spice tray

There is no other country in the world that produces as many kinds of spices as India. So,it is not very surprising that India is known as the "Home of Spices".

Indian spices are well known all over the world and cherished for their culinary value, tangy and aromatic flavours. They play a very important role in Indian cooking.
We use spices for food, teas, drinks, sweets not only for the exquisite flavour it lends the dishes but also due to the medicinal values they provide.
These spices can be combined in amounts to make specific spice mixtures used in everyday cooking.
A very well known spice mixture is the Garam Masala.
The word garam means hot, not "hot" as in spicy chili hot, but due to the fact that the spices blended in the mixture are said to increase the body temperature.
Masala is a word very commonly used in Indian cooking and is simply the Hindi word for "spice." So, whenever a combination of spices, herbs and other condiments are ground or blended together,it is called masala.
You can have a wet masala, which includes water, yogurt or other liquids to the ground spices making it into a more paste like consistency. These are often used to marinate meats, vegetables and fish or are sautéed in oil before adding the main vegetable or meat. This helps the delicate blend of flavours release their aromas into the recipe.
Then there are the common powdered blend of spices. These can be bought in any Indian store or well stocked supermarket and depending on the quality, these can have a very good flavour and are comfortable to use.
The whole masalas often includes, as the name suggests, whole spices such as whole cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom and black peppercorns. These are fried in hot oil before other wet ingredients such as onions, garlic or ginger are added.

The classic Indian curry often combines the following spices - coriander, turmeric, cumin, ginger, garlic as well as other spices.

The Basic Spices

There are a few basic spices in Indian cuisine that go into most dishes. Often a very basic vegetable dish is made by adding cumin or mustard seeds and asafetida in some hot ghee (clarified butter) or oil until they sizzle and pop. Then the vegetables are added and steamed.

Cumin seeds - whole and powder:
This is mainly used in North Indian food and is used for its strong distinctive taste.
When roasted, whole cumin seeds release more of the aroma and gives the dish a sweet flavour.
Cumin seed powder lends a sweet and mild flavour to a dish and is one of the main ingredients
in the Garam Masala.
Hindi name - Jeera

Coriander seeds - whole and powder:
Mainly used for its fresh, soothing and cooling taste, coriander seeds are very light weight and have a mild flavour.
In powder form it is an indispensable spice in the spice box.
The aromatic fragrance of the roasted coriander powder enhances the taste of any dish.
Hindi name - Dhaniya

Turmeric powder:
This is mainly used in Indian dishes for its medicinal properties and for the gorgeous intensive colour it gives to the dishes. It is mildly aromatic and has a delicate scent of ginger.
Turmeric is a wonder spice and is used throughout Asia to treat cases of stomach and liver ailments.
It is also used exteranally to heal sores and in cosmetics.
Hindi name - Haldi

Chili powder:
The Indian chili powder is made from ground chilies. It has a pungent, hot aroma with a strong bite to it.
Hindi name - Lal Mirch

This is often used as a digestive. It has a strong odor and a slight garlicky flavour.
Do not taste this raw - it is NOT a pleasant experience. Using it in the recommended recipe however, works wonders. Just a pinch is used for cooking in dishes with lentils and beans.
Hindi name - Hing

Black mustard seeds:
In India the black mustard seeds are preferred over the larger yellow ones found in the western world.
It has a strong but pleasing flavour and known for its digestive qualities.
Mustard seeds are used in India to flavour vegetables, pulses and pickles.
Hindi name - Mohri

Garam Masala:
At Oh Calcutta, our mixture includes a variety of ingredients such as cumin, fennel, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, whole cloves,black & white pepper, and black cumin seeds and a few more secrets.
It is used in a powdered form. It is often added at the end of cooking, so that the full aroma is not lost.

Fennel Seeds:
It is mainly used in North Indian cuisine and posses digestive qualities.
Fennel seeds are also often used to spice up teas and drinks.
Hindi name - Saunf

Fenugreek seeds:
This spice, which is actually a lentil, is used throughout India for the distinctive flavour it gives the dish and for its wonderful healthful properties. As a matter of fact, after turmeric, fenugreek seeds is the most medically useful item in an Indian kitchen.
Hindi name - Methi

Nigella Seeds:
Also known as onion seeds, these are often used in North India to enhance vegetable dishes.
Toasting the seeds briefly brings out the flavour. These seeds are not the seeds from onions.
Hindi name - Kalonji

Carom seeds:
These have a strong peppery-thyme flavour. This poppy seed like plant comes from the lovage plant.
It is very popular in North Indian cooking. It is used in preparing many Indian vegetables and pulses.
Hindi name - Ajwain

Green Cardamom - whole and powder
This is used throughout India to flavour curries, vegetables, rice, dessert and the ever famous masala chai.This is found in our steamed rice together with whole cumin seeds.
The pod itself is neutral in flavour, it is the brown sticky seed inside the pod that gives that wonderful flavour.
The pods should be kept whole, as ground cardamom quickly loses flavor. It is recommended to grind small quantities at home using a coffee mill. When a recipe calls for whole cardamom, the pods should be cracked open slightly to release the full flavour of the spice. This is such a versatile spice and is often used to flavour many desserts and cakes as well as savory dishes. Great with warm milk, brought to a light simmer, strain and drink....umm
Hindi name - Choti Elaichi

Black Cardamom:
This is larger in size and darker in colour. It is often used to flavor meat, poultry and rice dishes.
The spice is coarser in flavor than the green variety. The inner seeds are often one of the spices used in Garam Masala
Hindi name - Kala Elaichi

Cinnamon Sticks:
It is the bark of the cassia tree that is mostly used in India. The real cinnamon stick, as we know it, found in most supermarkets have a more delicate flavour than the Cassia bark.
Cinnamon sticks lend the dish a sweet and mellow flavor. In India it is often used in many curries and puloas to give the dish a rich flavour.
Hindi name - Dalchini

Cloves - whole and powder:
Cloves are strong, pungent, and sweet. They are used in many meat dishes, marinades, pickles and in many garam masalas. Cloves are used whole or in powder form. In India clove oil is also used due to its medicinal value. Many Indians chew on cloves to relieve toothaches.
Hindi name - Laung

This is usually used in powdered form, grated freshly using a whole nutmeg.
Often it is used to flavour Indian sweets, but may be used in some savory dishes.

Finally there a few other spices and flavourings used in the Indian kitchen. These all help to add a special tastes and seasonings to the dish. Most households probably already have them stocked in their pantries.

Bay Leaves
Black Peppercorns
Fresh mint leaves
Fresh Curry leaves
Coriander Leaves
- fresh, dried and milk

In New Zealand, our complex formulas of dried and fresh spices are often substituted by simple dry powder mixtures like the yellow curry powder. It is a myth to believe that this invention is used in any Indian household.
As a matter of fact this powder mixture was invented by the British who, when they left India after the British Raj, craved the wonderful flavorings of the dishes they had enjoyed. Loosely interpreted the name is probably derived from curry as in gravy.

Indian food is almost always prepared with fresh ingredients accompanied with the delicate combination of many fresh and dried spices. The exact recipes often vary from one household to another.

As you start to enjoy cooking Indian at home i trust you have a better understand of the
value's behind each spice. The flavourings, aromas and the medicinal benefits that lends to your creations.

It was my dada (grandmother) who explained the usage of each spice category - I hope I was able to do the same for you...Enjoy!

meena anand