An Indian Store Cupboard
Comforting kormas, robust rogan joshes, divine dals: what’s not to love about Indian food? And the really wonderful thing about it is that, once you’ve stocked up on all the necessary spices, you really don’t need much else. Invite some friends round for supper and, instead of having to charge round your supermarket looking out for special ingredients, all you’ll need to do is pick your meat, vegetables, quite possibly some coriander, or cilantro, and you’re done. Purists will insist on dry-roasting and grinding their spices fresh; lesser beings (such as me) simply open a ready-ground jar.
Below I’ve listed the most common herbs and spices you’ll need to fill an Indian store cupboard.
Asafoetida – one of those strange powders you might find in specialist shops, but can live without. I happen to have some, but if I didn’t, I’d just omit it. I consider it more of a contributory flavour than a dominant one. Asafoetida is the sap from the roots and stem of a giant fennel-like plant which grows wild in Central Asia. The sap dries into a hard, smelly resin and is usually used ground. It’s said to be good for the digestion, has a strong, fetid aroma and a flavour reminiscent of garlic and shallots, and is only ever used in very small amounts.
Bay Leaves – these highly aromatic leaves come from the Laurel tree, or Laurus nobilis, an evergreen member of the laurel family native to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Thick, dark green and glossy on the upper surface, bay leaves are added to rice and meat dishes for their gentle aroma, and are sometimes lightly browned in oil first to intensify them.
Black Pepper – a foodie friend of mine insists on Indian black pepper over the Madagascan sort usually preferred in France, to the extent that he actually takes his own pepper mill with him when he goes to restaurants. Grown in southern India, peppercorns tend to be lightly roasted before use to draw out their lemony flavour.
Cardamom Pods – the fruit of the tropical plant Elettaria cardamomum, a member of the ginger family, which grows in the moist, tropical regions of South India and Sri Lanka. Cardamom is the world’s third costliest spice (after saffron and vanilla) and is known as the vanilla of India. It’s used in most desserts and sweetmeats, as well as being added to spiced tea and even sucked as a mouth freshener. Inside the pods are clusters of black seeds which smell of a mixture of camphor, eucalyptus, orange peel and lemon.
Cayenne Pepper – this hot, red powder is made by grinding the dried red skins of several types of chilli peppers. India is among the world’s largest producers, exporters and consumers of cayenne pepper.
Chillies: whole, dried and red – are often cooked quickly in oil to enhance and intensify their flavour.
Chillies: whole, fresh, green and red – the top, fatter part with more seeds is always the hottest, the bottom tip the mildest. Indians never remove the seeds when cooking. Red chillies are, in fact, ripe green chillies, but their flavour is slightly different. Chillies are a rich source of iron and vitamins A and C and are said to stimulate a sluggish digestion.
Cinnamon – a moderate-sized, bushy evergreen tree of the laurel family, Cinnamomum zeylanicum is native to India and Sri Lanka. Its thin bark sheaths are sun-dried and packed one inside the other to produce cinnamon sticks. Used mainly for desserts in the West, cinnamon, often in its stick form, imparts a sweet, aromatic flavour to Indian rice, meat and vegetable dishes, as well as dals.
Cloves – the dried nail-shaped buds from the evergreen tree Eugenia aromatica, cloves have a strong, pungent, sweet aroma and flavour. Usually used in meat and rice dishes and the spice mixture ‘garam masala’, cloves can also be used as mouth fresheners.
Coriander (cilantro) – the parsley of India, coriander is ground into chutneys, mixed in with vegetables, cooked with meats and can also be used as a garnish. Generally just the delicate fragrant green leaves are used, though southern Indians often throw the stems into soupy dals for extra flavour.
Coriander Seeds – these beige ridged seeds are sweetly spicy, reminiscent of lemon and sage, with a warm, distinctive fragrance. They’re also cheap, and as a result are commonly used in Indian cookery, either in the ‘black masala’ so popular in western India, or combined with fenugreek, peppercorns and red chillies, then dry-roasted to flavour seafood dishes in the southern state of Kerala. In the north, coriander, cumin and turmeric make up a common spice trinity used in hundreds of dishes.
Cumin Seeds – the seeds of the small annual herb from the parsley family Cuminum cyminum, cumin seeds have a warm, strongly aromatic and slightly bitter flavour. Used whole or ground, plain or dry-roasted, they are popular in meat, rice, vegetable dishes and dals.
Curry Leaves – the thin, shiny, dark-green leaves of the Southeast Asian tree Murraya koenigii, curry leaves are highly aromatic and used in much Indian coastal and southern cookery, generally sautéd with mustard seeds and asafoetida and added to dals and vegetable dishes. They are always used fresh.
