Spices in Indian food
When talking about spices it is not meant that spices are used to make the food fiery hot. The spices are used to flavor the food, making each dish distinct and wonderfully aromatic. Each spice by itself imparts a very unique flavor, but when used together with other spices, the combination and permutation of different ones magically change the individual characteristics.
Spices are distinguised from herbs
Many spices have antimicrobial properties. This may explain why spices are more commonly used in warmer climates, which have more infectious diseases, and why the use of spices is prominent in meat, which is particularly susceptible to spoiling. Spices are sometimes used in medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics or perfume production, or as a vegetable. Indian spices include a variety of spices grown across the Indian subcontinent, which is a sub-region of South Asia. With different climates in different parts of the country, India produces a variety of spices, many of which are native to the subcontinent, while others were imported from similar climates and have since been cultivated locally for centuries. Spices are used in different forms such as whole, chopped, ground, roasted, sautéed, fried and as topping. They blend food to extract the nutrients and bind them in a palatable form. Some spices are added at the end as a flavoring and are typically heated in a pan with ghee or cooking oil before being added to a dish. Lighter spices are added last, and spices with strong flavour should be added first. 'Curry' refers to any dish in Indian cuisine that contains several spices blended together, whether dry or with a gravy base. However, it also refers to curry leaves, commonly used in South Indian cuisine. A spice may be available in several forms such as fresh, whole dried, or pre-ground dried. Generally, spices are dried. A whole dried spice has the longest shelf life, so it can be purchased and stored in larger amounts, making it cheaper on a per-serving basis. A fresh spice, such as ginger, is usually more flavorful than its dried form, but fresh spices are more expensive and have a much shorter shelf life. Some spices are not always available either fresh or whole, for instance Turmeric, and often must be purchased in ground form. Small seeds, such as fennel and mustard seeds, are often used both whole and in powder form. Indian cuisine is characterized by the extensive use of numerous spices. Spices or Masala as it is called in Hindi, may be called the 'heartbeat' of an Indian kitchen.
This is ground up dried red chili peppers. There are different varieties of chili powder available in the Indian groceries. They are made from different kind of peppers with different colors, aroma and also the spice and heat level. The Kashmiri chili or red chili powder is a mild chili powder but with very vibrant colors. Another one which the photographer like to use is the Reshmapati red chili powder, this one has a beautiful color too. If you cannot get your hands on the Indian variety, feel free to use cayenne or paprika or even crushed red pepper. The color and the flavors will differ a bit, but they really can be substituted.
Asafoetida or Hing
This is sap from stem and root of a plant, dried into a hard resin. The smell of this spice in the raw uncooked form is strong and pungent and so unpleasant that it is often called as the devils dung, or the stinking gum. However, this initial funky pungent smell mellows and almost disappears, replaced by a smooth pleasant flavor when it is added to hot oil or Ghee. The flavor is not the spicy fiery kind, but more like leek or onion. Hing is definitely a gem in the kitchen. In its raw form, the strong aroma will contaminate other spices, so it is better stored in an air tight container. The resin form is hard and deep amber in color and it has to be powdered before it is used for cooking or medicinal purposes. In the hard resin form it retains the aroma longer than ground powder and use a kitchen mortar and a pestle to grind it. In Indian grocery stores, the Hing is usually found in powdered form. A little goes a long way when it comes to this spice, so only a tiny bit when seasoning and tempering to flavor food.
Tej Patta or Cinnamomum tamala
Often mistaken as the Bay Leaf which means leaf of the Laurel tree used in Western cooking, these are actually three veined leaves of the tree belonging to Cinnamonum group of trees. Tej Patta or Tamalpatra as it is called in Sanskrit are used to flavor different curries and rice. The leaves are aromatic with a slight hint of the fragrance of cinnamon. The leaves are first browned in oil first to increase the aroma.
Carom seeds or Ajwain or Trachyspermum copticum
These are pungent, tiny seeds grayish in color and often mistaken to be the 'Bishop's weed'. Ajwain has very strong flavors and the smell and the taste bears close similarity to Thyme. They have a sharp and slightly bitter taste on the tongue. In Indian cooking, the Ajwain is rarely used raw. They are usually dry roasted lightly or tempered in hot oil or Ghee and used for seasoning a dish. Other than using the seeds for curries, the flavor of this spice works really well with breads and are very popularly used in Paratha, which is griddle fried flatbreads in the northern regions of the country. Besides culinary uses, it is used for medicinal purposes to aid in digestion and also as an antiseptic.
Cinnamon or Darchini
The cinnamon sticks or quills are the dried bark of a tree. There are two popular varieties of cinnamon, from Chin and from Ceylon. They both have similar flavors but the cinnamon from Ceylon has a sweeter aroma and is found more as sticks than a rolled up quill. The Ceylonese cinnamon is also not so easily available in local markets. Cinnamon and mostly the Ceylonese variety in its stick and quill for as well as powdered, is used extensively in Indian cooking, mostly for savory dishes. Often times a few bits of broken sticks are added as the oil heats up, this way the oil is flavored and the food is cooked in this fragrant oil. Sometimes it is dry roasted in a skillet before cooking, which intensifies the aroma. The warm sweet flavors make it a popular spice for desserts in the western world, especially during the holidays. It is one of the ingredients of the famous Garam masala.
Cloves or Laung or Lavang or Grambu
Cloves are dried up flower buds. The fully-grown, unopened buds, are picked green and dried in the sun till they become dark brown and are ready to be used for culinary and medicinal purposes. Clove is extensively used in Indian cooking. The flavor it imparts to food is strong and warm. Clove is mostly used to flavor spicy food where the whole clove is cooked in oil or ghee. Clove is also a part of Garam masala in the ground form. Use of clove in desserts is not very common in India, though not unheard of.
