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Spices and Herbs

The heart of Indian cooking is the seasoning-the wise use of the spices, herbs, and seasonings. Spices are roots, barks, or seeds, used whole, crushed, or powdered. Herbs are fresh leaves or flowers. Seasonings include such natural ingredients as salt, citric juices, nuts, and rose-water.

The imaginative use of selected aromatic spices and herbs to bring out the dormant flavors of a dish gives Indian cooking its unique character. It is not heavy spicing but delicate spicing that is responsible for the appetizing nuances of subtle taste and aroma. The extent to which a dish need be spiced is not rigid; it’s a matter of personal taste. Although Indian food is always spiced (a dish may call for one spice or more than ten), it doesn’t have to be hot. The hotness in Indian food comes from chillies, and you can use as many or as few as you want. You can even leave them out entirely, and your food will still be tasty and authentically Indian.

Spices and herbs, the “jewels of Indian cooking,” make the meal not only tasty but also more digestible. Most spices have medicinal properties. Turmeric, for example, is a diuretic; cayenne pepper, a gastric stimulant; and fresh ginger, a tonic. The science of using spices to accentuate the taste of foods and maintain good health goes back thousands of years, to the Āyur-veda and Artha-śāstra scriptures.

A thousand years ago, Baber the Great, the founder of the Mogul Empire in India, paid a high tribute to the role of spices in Indian cooking. “If my countrymen had had the Indians’ knowledge of spices,” he wrote in his memoirs, the Babernama, “I would have conquered the whole world.”

The magic of spicing is in the masala, the blend. The cook who knows how to blend spices and herbs can transform everyday foods into an unlimited variety of succulent dishes, each with its own taste. Even the humble potato will reveal a surprising variety of flavors, brought out by the masalas with which it is cooked.

How to make masalas

The technique of browning spices in hot ghee or oiltorelease their flavors and aromas is unique to Indian cooking. In making a masala sometimes you use whole spices, sometimes powdered spices, but most often a combination of both. First assemble the spices near the stove. Then heat just enough ghee or vegetable oil to keep the spices and other ingredients from sticking to the pan (generally 1 – 2 tablespoons). Make it extremely hot but not burning. Then drop the spices into the ghee. They immediately begin to swell, pop, brown, or change in some other way. Then just at the precise moment, when the spices are browned and ready, pour them over the dish you’re cooking, or put what you’re cooking into the seasonings to saute or simmer.

Since different spices take different times to brown, yet must finish all at once, a sense of timing is of paramount importance. For example, a recipe may call for cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, grated fresh ginger, ground coriander, and powdered asafoetida. Since the cumin and fenugreek seeds both take about 30 seconds to brown, add them together to the hot ghee or oil first. Then ten seconds later, add the grated ginger, which takes about 20 seconds. The ground coriander takes about 5 seconds to brown, so toss it in 15 seconds later, and finally, add the asafoetida. And there you’ve got it!

When you add a dish you’re cooking to a masala, stir it at first to coat the ingredients with the spices and to prevent the spices from overcooking on the bottom of the pan. In recipes that call for ground spices only, the ghee or vegetable oil should be only moderately hot, so that the spices will brown without burning. And aside from the masala, herbs and seasonings generally go in during the cooking, or at the end.

With just a little experience in preparing masalas, you’ll become familiar with the flavor and aroma of each spice. With strong spices such as cloves, cayenne pepper, and asafoetida you’ll use very small quantities. For mild spices, such as cumin seeds and ground coriander, you’ll use more.

Some masala blends, such as panch masala and garam masala, can be prepared in advance. You can make enough to last several weeks or even months. Panch masala, a mixture of five whole spices, is used mostly in cooking vegetables. Garam masala, literally “hot spices” (to warm the body), is actually a mixture of ground sweet spices. It’s added to a dish at the end of cooking, sometimes just before serving.

Here is one recipe for panch masala and one for garam masala:

Panch masala:

2 Tablespoon cumin seeds
2 Tablespoon black cumin seeds or kalinji seeds
2 Tablespoon black mustard seeds
2 Tablespoon anise or fennel seeds
1 Tablespoon fenugreek seeds

Mix all the spices and store them in an airtight jar in a cool, dry, dark place. Shake the jar before each use to make sure the spices are evenly distributed.

Garam masala:

4 Tablespoon coriander seeds
2 Tablespoon cumin seeds
2 Tablespoon black pepper corns
2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks, 2 inches (5 cm) long

Dry-roast each of the spices separately in a heavy cast-iron frying pan. After putting each spice into the pan, shake the pan until the spice turns a shade or two darker and gives off a freshly-roasted aroma. When all the spices have been roasted, grind them together to a fine powder in an electric coffee grinder. Put the ground masala into a glass jar with a tight lid, and keep it in a cool place. Made with good-quality spices and kept in an airtight container, garam masala will keep its taste and aroma for several months.

