The Beginner's Guide to Indian Spices
The Indian household is one that can run on just lentils and rice, as long as there is a hint of spice!
The word spices conjures up images of bazaars and dusky maidens veiled by dripping sunlight on hot afternoons in quaint corners of Asian markets. Spices are considered a gift of the Gods in many cultures, where they play a pivotal role in bringing joy and warmth to the flavors of the kitchen.
My earliest memory is of Amu - my maternal grandmother who was verily the Mistress of Spices. While we lived in the heart of the bustling city of Mumbai, her method of making pickled mangoes (uruga) in the hot months of May was a secret handed down generation after generation, so it may as well be over a hundred years old!
She used the old methods of powdering the spices that were hand-picked from the local markets. Never one to let steel grinders mar the flavor of her precious uruga, she had them powdered by local women who used huge wooden mortar pestles to powder turmeric and dried red chilies for a princely sum of Rs. 25 per day.
My love for spices flows from these South Indian genes, where rolled balls of curd rice (yogurt mixed with white rice, spiced with mustard seeds and curry leaves) with just a dash of uruga were lovingly popped into my mouth while I listened to stories of warring sparrows and opinionated crows.
Even today, when the COVID pandemic forced us to cook more and order less take out, I found myself opening up my box of spices and allowing my senses to decide what flavor I wanted to add to my day.
So what does one usually find in the mystical spice box of an Indian kitchen? I have four that are indispensable in mine.
1. No prizes for this one... Tumeric!
Tumeric, or Haldi, with its heady aroma and ancient legacy, is truly a favorite!
It is not only an indispensable part of my kitchen but also a very important part of every Indian household. From cuts and beauty hacks to auspicious occasions, turmeric finds its way into everything.
In the kitchen, turmeric is used to add warm color and flavor to rice and lentil dishes. It accentuates the earthy flavor of a good Indian vegetable broth by adding healing and antiseptic properties, especially when one has the sniffles. Haldi doodh, or Turmeric latte, was made by grandmothers when anyone was feeling under the weather – Research now suggests that the concoction alleviates the senses and gives the body a boost of antioxidants.
Keep some of this golden treasure in your kitchen and season your next batch of one-pot lentil and rice for a burst of warmth and mellow yellow color!
2. Mustard seeds.
The earliest known reference to the humble mustard seed is in India.
In the life story of The Buddha (5th Century B.C.), a grieving mother who demands that her son be brought to life is asked by the Buddha to bring a handful of mustard seeds from a house where there has never been a single death. When she fails to find such a house, she realizes the innate message that death is a part of life itself. This is significant as it shows that mustard seeds were a common household spice millennia ago in the Indian subcontinent.
Mustard seeds add a crisp flavor to the traditional coconut dip that goes with dosas (south Indian crunchy rice-based pancakes or idlis) and steamed rice cakes. In north Indian households, the seeds are used as a seasoning for sauteed vegetables and various lentil-based preparations.
Every time I add a spoonful of mustard seeds to hot oil, their joyful crackling and nutty aroma bring me memories of Sunday mornings spent with my family around hot dosas, steaming bowls of sambhar (a spicy and tangy broth that is heaven in a mouthful), and coconut chutney (our dip from earlier), all seasoned with mustard seeds and fresh curry leaves.
Next time you want to try an Indian dish, I recommend sambhar with white rice and a generous spoonful of crackling mustard seeds.
Cardamom is one of the world's most expensive spices. It finds mention in ancient Ayurveda, the Indian branch of alternative medicine, that uses herbs and spices for their healing properties.
It has a distinguished flavor and aroma that brings a richness to the dish that it is used in. This luxurious nature of cardamom is what made it a highly valuable commodity for trade across history. Cardamom is unique because, like saffron, it is used in sweet as well as savory dishes.
My personal favorite among its many sweet avatars is kheer or rice pudding (Yep...we love rice!). Here, milk is carefully simmered with broken rice until the rice is cooked and the milk thickens to a delicious and creamy consistency. The cardamom adds an aroma and flavor that makes it a dish for the Gods... literally – This dish is offered at the altar during religious festivals in India.
Among savory dishes, the royal biryani is a great way to introduce someone to the way cardamom works its magic. This dish is a layered wonder of slow-cooked meat that has been marinated in select spices, including a generous helping of cardamom and cooked rice. The juices in the meat heighten the flavor of the cardamom, bringing with it gasps of delight when one spoons a mouthful of rice and meat mixture into their mouth.
If you are in the mood for a good cup of Indian chai (tea with milk and sweetened with sugar), then add a pod of crushed cardamom, seeds and all, to the mixture as it starts to simmer. The aroma and the flavor that brings you the hills of Darjeeling will set your senses tingling.
4. Black pepper
Black pepper, historians mention, is native to Kerala - the land of my grandfather.
This delightfully pungent spice and its processed version, white pepper, are used extensively in Indian cooking for its flavor and health benefits. My paternal grandmother, Achamma (acha which means father and amma that means mother) handed down the recipe for the world's best fish moilee – a hot stew or curry of coconut milk spiced with pepper that lends great flavor to the delicate meat of Seer fish.
The pepper adds a sharp spicy edge and accentuates the flavor when the curry is eaten with appams - fermented rice pancakes that melt in your mouth.
Black pepper is also used in medicinal concoctions in most households due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Personally, I use a spoonful of honey with a pinch of black pepper powder to treat mild throat irritations... works like a charm!
The next time you decide to make a soup, add a pinch of black pepper to your cup before you pour in the hot broth. You can thank me later!
So this was a small sojourn into my carefully curated spice box. Stock up on these four the next time you hit an Indian spice market. There are long winding roads of delight to be spent in the company of these gifts from India.