Explore the magic of Indian spices
by Padmini Chintakayala on Feb 24, 2022
Turmeric! Is this the first thing that comes to your mind?
Sure, it is one of the most popular Indian spices that people around the world might know of, only next to red chilies.
If you had Indian food, it is almost impossible to ignore the complexity of the taste, texture and favor. Even more so, if you ever go shopping in an Indian grocery store, you probably noticed and entire section dedicated to Indian spices. Ever wondered that a few spices combined in different ratios and in various combinations can produce an insurmountable number and variety of spice mixes?
To top this off, add various cooking techniques and you evoke a spectrum of flavors that leaves your taste buds reeling for more.
Almost no kitchen in an Indian household, whether home or foreign ever goes with out lentils. Staple is an understatement. There are countless varieties of lentils. What each one of these households can make out of a pot of lentils and a handful of spices is true art.
Various regions in the country have their own way of using spice blends to bring out what may seem like incomparable flavors. North India, typically uses spices like Kashmiri Lal Mirch (red chilli powder made with a specific kind of chili), Kasoori Methi (dried crushed Fenugreek), Garam Masala (spice blend), Coriander powder and Cumin powder. Combine and use these spices in certain ratios and cook them with boiled lentils, you have a North Indian Dal. Keep in mind, this is one of many many varieties you could make. South India, would use similar or same spices in a different form and you have a completely different tasting dal. Instead of use spice blends, temper Mustard seeds, Cumin seeds, Urad daal, Methi (whole dried) along with split dried Red Chillies and fresh curry leaves, add this tempering to boiled lentils, you have a completely different taste.
Despite all the differences Indian cooking is a beautiful orchestra with endless possibilities for spice and flavor combinations.
North, West, East or South spices are used either in the form of toasted whole, toasted ground dry mix, toasted ground wet masala paste with the desired heat, mild, strong or bland.
Let's take a look at some of the most and least common Indian spices
Cumin seeds (Jeera): A basic and essential spice used both in North and South India. South prefers to use it as a tempering ingredient fried whole in oil while North uses a combination of whole and toasted powder depending on the dish. It is said to improve heart health and stimulate circulation.
Turmeric (Haldi): This bright yellow powder is used in almost all dishes and is said to have healing and anti inflammatory compounds.
Coriander seeds (Dhaniya): This is either used fresh or dry seeds to give your dish the fresh cooling taste. It is said to improve digestion.
Asafeotida (Hing): This is very common among strict vegetarians as a substitute for garlic and/or onion. This is also said to aid as a digestive.
Fenugreek (Methi): This is used as a crushed, dried leaf in certain dishes and also used as whole dry seeds in tempering in other. It is also one of the main ingredient in Indian pickles, specifically from south. This is very popular among lactating mothers to help aid lactation, as well as older population as an anti inflammatory compound.
Carom seeds (Ajwain): These look like small cumin seeds. Used in the South in Rasam (a clear broth soup) and also in a garlic fried rice that is consumed when someone needs help with an uncomfortable gut.
Garam masala. The most aromatic and fragrant of spice blends, it is used throughout northern India in all types of dishes. This masala in the most recent times have won the hearts of many who sprinkle it into a dish right before serving. It is used in appetizers, soups, curries, rice dishes and even salad. This masala has certain spices like cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and black cardamom which are dry roasted and ground into a fine powder and stored in an air tight container.
Sambar powder. Is heavily used in South India. Sambar is a lentil stew cooked with a lot of vegetables and flavored with this powder and tamarind paste. Primary ingredients are Chana dal, Toor dal, Urad dal, Coriander seeds, Cumin seeds, Red chillies, Turmeric, Methi all toasted and ground into a fine powder.
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. This is a tangy blend of spices with the dominant ingredient being Amchoor which is dry mango powder. Primarily used in evening snack items like Chaat and Pani Puri, it is also used in salads and chips.
Tandoori masala. Used in Punjabi cuisine, that is cooked in earthen pots and clay oven to give the food the unique flavor that is instantly recognizable. This spice mixture typically includes fenugreek, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, garlic and ginger toasted and ground into fine powder that is mixed with plain yogurt to coat chicken, paneer and slow roasted in the tandoor.
Guarjarti masala. A hot spice mixture that consists of dried red chilies, sesame seed, fennel seeds and ajowain seeds, is a beautiful blend of spices that brings foods without onion or garlic their aroma.
Kashmiri masala. A lighter aroma and flavor despite of the hot red color dominated by the fragrant green cardamom. This spice mixture, is used to season foods prepared by the “Dum” method (baking in a sealed pot).