For another garam masala mixture, dry-roast and grind the same amounts of cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon as in the previous recipe, then add half a nutmeg kernel, finely grated.

Several points to remember when using spices

  • Before using whole spices, especially those you buy in large quantity, pick through them to eliminate any small stems or stones.
  • Keep all your spices in tightly sealed jars or cans in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. To avoid spoilage from constantly dipping into the big jars, keep spices for daily use in small bottles. Be sure to label all jars and containers.
  • Many recipes call for ground spices. Rather than purchase powdered spices, which soon lose their flavor, it’s always better to buy whole spices and grind them yourself as you need them. In India it’s done on a grinding stone, but an electric coffee grinder is excellent for this work. The aroma and taste of freshly ground spices is incomparable.
  • Avoid commercially made curry powder or gourmet powders. Often made with inferior spices, these flavorless curry blends lend a wearisome uniformity to your cooking. In India they’re practically unknown. It is far better to make fresh spice blends of your own.
  • Sometimes a recipe requires a masala paste. You can make this by grinding together the specified spices and a few drops of water with a mortar and pestle. Then fry the paste in ghee or oil for a minute or so to bring out its flavor before adding the other ingredients.
  • Before beginning to cook, read the recipe carefully. Gather the spices you need near the stove. There may be no time later to stop and hunt for a spice. Something on the stove may burn if you do.
  • Sometimes you can use one spice as a substitute for another you don’t have. Often you can even leave out the unavailable spice and the dish will still turn out fine. The recipes indicate some possible substitutes and deletions. Experience will also help you.
  • Even though dried herbs are often twice as pungent as fresh ones, use fresh herbs whenever possible. Instructions for growing and storing your own coriander and fenugreek are given here.

Your Spice Shelf

Since it’s the spices and seasonings, judiciously blended, that give Indian food its distinctive character, it’s worth while to examine them one by one and become acquainted with their qualities and uses.

ASAFOETIDA (hing): This aromatic resin, from the root of Ferula asafoetida, is used in small pinches for its distinctive taste and medicinal properties. Asafoetida is so effective in preventing flatulence that it can cure horses of indigestion. It’s available as a resin or as a fine powder. The resin form is the purer of the two, but you have to grate it when you need it. Powdered asafoetida is mixed with white flour, but it’s more convenient to use. Add a pinch or a fraction of a teaspoon to hot ghee or vegetable oil for a second or two before adding the other ingredients. If you can’t find asafoetida or don’t want to use it, your recipes will be all right without it.

CARDAMOM (elaichi): The pale green seed pods of this member of the ginger family, Elettaria cardamomum, are used to flavor sweets, or are chewed as a breath sweetener and digestive. White cardamom pods, which are nothing other than bleached green ones, are more easily available, but have less flavor. When cooking with whole pods, remove them before serving, or push them to the side of the plate. They’re not meant to be eaten whole. When a recipe calls only for the black, pungent seeds, remove them from the pods and pulverize them with a mortar and pestle or with a rolling pin. Ground cardamom seeds are used in garam masala.

CAYENNE PEPPER (pesa hui lal mirch): Cayenne powder, made from dried red chilies, is often called red chili powder. This is the spice that makes Indian food hot. Use it according to your taste.

CHILLIES, fresh (hari mirch): These bright red or green seed pods of Capsicum annum are found in both Asian groceries and in supermarkets. The flat, round, white seeds on the inside give hotness to food. If you want flavor without hotness, make a slit in the pod and remove the seeds with the tip of a small knife. Wash your hands carefully with soap and warm water after handling chillies, because their volatile oils irritate the skin. Store them unwashed, wrapped in newspaper, in the refrigerator. Discard any that go bad.

CHILLIES, whole, dried (sabut lal mirch): Dried red chili) pods are used extensively in Indian cooking, for hotness and flavor. When crushed chillies are called for, grind them with a mortar and pestle or break them into tiny bits with your fingers. Remember to wash your hands after touching them. If you don’t like chillies you can use fewer than called for or eliminate them entirely from the recipe.

CINNAMON (dalchini): True cinnamon comes from the inner bark of an evergreen tree, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, native to Śrī Lanka and the West Indies. Look for the thin sun-dried bark sheaths sold packed one inside the other. When using whole cinnamon sticks in chutneys or rice dishes, remove the sticks before serving the meal. Rather than buy ground cinnamon, buy whole sticks to dry-roast and grind as needed. The strong-flavored, slightly bitter cinnamon commonly sold in the market, Cinnamomum cassia, comes in single thick pieces or in powdered form. It is a poor substitute for the other, which has a delicate, sweet taste.

