala, cumin, turmeric, mustard, cayenne pepper and lemon juice, and then brushed with butter and grilled.
Sanjeev Kapoor is a famous chef in India with a website (in English) full of authentic, delicious recipes, tips, techniques, and even useful information on home remedies like what foods to eat to maintain healthy hair.
If you’re looking for something a little more fusion, check out Aarti Paarti, the blog of Next Food Network Star’s most recent winner Aarti Siqueira Look also for books by Madhur Jaffrey and by Julie Sahni. And if you’re REALLY serious you can attend Julie Sahni’s Indian cooking school in Brooklyn!
I hope this inspires you to add a few new favors to your pantry, these spices may not increase your status in the medieval sense, but they won’t hurt your rep in the kitchen!