Fennel Seeds – with their warm, sweet fragrance, fennel seeds give meat and vegetables a delicious liquorice-like flavour. In Kashmir they are often ground and used with asafoetida and powdered ginger for fish and vegetable dishes. In north and western India the whole seeds are used in pickles, chutneys and snack foods. They are also often served after a meal as both a digestive and a mouth-freshener.
Garlic – there is much debate as to whether garlic is a herb or a vegetable – being from the onion family that technically makes it a vegetable, but then again chives hail from the same family, and I’d consider them a herb… Regardless of the confusion, garlic is loved in India by virtually everyone except Kashmiri Hindus and the Jains, who don’t touch the stuff. Garlic is often combined with onions and ginger to make a ‘wet’ trinity of seasonings, ground into a paste and then fried until dark and thick. In parts of western India garlic, salt and dried red chillies are pounded together to make an everyday condiment.
Ginger – ginger is a light-brown rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale, which thrives in tropical areas of the world. Ginger has a spicy sweet aroma and a refreshing, pungent flavour and is a terrific digestive, often added to tea (it’s also said to ward off colds). It can be chopped, sliced, grated or made into a paste, and is often used in meat sauces as part of the onion, garlic and ginger trinity. It may also be cut into slivers and used when stir-frying.
Ginger may be ‘stored’ in dry, sandy soil. When watered infrequently, not only will it survive, allowing you to chop off pieces as and when required, it will also sprout fresh knobs.
Powdered ginger may be found in mainstream supermarkets. While it is no substitute for fresh ginger, it is mostly used in European cooking, to flavour puddings, biscuits, breads, cakes and beverages.
Mustard Seeds – there are three varieties, white (actually yellowish and more popular in European cooking with a milder flavour), brown (reddish-brown) and black (brownish black). It’s the brown seeds that Indians have been using for years, but to confuse matters, brown seeds are often referred to as black. Thrown into hot oil and allowed to pop they turn nutty and sweet, they are mostly used to season vegetables, pulses, salads and rice dishes.
Nutmeg and Mace – Both are derived from the apricot-lookalike fruit that grows on the evergreen tree Myristica fragrans. When the fruit is ripe, it splits in half revealing a deep red, net-like membrane that covers a brittle shell. The membrane is mace, the shell nutmeg. Both have similar warm, sweetish and slightly camphorous flavours though mace has a slightly bitter edge.
Saffron – whole, dried saffron threads are the stigma (female organ) of the autumn crocus, or Crocus sativus, that grows in the northern state of Kashmir. About 210,000 dried stigmas, picked from about 70,000 flowers, yield one pound of saffron, making it the most expensive spice in the world, and used mostly in festive dishes. It has a pleasantly spicy, pungent, slightly bitter honey-like taste. Indians often roast the threads lightly before soaking them in hot milk to bring out the colour. This milk is then poured over rice, in dishes such as biryani, to give it its orange highlights.
Star Anise – a flower or star-shaped collection of pods from the small evergreen tree Illicium verum, star anise is brownish-black in colour and has, unsurprisingly, an anise flavour. Normally associated with Chinese cookery, where it's one of the spices that make up Five-spice powder, it is used mostly on India’s western coast where the trade with China started.
Tamarind – the fruit of the tall shade tree, Tamarindus indica, tamarinds look like wide beans. As they ripen, their sour green flesh turns a chocolate colour. Tamarind paste, which has a sour fruity taste, is widely available in supermarkets, and makes excellent sweet-and-sour chutneys or sauces, and can be used in vegetable and meat dishes.
Turmeric – a rhizome of the tropical herb Curcuma longa, turmeric looks a little like ginger, only with smaller, more delicate fingers and is quite orange inside. Turmeric turns yellow when dried, and it’s this musky yellow powder that gives some Indian dishes a yellowish colour and a mild, earthy flavour. As it’s cheap it’s used freely in Indian cookery, especially in pulses, vegetables and meat dishes.
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Garam Masala: A Spicy Mix
If I had my way, curry powder, (whatever that is) would be banished from all shops and supermarkets. It’s a cop-out and, if my memory serves me well, tastes vile. However, there are acceptable ready-made spice mixes available, of which Garam Masala is perhaps the most popular. ‘Garam’ means hot and ‘masala’ means spices, so the spices used were traditionally those which ‘heated’ the body according to the ancient ayurvedic system of medicine.
Garam Masala is often added, sparingly, towards the end of the cooking time to retain its aroma, or may be used as a garnish to sprinkle over cooked meats, vegetables and pulses.
There are many regional varieties, but essentially the mix is:
1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 inch cinnamon stick
A curl of mace
Grind to a fine powder and store in an airtight jar. Some add a bay leaf to the mixture. This makes about three tablespoons, but I've got to admit, I've never made my own.
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