CLOVES (laung): This dried flower bud of the tropical tree Myrtus caryophyllus has always been the basis of the spice trade. The word clove comes from the Latin clavius meaning “nail”, which describes its shape. Clove oil is antiseptic and strongly aromatic. It is said that the custom of “chewing the clove” when addressing the emperor started in China. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it was the custom of courtiers to chew cloves in the Queen’s presence. Cloves can be used as a blood purifier, a digestive aid, and a local analgesic for toothache. Dry-roasted and ground, they are an essential ingredient in garam masala. Buy cloves that are well formed and plump, not shrivelled and dusty.

CORIANDER, fresh (hara dhania): The fresh leaves of Coriandrum sativum are as widely used in India as parsley is in the West- not merely as a garnish though, but as an essential flavoring. Sometimes called cilantro or Chinese parsley, fresh coriander is worth looking for. Its delicate taste is unique. You can substitute parsley if coriander isn’t available, but the flavor won’t be the same. Fresh coriander is generally sold in bunches. To store it, put its roots or cut stalks into a small vase of water, insert the vase into a plastic bag, and keep it in the refrigerator. They will keep for more than a week. Wash it just before using it. Use the leaves and the upper portions of the stalks, chopped.

If you have difficulty buying fresh coriander (or fresh fenugreek), you can easily grow it yourself. Scatter some coriander seeds in a small patch of the garden, cover them with a thin layer of soil, and water them every day. They will germinate in 18 to 20 days and grow rapidly. Pick the stalks when they are about 6 inches (15 cm) high and before the plants go to seed.

CORIANDER SEEDS, whole and ground (dhania, sabut and pesa): Coriander seeds are round, beige, and highly aromatic. A most important spice in Indian cooking, they are becoming increasingly popular in the West. In 1983, the United States and England each imported over three million tons of coriander seeds. The oils in coriander seeds help assimilate starchy foods and root vegetables. Generally ground before use, coriander seeds impart a fresh, springtime aroma to foods. To get the most flavor, buy the seeds whole and grind them in small quantities with an electric grinder.

CUMIN SEEDS, whole and ground (safed jeera, sabut and pesa): The seeds of white cumin, Cuminum cyminum, are an essential ingredient in preparing vegetable curries, rices, savories, and dal. Although ground cumin is available in all supermarkets, it’s better to grind your own. When a recipe calls for roasted cumin, fry the amount of seeds you want in a pre-heated frying pan. Shake the pan until the seeds darken a little and become fragrant. If you need roasted and ground cumin seeds, put the roasted seeds into an electric coffee grinder and grind them fine. If you don’t have a coffee grinder, use a mortar and pestle, or simply crush the seeds with the back of a spoon. Kala jeera, or black cumin seeds (Cuminum nigrum), smaller and darker than the white ones, have a more bitter taste and a sharper smell.

CURRY LEAVES (kari patti): The fresh leaves from the Kari tree of Southwest Asia, Murraya koenigri, are used mainly as an aromatic and flavoring for curries and soups. Dried leaves are more easily available but less aromatic than fresh ones. When starting a curry or masala, put the fresh or dried leaves into the oil to fry until crisp.

FENNEL (sauf): Sometimes known as “sweet cumin,” the long palegreen seeds of Foeniculum vulgare look like cumin but taste like anise seed or liquorice. Fennel seeds are sometimes used in curries. Dry-roasted, they’re an effective breath sweetener. If you can’t find them, substitute an equal amount of anise seeds.

FENUGREEK (methi): The leaves and tender stalks of Trigonella fenumgraecum are a popular vegetable in India. Its squarish, rather flat, brownish-beige seeds are essential in many vegetable curries and savories. In India, women eat fenugreek seeds with jaggery (unrefined palm sugar) after childbirth, to strengthen the back, increase bodily force, and stimulate the flow of breast milk. Fenugreek seeds have a slightly bitter flavor so don’t exceed the recommended quantities, and avoid burning them, which makes them more bitter. Fenugreek, like coriander, is easy to grow.

GINGER, fresh (adrak): This light-brown knobby rhizome of Zingiber officinalis is used extensively in all forms of Indian cooking. Choose fresh ginger that is plump and not shrivelled, that has firm flesh, and that is only slightly fibrous. Before you chop, grate, slice, or grind ginger into a paste, scrape off its potato-like skin with a sharp knife. To grate ginger, use the fine holes of a metal grater. Powdered ginger can’t be substituted for fresh, because the flavor is different. Dried ginger (sonth), more pungent than fresh ginger, must be soaked before use. (One teaspoon of dried ginger equals one tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger). Ginger is used medicinally for colic and dyspepsia. Eaten in small quantities it cures stomach-ache, and ginger tea is an excellent remedy for colds.

