suvir saran                         chef     author     consultant

 

SPICES

Asafoetida (Heeng)

A little known spice outside India, asafoetida is a dried, resin like substance obtained from the rhizomes of the giant fennel. asafoetida seems to have been a much prized Roman cooking ingredient. It was imported from Persia and the juice of both stem and root was used. Has a smell like that of pickled garlic, which is caused by the sulfur compounds in the volatile oil. The taste is bitter and acrid. When fried in oil it takes the flavor of onion. It has antispasmodic properties. Used to treat hysteria, often as a sedative or in treatment of bronchitis.


Cardamom (Elaichi)
One of the oldest spices in the world and one of the most valued: it is the third most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla. The seeds were prized in India long before the birth of Christ. It was an ingredient in perfumes, although it was equally valued for its digestive properties and as a breath freshener. In India it is called the queen of spices, second only to pepper, the king for economical reasons. Used also in the Bedouin culture and in flavoring coffee. The aroma of cardamom is mellow. Initially the taste has a penetrating note of camphor; it is sharply bitter and strong, and lingers quite long in the mouth if you chew a few seeds, but is warming and agreeable. Cardamom complements both sweet and savory dishes. It is one of the main ingredients of garam masala and curry powders. It's used in pastries, puddings and ice creams.


Cinnamon (Daal Cheenee)

One of the first spices sought in the explorations. Cinnamon is indigenous to Sri Lanka. Like cassia it is the dried bark of a tree of the laurel family. The Dutch began cultivation of cinnamon in Sri Lanka, where it was previously gathered in the wild. There monopoly ended when the East India Company took control of the cultivation. The plants were then taken to Java, India and the Seychelles. The agreeably sweet woody aroma is quite delicate and intense. The taste is fragrant and warm. Suited to both savory and sweet dishes, cinnamon lends itself just as well to roasted leg of lamb from India as it does to a sweet and delicate rice pudding.



Coriander (Dhaniya)

Indigenous to the Mediterranean region, coriander is now grown throughout the world. Its culinary and medical uses have been documented for over 3,000 years: it is mentioned in Sanskrit literature and in the Bible. The fresh leaves are the ubiquitous green herb of Southern Asia and South America, and the fruit is the spice, which has a completely different taste and character. In most countries that cultivate this there is a demand for both herb and spice. Coriander is used in both sweet and savory dishes. Essential ingredient of the curry powder mix, it is popular in minced meat dishes, sausages and stews. Used as a pickling spice in India and in the West as also for baking. The essential oil is used in flavoring liqueurs. The spice and the oil are used for migraine and indigestion.



Cumin (Zeera)

An essential spice, cumin gives a distinctive warm flavor to many savory dishes from India, North Africa, the Middle east, Mexico and America. Cumin is often confused with caraway. Black cumin(kala zeera) is a rare variety of cumin found in Kashmir and Iran. The smell of cumin is quite pronounced: strong and heavy, with acrid or warm depths. In India cumin is dry roasted before use to bring out the flavor. Essential in mixes like garam masala, panch phoron(eastern India and Bangladesh) and the curry powder mix. Found North African and Middle Eastern dishes. Used in Texas in chile con carne. Taken in India and other old cultures as a remedy for diarrhea, flatulence and indigestion.  Mustard (Rai) Most commonly used spice in medieval Europe. Theblonde variety has much less pungency than the brown and the black seeds. Mustard has excellent preservative quality. The sandy brown seeds are also larger than the brown and the black. Brown mustard seeds have a nutty flavor that is used in many South Indian recipes. In India it is used also in Bengali cooking and similarly in Bangladesh. In these areas mustard is used in many fish recipes and to flavor mashed potatoes. The taste of the seed upon biting is slightly bitter, hot and aromatic. The black seeds have a very pungent flavor. Unlike other spices these seeds have virtually no smell. In folk medicine mustard is used as an Emetic, treatment for arthiritis and also to ease foot pain and to help treat dilated vessels.



Mustard (Rai)

Most commonly used spice in medieval Europe. The blonde variety has much less pungency than the brown and the black seeds. Mustard has excellent preservative quality. The sandy brown seeds are also larger than the brown and the black. Brown mustard seeds have a nutty flavor that is used in many South Indian recipes. In India it is used also in Bengali cooking and similarly in Bangladesh. In these areas mustard is used in many fish recipes and to flavor mashed potatoes. The taste of the seed upon biting is slightly bitter, hot and aromatic. The black seeds have a very pungent flavor. Unlike other spices these seeds have virtually no smell. In folk medicine mustard is used as an Emetic, treatment for arthiritis and also to ease foot pain and to help treat dilated vessels.




