Spices of India – Demystified
India is called the land of spices and rightly so, for now else in the world can you find as many spices and herbs as you can find in India. Spices are used extensively in Indian cuisine and give it that unique flavor and appeal. These spices and herbs not only lend flavor to the dish but several have medicinal value and many home remedies can come out of a well-stocked spice cabinet. If you feel lost around Indian spices and can not differentiate one from the other, read on.
Spices and herbs can either be used whole or roasted and crushed. Generally, they are added towards the beginning of the dish and fried in hot oil. Some spices and spice mixtures are added later as they do not require much cooking themselves. Following is a spice-by-spice explanation of the most common ones used in Indian cuisine.
Asafoetida (hing in Hindi) is actually a resin from a tree. It has a very unpleasant smell which is probably why it is also called Devil's dung. Its odor is so strong that it should be kept away from other spices so as to prevent it from contaminating them. It is available as a fine powder or in small chunks that can be crushed. It should be added in small quantities at the start of a dish, right after the oil has heated a little. Asafoetida is very good for digestion and an anti-flatulent.
Cumin (jeera in Hindi) can be used whole or in a roasted, powdered form. When used whole, these small seeds are fried in the oil at the start of the dish, until they start popping and lend a distinct aroma and flavor. The powdered form is as commonly used as the whole. It is used for raita, a yoghurt-based side-dish and for sprinkling over savory dishes for added flavor. Cumin is good for digestion.
Mustard seeds or sarson are an important part of South-Indian cuisine. These small, black and round seeds are used for tempering dishes. They are added to hot oil at the start of the dish and like cumin, allowed to pop. Mustard seeds are also used extensively in pickles.
Turmeric or haldi is used in powdered form and its powder is bright yellow in color with a very earthy flavor. It is added in small quantities at the start of the dish and adds to the color and flavor of the dish. Turmeric has anti-bacterial and antiseptic qualities. It can be mixed with mustard oil and applied directly to cuts and burns. Alternately, a pinch can be added to warm milk and given to people suffering from cold, or other illnesses.
Carom seeds or ajwain are much smaller than cumin seeds and are very pungent and bitter. They are added to the oil at the start of the dish in very small quantities. They can also be added to the flour while kneading the dough for various Indian bread such as pooris and parathas. This gives it an additional flavor. Carom seeds are very good for the stomach and help to reduce flatulence.
Fenugreek seeds or methi dana are hard, yellow colored seeds with a bitter taste. Only a few should be added at the start of the dish and fried in the oil. They are used to add flavor to curries and Indian pickles. Fenugreek seeds have various benefits. They are good for people with diabetes and also for the joints of the body. They are good for the health and shine of hair. They can be soaked overnight in water and eaten in the morning with milk or water. The leaves of the fenugreek plant are used in the preparation of a curry. The treated form of the leaves is used as an herb.
Bay leaf or tej patta adds a very pleasant flavor to the dish. A few whole, discharged leaves are added to the dish at the start and can be removed later. Another leaf used extensively in Indian cuisine, especially South-Indian cuisine is the Curry leaf. It has small, bright green leaves which have a very strong aroma and are used for seasoning and tempering the dish.
Coriander seeds or dhaniya are roasted and powdered and used extensively in the preparation of curries. The fresh leaves of this plant are also used in Indian cuisine as an herb, for garnishing and in the preparation of Chutneys. Coriander is good for health as it has anti-oxidant qualities.
Chili powder or lal mirch is a red-colored spice obtained by grinding whole red chilies. Its hotness varies according to the type of chili used. The chilies coming from Kashmir are less hot and of a dark red color and are mostly used to add color to the dish.
Mango powder or amchoor is obtained by drying raw mangoes in the sun and then grinding them. It is generally added to the curry at the end, to give the dish a tangy flavor. If added at the start of the dish, it can prevent the vegetables from cooking properly. It is also used to make Chutneys.
Green cardamom or elaichi is a small green pod with tiny, black seeds inside. It lends a distinct flavor when added to various sweet dishes and also tea. It can also be used as a mouth freshener. Another form of Cardamom is Black Cardamom which is larger in size and black in color. It is used to add flavor to rice, and some curries. It should be removed before serving.
Clove or laung has a strong smell and flavor and is used in both sweet and savory dishes. Tempered in oil, it can be added to curries, or rice to add extra flavor. They can also be eaten raw, and are good for teeth and the throat. Black salt or kala namak is unrefined mineral salt. When ground, it becomes a light pink powder. It is used to add flavor to yoghurt based dishes, Chaats and other savory dishes.
Saffron or kesar is obtained from the saffron crocus flower. The stigma of the flower is treated and used for flavoring and enhancing the color of a dish. It is an extremely expensive spice. It is boiled in hot water or milk to extract its color and flavor and added to sweet dishes, Biryani and curries.
Fennel seeds or saunf are small, green colored aromatic seeds which look a bit like cumin seeds but are greener in color and have a much sweeter taste. They are used in the powdered form or whole in curries and pickles and can also be eaten raw as a mouth freshener. Fennel seeds are very good for digestion.
There are certain spices that are used extensively in the cuisine of places other than India such as Black peppercorns, nutmeg, and Cinnamon. These spices play an important part in Indian cuisine as well and are used in pretty much the same way. Cinnamon and pepper are added whole while tempering and can later be discarded.
Another very important spice used in Indian cooking is Garam Masala, which translated would mean hot spice. It is actually a mixture of various other spices that are roasted and ground. Although it may vary from region to region, it generally contains pepper, cumin seeds, clove, Black Cardamom, bay leaves, nutmeg, Cinnamon and sometimes Coriander powder as well. Garam Masala has a strong flavor and aroma and is generally added at the end of the cooking process.
Various other spice mixtures are now available in the market to help cook certain popular Indian dishes such as Chana, Paneer, and Pav Bhaji. These spice mixtures are helpful and convenient. However, any good recipe would tell you which of the above basic spices are required for a dish, if you do not have access to these ready-made mixtures.