KALINJI SEEDS (kalinji): These are the black, teardrop-shaped seeds of the onion plant Nigella indica. They impart a faint onion flavor and are used in vegetable dishes and pakora batter. Although often confused with black cumin seeds, the two have nothing in common. If they’re unavailable, simply leave them out of the recipe.

MANGO POWDER (amchur): The raw fruits of the mango tree, Mangifera indica, are cut into strips, then dried, ground, and used as a souring and flavoring agent in vegetable curries. Mango powder is used as freely in North Indian cooking as lemon is in Western cooking to give food a tangy and sour taste. It burns easily, so use it with care.

MINT LEAVES (pudina ki patti): The two most common mints are spearmint (Mentha spicata) and peppermint (Mentha piperita). Aside from adding color as a garnish, mint leaves lend a refreshing taste to beverages. They can also be used to make mint chutney. Mint stimulates the digestive tract and will allay nausea and vomiting. You can easily grow the plants at home in practically any soil, either in sun or in partial shade. Dried mint loses its color but keeps its flavor fairly well.

MUSTARD SEEDS, black (rai): Indian cooking wouldn’t be the same without the seeds of Brassica juncea. Black mustard seeds are round, tiny (smaller than the yellow variety), and not really black but a dark reddish brown. They are pungent, nut-flavored, and nutritious, and they add texture and eye appeal to a dish. The frying of mustard seeds is one of the highlights of preparing masalas. You scatter seeds into a small amount of smoking hot ghee or oil, and a few seconds later they crackle and pop-and jump out of the pan unless you cover it quickly.

NUTMEG (jaiphal): Nutmeg is the kernel of the seed of the tropical tree Myristica fragrans. Buy whole kernels that are round, compact, oily-looking, and heavy. They may be dark, or white from the lime used to repel insects. Grated nutmeg is used in small amounts (sometimes with other spices) to flavor puddings, sweets, and vegetable dishes. It’s best to grate nutmeg straight into the dish; once grated it rapidly loses its flavor. Store whole or powdered nutmeg in a tightly closed container.

ROSE-WATER (gulab-jul): Rose-water is the diluted essence of rose petals extracted by steam distillation. It’s a widely used flavoring in Indian sweets and rice dishes. You can use a measuring spoon for rose-water, but if you cook with rose essence or concentrate be careful not to use too much. Count the drops.

SAFFRON (kesar): Saffron is known as “the king of spices.” It’s the dried stigma of the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, which is cultivated in Kashmir, Spain, and Portugal. Each crocus flower has only three saffron threads, so one pound of saffron takes the handplucked threads of about seventy thousand flowers. Saffron is expensive, but a little goes a long way. Beware of cheap saffron or “bastard saffron.” It looks similar and gives a saffron color, but it has none of the authentic fragrance.

Saffron has a pleasant delicate flavor and imparts a rich yellow color to whatever it’s mixed with. It’s used for flavoring and coloring sweets, rice dishes, and beverages. To extract the flavor and bright orange color from the saffron threads, dry-roast them slightly and then crumble them and steep them in a tablespoon or so of warm milk. Then pour the milk into the dish to be flavored. Saffron is also available in powdered form, which is twice as strong as the threads.

TAMARIND (imli): This sour, acid-tasting seasoning comes from the large broad bean pod of a tropical tree, Tamarindus indica. The brown flesh (sometimes with the dark shiny seeds) is scraped from the pods, dried, and sold in packets.

To use, remove the seeds and tear or chop the pulp into small pieces. Boil the pieces in a small amount of water for about 10 minutes, or until the pieces of pulp soften and fall apart. (Use about one cup [250 ml] of water to 8 oz [225 g] of tamarind). Then force as much of the pulp as possible through a strainer. Keep the liquid and discard the fibrous residue left in the strainer. If tamarind is unavailable, you can simulate its flavor somewhat by a mixture of lemon juice and brown sugar.

TURMERIC (haldi): A member of the ginger family (Curcuma longa), turmeric is a rhizome that varies in color from dark orange to reddish-brown, but when dried and ground into powder it is always bright yellow. It is used in small amounts to give a warm, pungent flavor to vegetables, soups, and savories, or simply to add color to rice dishes. Ground turmeric keeps its coloring properties for a long time but loses its aroma quickly. One ounce is enough to keep at home unless you live on spicy rice and curries. Turmeric stains, so be careful with your clothes. It also burns easily, so cook it with care. Turmeric is used in Ayur-vedic medicine as a diuretic, blood purifier, and intestinal stimulant.