Coriander seeds or Dhania
These seeds are the dry seeds of the regularly used fresh cilantro and coriander. Light brown or golden in color, the seeds are kind of hollow and crunchy and has a nice earthy, nutty flavor. The seeds are used whole for tempering, but more often they are ground into a powder to flavor food. Do yourselves a favor and stop yourself from buying store bought coriander powder. They lose the flavor fairly quick when stored, so you will end up with a sawdust kind of powder with no flavor in it. The best way go about it, is to grind the seeds when you use them or store them in an airtight container only for a few days. One can use a coffee grinder or the spice grinder to powder the seeds. The seeds are powdered either by roasting them first in a dry skillet or without roasting them. The roasted seeds powdered have a darker shade and a different flavor than the other. Both are used in Indian cuisine. The seeds are usually used in the ground form to be a part of various spice mixes, like Garam masala, Sambar powder and so on.
Coriander seeds are ground to make coriander powder. The powder is used in Indian cooking for flavor. Avoid store bought packaged coriander powder. They sit on the shelves too long and lose all its freshness. Grind up coriander seeds at home in a spice or coffee grinder and store in
airtight containers for a couple of months.
Cumin seeds or Jeera
Cumin or Jeera is a very commonly used spice all over India. Known for its warm earthy aroma, it is used in the raw form, or cooked in hot oil or ghee to release its aroma. Sometimes the raw seeds are ground and sometimes the seeds are briefly roasted in the skillet and ground into a powder. The roasted and fried cumin seeds imparts a very unique, smoky flavor to food.
Fenugreek seeds or Methi
Angular buff colored seeds having a slightly bitter taste. One of the mixtures of Panch Foron. The unripe, raw seeds are cooked as side dishes in certain parts of India and they are not bitter. These might look like cumin seeds, but when looked closely they are actually greener and wider. Fennel is another ingredient of the Panch Foron.These are also dry roasted and used with tiny sugar candies to make mouth fresheners after meals. Fennel is known for its digestive qualities.
Green cardamon or Choti Elaichi
Cardamom pods holds tiny little black seeds inside. The seeds are taken out and used whole in cooking or in the from of powder. Its used in a Lot of Indian cooking whether it be vegetables, meat, rice or even desserts. Cardamom is also an important part of Garam masala. Black cardamom, also known as hill cardamom, Bengal cardamom, greater cardamom, Indian cardamom, Nepal cardamom, winged cardamom, or brown cardamom, comes from either of two species in the family ginger, Zingiberaceae. The seed pods are about two point five to three centimeters in length and have a bold flavor. The pods are dried over open fire and the process leaves the pods with a smoky aroma.These are bigger and very different from the the small green cardamoms, and are not as delicately flavored as their green counterpart. This is probably the reason why these are barely used for flavoring desserts. The intensity of the flavor emerges as they are cooked slowly and for a prolonged period and that is why it is used a lot for braising food, or flavoring the Indian masala, spice mix for curries, meats or for stews, lentils and pilafs. If you have not tried this before, just try dropping a split pod when you cook your rice and see how it changes the flavor of the rice! A good easy recipe to start with.
Mustard seeds or Sarson or Shorshe or Rai
While there are close to forty kinds of mustard, three principal types used as spices. Black mustard, known as White mustard, Brassica nigra which are actually yellow, Brassica alba and brown mustard, which is dark yellow, Brassica juncea. In Indian cooking all three are used, though use of black mustard seeds with stronger flavors is more common. The black mustard seeds have the most pungent taste, followed by the yellow mustard seeds.The white mustard is usually the mildest. The seeds are usually used to temper or season food by adding them to hot oil. The seeds are also ground to make a paste usually in the eastern and northern regions of India and used in cooking fish and vegetables. Mustard paste is used to make many Indian pickles in the northern regions of the country. The oil pressed out from the seeds and commonly sold as mustard oil is used for massage as well as cooking in the northern and eastern regions of India.
Nigella or Kalonji or Kalo Jeera
These are tiny black seeds mostly forming a part of the Panch Foron. Nigella is also referred to as onion seeds. They are mostly used in breads like Naan, Tandoori rotis and in Parathas and also sometimes to season stir fries and curries. In the Eastern India this is used to season fish.
Nutmeg or Jaiphal
These are seeds of a fruit. The part that is actually used is the inner part of this seed. Its used in ground form, mostly in Biryanis. Unlike in western countries, its almost never used in desserts in Indian cooking.
Saffron or Kesar
The king of spices! That is what one might think. This is probably the most expensive spice. Looking like tiny orange threads, these are actually the stigmas of a flower called crocus. Saffron adds beautiful flavor and color to rice dishes, gravies and desserts.
Turmeric powder or Haldi
Turmeric is actually a ginger like rhizome in the raw state. The inside is deep orange yellow in color. The rhizome can be grated fresh and may be used in cooking. Raw turmeric is often times ground into a paste and used to improve skin and complexion. It also has very strong medicinal properties. However, in for everyday cooking, the rhizome is dried and ground for the purpose of cooking. It gives the food a yellowish color. Turmeric is also known for its antiseptic qualities. Grocery stores usually sell the dried powdered form of Turmeric.
As a photographer and traveler in India spices are also used for health benefits and medicinal purposes, to prevent diseases and also to preserve food. Here in this archive story is written about only the few basic spices required to start an Indian spice cabin. There are many more, and some of them might be used only sparingly. It must be mentioned that the spices are also region specific, some spices which may be very popular in the northern regions of India might not be used as much in the southern regions and vice versa. What we have here is a general spread, used by all in every state. These spices below should be readily available in most grocery stores, or whole food stores, except for the Hing or Asafoetida, Fennel and the Fenugreek seeds. If you do not find them at your local grocery store.