Aromatic Spices: The Basic Ingredients of Indian Cuisine
The Aroma That Makes You Salivate
When you are first exposed to Indian cuisine, the aromatic spices might seem overwhelming. There is a mix of sweet and savory smells. There are a few core spices that are used in Indian food that give it the unique aroma that lingers for days.
Curry powder, in the form that it is known in today, was invented in Madras for the purpose of being exported to England. In reality, each region of India has its own palette of spices. Most Indian spices are used individually, although in some regions, they are mixed together in different amounts to form other spices.
In the western part of India, masala powder is ground and kept for later cooking use. The kaala masala or black masala powder used in many dishes consists of a mixture of spices, including pepper, clove, cinnamon, and other black spices.
In East Indian, curry powder is made using around thirty different spices. Unlike commercial curry powder, the people who live in Mumbai and Bassein have different mixtures of spices in their food depending on what's available at the time. Since all the spices are roasted separately, the curry mix of the day could be different depending on what's fully roasted at the time. The curry powder is usually made in batches and stored for future use.
For the most part, however, spices in Indian cuisine are used individually. Each spice brings a unique taste to the mix, creating an aroma that makes you salivate.
Cumin is used in two different forms: as a seed or ground into a powder. When roasting the seeds, do not keep them on the fire for too long as they will turn very bitter. Add a moisture-rich ingredient to the seeds as soon as they start to turn black ~ half a minute. Cumin in seed form is often used to stir fry with dry vegetable dishes like jeera aloo, an Indian potato dish. Cumin that has been ground into powder form is often an ingredient of curry powder.
Cumin is the small, dried fruit of an annual plant that belongs to the parsley family. The plant has blue-green, linear leaves and white or pink flowers.
Cumin is considered to be a digestive and has "cooling" properties. It has been known to relieve flatulence and colic. It is also used, in the east, to increase lactation and reduce nausea during pregnancy.
Coriander seeds come from a small plant. They are slightly pointed on one end and slightly flattened on the other. The seeds are aromatic when they are ripe and rancid when they are not yet in their ripened state. Coriander seeds are either used in whole, seed form or ground into a powder. Roasting coriander gives food the "curry" taste that people associate with. People use the fresh leaves of this plant, cliantro, in their cooking as an herb. Coriander loses its flavor easily so it should be ground just before use. Coriander is one of the ingredients in garam masala, a mix of spices used in many Indian dishes.
Coriander is a small, hardy annual in the parsley family. The plant has slender stems that are bright green. The flowers are pink, pale blue, or white. The plant has two sets of leaves...an upper set that is wispy and finely divided, and a lower set that is broad and undivided.
Coriander seed oil is a stimulant, often used to assist in digestion. It is a stomach soother for both adults and colicky babies. Coriander also contains substances that kill certain fungi and bacteria, preventing infections from occurring. Sprinkling some coriander seed on minor cuts and scrapes actually produces some anti-inflammatory effects.
Black cardamom is larger in size than green cardamom, and is used only in Indian curries. It has a strong aroma with all its flavor in the seed. It is used in small quantities and is usually a part of the garam masala mix. If black cardamom is ever used whole, it should be removed from the pot before serving. If only the seeds are used, then pound them before putting them in so they can dissolve during the cooking process.
Green cardamom is more commonly used in Asian cuisine than the black variety. The best way to use cardamom is to sprinkle some that is ground up into the curry just before you are about to serve it. Cardamom, in its crushed form, is also used in Indian desserts.
In many languages across Southeast Asia and Indian Subcontinent, the word "turmeric" means "yellow root." Turmeric is the spice that gives curry its color. Once upon a time, turmeric was used as a dye as well as a condiment. Today, it is still used as a dye during Hindu rituals.
Turmeric is an underground plant, or rhizome, that is similar to ginger. The plant is usually ground up and the spice is used in powder form. When purchasing turmeric, try to do so in smaller quantities. Even though the color of the spice will maintain indefinitely, the taste does diminish over time. Storing the spice in an airtight container out of the sun would help.
Turmeric is predominantly used in curries, however, in Moroccan cuisine, it is used to spice meats, particularly lamb. The spice has also been used, in India, as a culinary dye in desserts.
There are a few healthy benefits to turmeric consumption. It is actually a stimulant and a mild digestive. In Malaysia, an ointment is made out the spice and used as an antiseptic.
Cinnamon is harvested from the inner bark of an evergreen tree in the laurel family. It is usually found in tropical regions. There have been multiple uses of cinnamon over the centuries. In ancient Egypt, the spice was used in the embalming process as a preservative. At one point, before gold was abundant, cinnamon was worth more. In medieval Europe, the spice was used as a staple ingredient, alongside ginger, in many recipes. It often helped bridge the flavor between meats and fruits. Cinnamon is a spice that can be found in most Indian curries to not just add taste to the dish, but a strong, sweet aroma as well.
Peoples' pursuits of cinnamon were the root cause of many explorers' adventures during the Age of Exploration. When the Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka, they were paid annual tributes by the Sinhalese King using cinnamon rather than other riches. When the Dutch captured Sri Lanka in 1636, they established a cinnamon cultivation system which is still used today. They figured out that in the wild, the trees grew tall but were pretty stout. Under cultivation, the Dutch kept the trees trimmed back and low to the ground. This resulted in a higher quality spice.
Cinnamon has been known to reduce cholesterol, blood sugar, and triglyceride levels. It is very beneficial for diabetes patients. This fragrant spice is also known to help treat diarrhea. Chinese traditional herbalists suggest that it is helpful, too, for those who are in their 70's ad 80's suffering from mild coughs.
Fenugreek is the small, stony seed from the pod of a bean-like plant. Some are oblong-shaped but others are cubed. They are available whole or in powdered form. Fenugreek gives off a bitter, burnt taste. It is usually used, in its ground-up state, in Indian curry recipes. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans used the seeds for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
Medicinally, fenugreek can be ground up and used as a lip balm and tonic. The seeds can also be soaked and steeped into a tea to aid in reducing fevers and menstrual pain. It also soothes skin infections and helps take the itch and pain away. Breast-feeding mothers have also used fenugreek in helping with increased milk production. Due to the high iron content in fenugreek leaves, many people like to use them in fresh salads.
Caution: Fenugreek is not for everyone. It has been found to aggravate asthma symptoms for some women.