When I was growing up, one of my best friends lived two doors down from me. Whenever she came over, my parents always tried to get her to eat Indian food but she usually refused because she found it too spicy. My parents are big feeders and so to overcome the fact that they couldn't feed her Indian food, they would instead make her macaroni and cheese and other non-spicy treats. Fast forward several years, and now this friend of mine has grown to love Indian food. When we happen to be in town at the same time she willingly eats and actually enjoys the Indian food at my house. Lately, she's even begun to crave Indian food! She complains, however, that the Indian food where she lives is sub par and doesn't taste like the food at my parents' house and thus asked me to do a post on building an Indian pantry. Thus, to help her eat delicious Indian food, I decided to do a four part series on building an Indian pantry. The first part will focus on dry spices; the second on a spice blend near to my heart, garam masala; the third will focus on fresh/wet spices; and the fourth will focus on Indian cooking techniques.
A quick caveat before I begin: the spices, ingredients, and recipes that I write about are ingredients that my parents and I use. India is a huge and diverse culinary country. My parents grew up 1 mile apart in the same city, yet the food in their houses is worlds apart. Extrapolate that to the entire country and you have an amazing diversity of flavors and ingredients. Consider this a small introduction to the delicious complexity of Indian food!
The Workhorse Spices
|From top row, L to R: Turmeric, Cumin, Red Chili Powder, Dry Whole Chili, Coriander, Mustard Seeds, Garam Masala, Fenugreek Seeds|
Turmeric (haldi): Turmeric comes from a tropical rhizome that is dried and then ground. It has an earthy, rich flavor. It can be bitter if too much is added. It adds a distinctive yellow color to Indian dishes and to most commercially available yellow mustards. It is thought to have antioxidant as well as antiseptic properties. This spice is sprinkled on the dish during the cooking process.
Cumin (jeera): While most people in the Western hemisphere associate cumin with Mexican cooking, it is also commonly used in Indian cuisine. When fried whole in oil, it adds a sweet smoky flavor to dishes, when used in powdered form sprinkled on top of the dish while cooking they add the more familiar savory-smoky that people associate with cumin.
Red Chili Powder (lal mirchi): This spice packs a punch in terms of heat. It's spicier than cayenne, so beware if you substitute this for cayenne. It also adds a pretty red color to the dishes. This spice is usually sprinkled on top of the dish once most ingredients are added.
Dry Whole Chili (mirchi): These chilies are usually toasted in oil to infuse the oil with their spicy flavor. They have a different flavor profile than dried Mexican chilies available at many grocery stores. Those chilies tend to have sweet or even raisiny undertones whereas these have more vegetal and spicy flavors.
Coriander (dhania): This spice is the dried fruit of the cilantro plant. It has a nutty, spicy, orange-y taste. It can be used both whole and ground. It does not add much heat, but does add a lot of flavor.
Mustard Seeds (rai): These seeds range in color from yellow to black, with black being the most common variety used in Indian cuisine. Most Indian recipes begin with "popping" these seeds in hot oil to infuse the oil with the mustard flavor. If you're not a huge fan of yellow mustard, don't worry! These seeds add a complex toasty aroma to their dishes, and not the vinegary pungency of yellow mustard.
Garam Masala: Garam masala is one of the few premixed spice blends that Indians regularly use in their cooking. It is made from a variety of ingredients. The commercially available ones are very different from the homemade garam masala I use in my house. Stay tuned for an upcoming post to further explore this spice blend!
Fenugreek Seeds (methi dana): These seeds of the fenugreek plant add an amazingly rich bitter-sweet flavor to dishes. Just a pinch of these seeds fried in oil is enough to flavor a large pot. At times they are served as a condiment after being lightly fried in oil.
|From top row, L to R: cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom, bay leaves, black pepper, ground dried ginger, green cardamom, asafetida|
These spices are the rich aromatic flavors that are sometimes associated with dessert in the Western hemisphere. In Indian cooking, they are used for both savory and sweet applications. While it might seem strange to think of cinnamon or cloves with savory preparations, try nibbling on a tiny piece of the spice to appreciate the spicy flavor that it provides.
Cinnamon (dalchini): This is the same cinnamon that we know and love from desserts. In Indian savory preparations, the cinnamon stick is toasted whole in oil and imparts a spicy sweetness to the dish.
Cloves (lavang): Cloves are used the same way as cinnamon--a small amount is toasted in oil to add its flavor to the dish. When cloves are used in this manner, it is wise to use them sparingly as too much can alter the flavor of the dish.
Black Cardamom (bada elaichi): This spice is an amazing combination of smoke, licorice, and camphor. As with many of the aromatics, a little goes a long way. Just one pod is sufficient to infuse an entire dish with a mysterious flavor that will leave the diner scratching their head as they try to figure out what spice they are experiencing. It is toasted in oil when used.
Bay leaves (tej patra): Bay leaves in Indian cooking add a sweet-savory flavor to the dish. One to two bay leaves are toasted in oil to flavor an entire dish.
Black pepper (kaali mirch): This is the same black pepper that is ubiquitous in Western cooking. In Indian cuisine, it is not a standard spice added to any dish regardless of the other ingredients. Rather, it is used a key flavor, or as a strong background spice to bring out other ingredients. In South India, there are certain dishes made for religious ceremonies that use black pepper as the only heat providing spice. Often times black pepper is overlooked and its personal flavor is forgotten. Indians bring it back to the limelight that it deserves. It is used either whole, toasted in oil, or ground, sprinkled on top of the dish.
Ground dried ginger (sont): When dried and ground, the warm spicy flavors of ginger are brought to prominence. This is typically used sprinkled on a dish during the cooking process.