Tamarind (Imlee)

The dark brown, bean shaped pod of the tamarind tree has been cultivated in India for centuries, hence its other name is Indian date. Introduced to Europe by the crusaders. It is generally sold in sticky brown and white blocks, pulp or in concentrate from. It is a souring agent and used as a lemon or lime. Tamarind is particularly good with fish and poultry dishes. Tamarind has a slightly sweet aroma and a pleasantly sour, fruity flavor. In India it is used in sambhars, rasams, chettinad gravies and in the West it is used in the preparation of cooling drinks. In southern India and in some parts of Northern India, tamarind is used in making chutneys and pickles. It is a mild laxative, and used to treat dysentery and bowel disorders. Very rich in vitamins, tamarind is also good for the kidneys. The leaves of the tree yield red and yellow dyes.



Turmeric (Haldi)

A member of the ginger family, it is used throughout southern Asia for its musky flavor and golden color. Many western chefs use turmeric as a cheap substitute for saffron in error. Used for medicinal purposes as also a dye. Turmeric is believed by many Pacific countries to have magical properties and thus is used as a charm to ward off evil spirits. Lightly aromatic, turmeric smells peppery and fresh with a hint of oranges and ginger. It tastes pungent, bitter and musky. Essential in curry powder, it is also widely used in many south Asian dishes. In the West it is used in commercial sauces and processed foods and also in commercial mustard blends. In Asia it is taken as a remedy for liver problems. Also used to treat skin diseases world over. In the form of a paste it is used as a beauty face mask.


Spice Mixtures

Spice blends are used extensively in many parts of the world to add a distinctive flavor to a dish. They vary in complexity and texture: some are pastes based on fresh ingredients such as chiles, others are dried mixes of whole or ground spices.


Moving east to west across Asia, spice blends increase in number and complexity. In Japan, spices are used mostly as condiments for sprinkling over dishes. China has more spice mixtures, but the most varied and extensive range of blends is to be found in India, Indonesia and Thailand. In India the blending of spices is the essence of its cookery; to become a good Indian cook you must first become a maslachi (a spice blender). The word masala means a mixture of spices but also refers to the aromatic composition of a dish, or simply a gravy. The western concept of having a single masala or curry powder gives little if any insight into Indian cooking since there are hundreds of masalas - from different regions, for different recipes, and prepared to the taste of different chefs and homes - imparting a distinctive flavor to each dish. The most common ground blends are the garam masalas, used in northern Indian cooking, and hotter masalas or curry powders from the south. They are usually made up as required and will keep for 3-4 months in an airtight jar. These masalas too change in flavor as one travels from one region of India to another.


• Curry Powder (South India, all over the different states of the south)
• Sambhaar Powder (South India, used in Southern Indian cooking extensively)
• Panch Phoron (From Bengal, used in lentils and vegetables)
• Garam Masala (Most important spice blend of North Indian cookery)
• Chaat masala (North India, used with fruit and vegetable salads, raitas and garnishes)
• Green Masala (All over India, used in fish and chicken dishes for marinade)
• Basic Garam Masala


Garam Masala

This is a version of the most common type of garam masala used throughout northern India. It goes well with onion based sauces for meats and poultry.

2 cinnamon sticks
4 bay leaves
1 1/2 oz cumin seeds
1 1/2 oz coriander seeds
3/4 oz green or black cardamom seeds
3/4 oz black peppercorns
1/2 oz cloves
1/2 oz mace

Break the cinnamon sticks into pieces. Crumble the bay leaves. Heat a heavy frying pan and after 2 minutes put in the whole spices. Dry roast over a medium flame till color darkens, stirring or shaking the pan frequently to prevent burning. Leave to cool, then grind and blend with mace. Store in an airtight container.



To Purchase Spices

There are several stores one could use to purchase spices. But as with most all other items in your pantry, it is very important that you find the freshest and best ingredients. Foods of India on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan is my favorite store. It is clean, well organized and the spices, herbs, and all other Indian ingredients I buy there are of much higher quality than I find anywhere else. In fact, I often feel I should take spices from here to India. Many are grown for the owner in countries other than India where he feels there may be more quality control. The best thing about Foods of India is that they ship throughout the 50 States. You can call and place your order. It will be delivered as per your needs and you can expect only the best to come to your door.


Foods of India
121 Lexington Avenue
New York City, NY
Tel: (212) 683 4419
Proprietor: Arun Kumar Sinha