Yes my friends, another post on Indian spices and this one is on curry essentials. However, this one is a special feature/ guest post for ‘The Society’, an online lifestyle magazine dedicated to young and modern South Asian generation. Founded by two lovely young ladies, Nisha and Pankita, the portal has a wonderful mix of traditional with modern. And as they rightly put it, there is something for everyone; from style spotting, beauty tips, recipe ideas, wedding inspiration, and more. You can check out my guest post here.

“Think of an Indian kitchen without spices. Yeah, the thought itself is inconceivable. They are the soul of Indian food. Spices are to Indians what cheese is to the French. Spices are not just an inextricable part of Indian food they are also a pertinent part of its history. We are what we are today because of the spices and how they changed the course of our history. Spices have been used in the Indian food for times unknown. One would be naïve to think of Indian spices as simply aromatics; they are packed with health benefits and even used in medicines for their therapeutic value.

There is a huge array of spices that line the shelf of an Indian kitchen. Spices can be used whole, ground, toasted or fried – depending on how much strength of flavor is required for a particular recipe. Each treatment lends a different tone and character to the spice. The spice can be the fruit, leaf, flower, bark, root or even resin of a plant. Spices are potent little bombs and need to be used judiciously.

There is a huge range of spices (black cardamoms to saffron) that are used in an Indian kitchen however I will walk you through Indian spices and spice blends that are a must for any Indian curry and also lentil soups & legume preparations; call them curry essentials if you may.

Cumin (Jeera) is the most commonly used amongst all spices. It has earthy flavors that are suited well for curries. The seeds can be added to the oil and fried in the beginning of making a curry or roasted & ground and added towards the end of a curry dish. It aids in digestion and interestingly this spice makes for a refreshing Indian cooler i.e. the Jal Jeera that can be served as an appetizer or digestive.

Cumin Seeds

The nutty Mustard Seeds (Rai/ Sarson) has many uses in an Indian kitchen. The black variety is more commonly used than the yellow one and also happens to be stronger in its taste. The yellow ones are generally used to make curry while the black one is used for tempering. These seeds are also used in Indian pickles. Mustard seeds are packed with B-complex vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. They are also used to make the pungent mustard oil which is extensively used across many Indian states. To get rid of its pungent aroma and taste, the oil is heated and smoked in a pan before using it for curries. It helps take the taste of the curry quite a few notches up and adds that extra zing to it. Many people prefer using this oil to massage their scalp as it stimulates hair growth.

Mustard Seeds

Then of course are the Red Chillies (Lal Mirch). They can be used whole or ground or both and the heat is dependent on the variety of chili being used and whether or not the seeds have been ground along with the dried chili skin. It is the seeds that add heat to the chili powder. The Kashmiri red chili powder adds a mild heat along with a nice reddish color to the dish. But generally it is the hot ones that are loved most by the Indian palate since we love our curries piquant.

Red Chili

Turmeric (Haldi) is perhaps one of those spices that are used extensively for their medicinal value. However, it needs to be used in small amount else it can make the dish taste bitter. A paste made from turmeric and sandal wood is applied to the bride and groom a few days before marriage to make their skin glow and also because it has antiseptic properties. Adding just one fourth teaspoon to a glass of hot milk helps keep cold and flu at bay and aids wellbeing.

Turmeric

Coriander seeds are the much loved spice of the Punjabi community and are used essentially in savories. It is used in curries mostly in powdered form although to certain curries they are added whole. This spice has earthy and slightly citrusy notes to it and is a powerhouse of benefits. They not just aid in digestion but happen to be good for diabetics and help lower LDL cholesterol level. They are also a rich source of minerals.

Coriander Seeds

Asafetida (Heeng) is most likely the most unfamiliar of all spices however it is commonly used amongst the Indian populace. It is a resin spice that has earned for itself the notorious reputation of being stinky. However, when fried in hot oil, it goes from stinky to aromatic to being fabulous. It is mostly used for tempering lentils & beans and at times even vegetables. It is revered by some, for its medicinal value. It is super potent and just a sparing pinch goes a long way. Asafoetida is known for its digestive and anti-flatulence properties.

Asafoetida

Now, just imagine a spice blend of coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon, bay leaf, black peppercorns, green cardamom, black cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and mace. THIS is Garam Masala. Aromatic isn’t it?! Now you know why this spice blend is indispensable for an Indian cook, professional or otherwise. The number of spices and their amount used varies from state to state. Also, each family will have its own recipe for this spice blend; one that is usually handed down generations.

Garam Masala

Another spice mix that deserves a mention is the Chaat Masala. This spice mix is extensively used in Indian street food dishes. Chaat means to lick and this is an extremely versatile, slightly hot, tangy, earthy, salty, pungent spice mix that has umpteen usages. However, this spice blend is used more like a condiment and rarely used in curries. This spice mix comprising of dried mint, rock salt, dry mango powder, cumin besides a little chili powder and asafetida.  Like many other magical spices this one too aids in digestion. Use it to line the glass rim of your Bloody Mary or add a dash to a bowl of fresh garden salad or fritters or perhaps corn on cob. Get creative and bring in this spice mix to your kitchen. Life will never be same again!

Chaat Masala

A few things to keep in mind when using spices are:

a)    Always buy fresh spices, preferably organic, and store them in air tight jars at a cool dry place. Most spices lose their flavor and aroma with passage of time so buy them in less quantity so you can finish your batch well within the expiry period.

b)    Similarly make small batches of spice blends so you can finish them off before they lose their punch.

c)    In a bid to gain most out of spices, don’t go on an overdrive.  A little goes a long way. Too much of them and you have lost the plot.

And last but not the least, chuck away those store brought spice mixes. Make your own spice blends; they are a breeze to make and happen to be way better than the store brought ones.

Check out these two posts dedicated to spices used in Indian cuisine. – Spices (Part I) & Spices (Part II)

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