Green cardamom (elaichi): This spice is the second most expensive spice in the world. It is a beautiful flavor with a unique sweetness and a strong round taste. It can be used three ways: as the whole pod, just the seeds removed from the pod, or with the seeds ground to a powder.
Asafetida (hing): Asafetida is made from the resin of a rhizome. My parents recall hand grinding the resin when they were children however, today, asafetida is usually available as a pre-ground powder. When raw, asafetida has the unfortunate smell of bad body odor but please don't let this dismay you! When it is toasted in oil it develops an amazing flavor profile: think garlic, leeks, shallots are rolled into one incredible powder. It is magical!
|From top row, L to R: Dried Curry Leaves, Ajwain, Dried Fenugreek Leaves, Saffron|
These were the lonely spices that I couldn't quite fit into any other category. This does not mean that they are not important! They most definitely are! They range from earthy and pungent to delicate and sweet.
Dried Curry Leaves (karipatta): These leaves are commonly used in South Indian cuisine. Many South Indian families have huge curry plants growing in their house from which they cut a few fresh leaves whenever their cooking requires it. Luckily, for those of us without a green thumb or space for such plants they are available dry. They add a spicy lemony flavor to the food and can be either toasted in oil or added during the cooking process. The use of these leaves does not define a curry, though!
Ajwain: This spice is most similar in flavor to a strong sharp thyme. It is more aromatic than time and if eaten whole can be bitter and spicy. Like many other spices, it can dominate a dish so use it sparingly. It is thought to help with flatulence!
Dried Fenugreek Leaves (kasoori methi): These dried leaves add an earthy, pungent, and bitter flavor to dishes--but in the best way possible. For lovers of butter chicken, this is often that flavor that lingers on the palate enticing you to take the next bite! It is often sprinkled on a dish during the cooking process. Because it has a prominent flavor, a small amount can flavor a large dish.
Saffron (kesar): Saffron is the world's most expensive spice by weight. And it deserves to be that way. Each strand is hand harvested from the stigma of a crocus that can only grow in certain climates. It adds an amazing full bodied yet delicate sweetness to dishes. It can be used in savory preparations or sweet ones. Due to its aromatic qualities and great expense, I recommend only buying whole stamens not ground and storing it in the fridge to preserve flavor. It is often bloomed in a warm liquid before being added to a dish.
Guide to Buying
As with many specialty ingredients, these spices can be expensive and often difficult to find. If you live in an area with an Indian grocery store, I highly recommend going there to buy these ingredients. Often they will be cheaper than at your local grocery store and the spices will be considerably fresher due to high turnaround rates.
In my house the most commonly used ingredients are the workhorse ingredients and thus are our "dessert island" spices. I recommend starting with those spices, experimenting with a few recipes and going from there. Luckily, the workhorse ingredients are also the cheapest and are the most cross cultural! Cumin can be used in Mexican cuisine and coriander can be used in middle eastern preparations. You can use the mustard seeds and the turmeric to make your own yellow mustard! If you love spicy food the chilies are great for adding a spicy punch to a variety of dishes!
As you become more familiar with the cuisine, slowly upgrade to the other spices. Cooking Indian food is a wonderful sensory adventure and it really is not as hard as most people, myself included, think!
Coriander Spiced Potatoes
These potatoes are a great example of simple Indian food using only pantry ingredients! They use four of the workhorse ingredients: mustard seeds, turmeric, coriander, and chili powder and come together in a snap. I hardly had time to take any photographs because the whole process happens so quickly!
The potatoes are peeled, cubed, and soaked for 10-15 minutes in cold water to remove some of the starches. Some mustard seed is "popped" in hot oil, the potatoes are added and cooked. The turmeric and chili powder are sprinkled on top. Finally, because this is a traditional Gujarati dish the potatoes are finished with a sprinkle of sugar and coriander to add a final sweet glaze. These potatoes can be used as an interesting potato side dish or as a vegetable dish in a Indian dinner.
Serves 4 as a side dish
4-5 medium potatoes
1-2 Tbsp. oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
4 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. coriander powder
Peel and cut the potatoes into 3/4 inch cubes. Soak them in cold water for 10-15 minutes. Drain the potatoes very well.
In a nonstick or well seasoned wok or a large nonstick saucepan heat your oil over high heat. If you cannot use a nonstick pan be sure to use more oil as these potatoes can stick to the pan. Heat the oil until it shimmers and when you pass your hand over the pot you feel a significant amount of heat coming from the pan. Add the mustard seeds, and quickly cover the pan leaving the lid slightly ajar. The mustard seeds should pop immediately.
When the mustard seeds stop popping and there is a toasty aroma coming from the pot, carefully add the potatoes standing at some distance from the pot if possible. Be careful, as any excess water left in the potatoes can cause the oil to splash.
Lower the heat to medium-high. Stir the potatoes to coat with the mustard infused oil. Allow them to sit for a few seconds and stir again. Repeat this process until the potatoes get a bit crispy on the outside and have softened on the inside. When the potatoes seem to be mostly cooked, add the chili powder, turmeric, and salt. Stir well to coat the potatoes with the spices.
Once the potatoes are cooked, add the sugar. Raise the heat to high and quickly stir to potatoes to caramelize the sugar. The potatoes will appear to become a bit mushy during this process and will seem to leak a bit of moisture. Don't worry. This is normal. Add the coriander to the potatoes after you have coated them with sugar and stir to coat the potatoes once again. Remove from the heat. Garnish with some finely chopped cilantro if desired. Enjoy!