Indian Herbs and Spices
Indian cooking basically contains a handful of herbs which help to enhance the flavour of the dish. The different types of herbs in Indian cooking are:-
Basil or Tulsi as it is popularly known in India is a herb which comes from the mint family, ie, Ocimum basilicum family. The basil plant is a native of India and other tropical regions of Asia where it has been cultivated for over 5,00 years. Basil is used as a fresh ingredient which is to be added it at the last moment due to the fact that cooking Basil over a high or low heat over long periods could destroy its flavour. Another aspect of basil which is probably lesser known is that when the seeds of this plant is soaked in water, the seeds become gelatinous and are often used in beverages such as falooda .
Bay leaves (Tej patha)
Bay leaves is another plant which is a native of India although Turkey is one of the world exporters of the plant. In Indian cuisine, bay leaves are used in briyani and is an essential part of the garam masala (which will be explained later). Bay leaves are best used crushed or grounded before cooking and they are always used dried.
Coriander leaves (dhania)
Coriander leaves are used in combination with mint leaves to produce chutneys. Coriander leaves are generally used a garnishes and always added at the last moment as overcooking of the leaves would destroy its fresh flavour.
Curry leaves (Kari patha)
The curry leaf which is from the curry tree is another herb which is native of India. It is widely used in south Indian cooking where the name of the plant, 'kariveppilai' when literally translated means curry leaves. The meaning of 'kariveppilai' means a leaf that is used to make the curry. These leaves when used enhance the aroma of the dish. Curry leaves are used in south Indian cooking such as vadai , rasam and kadhi . It has to be noted that these leaves are best used fresh as they do not keep well when dried or when kept in the refrigerator.
The leaves of this plant is aromatic. It has an aromatic tinge with a cool aftertaste. Mint is used in Indian cooking to make chutneys with the mint chutney being the most popular. It is noted that just like curry leaves, the mint leaf has to be used fresh and at the last moment when cooking.
This plant is derived from the dried latex exuded from the underground rhizome of Ferula . This plant is a native of Iran. Asafoetida has a strong pungent flavour and highly unpleasant with a bitter aftertaste. In Indian cooking, this spice is used as a digestive and antiflatulence aid.
Aniseed (Fennel seed)
This plant is a native of Eastern Mediterranean and Southwest Asia. This seed is used widely in Indian cooking as its flavour is a combination of liquorice, fennel and tarragon. However, in Indian cooking, this seed is used as a digestive aid.
Black pepper (Kali Mirch)
Black pepper is the fruit of the Piperaceae which is basically cultivated for its fruit, that is the black peppercorn. These plants are native to India although Vietnam is now the largest exporter of the plant. Malaysia, which produces 8% is also one of the exporters of the peppercorns.Both the black pepper and black peppercorns are used in Indian cooking as spice and seasoning. Its spicy flavour heats up the dish.
Black salt (Kala Namak)
This is salt has a salty and pungent smell to it due to the fact that it consists mainly of sodium chloride and trace impurities of sodium sulfate, iron sulphide and hydrogen sulfide. It is worth mentioning that this type of salt is a natural volcanic rock salt. It is called black salt because of its iron sulphide. When pounded, this salt has a violet hue which gives it the name, black salt.
This plant is a native of India although the name cardamom was derived from a Latin term cardamomum . This plant is from the ginger family and there are two common species in this family. The first species is Elettaria which is also known as cardamom and/or green cardomom. The Elettaria is distributed from India to Malaysia. Another variety is Amomum which is also known as black cardomom, siamese cardomom, white or red cardomum. The Amomum is distributed in Asia to Australia. The Elettaria cardamom is used as a spice because it has a strong unique taste which gives the dish its aroma.
Caraway seeds (Ajwain)
This seed is from the bishop's weed plant which is a native of India. Ajwain has a similar aroma to thyme due to the fact that it contains thymol. However, it is more aromatic flavour while it has a bitter and pungent taste. In Indian cooking, it is advisable to use just a pinch of ajwain as even a small amount of ajwain in any dish is capable of completely dominating the flavour of the dish. In Indian cooking, Ajwain acts as a digestive aid.
The cinnamon tree is a native of Southeast Asia and it is a sought after spice because it can be used as a flavour enhancer in desserts such as cinnamon buns and apple pies. In Indian cooking however, the cinnamon bark is is pounded into powder to be used as Sambar powder.
Coriander seed (Dhania)
Coriander seeds is used in Indian cooking together with cumin seeds in garam masala and curries. Coriander seeds is used as a thickener. These coriander seeds can be roasted and these roasted seeds are called dhana dal and eaten as snacks throughout India. These seeds are the main ingredients in south indian sambar and rasam.
Cloves, which are the native of Indonesia are also grown in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Madagascar and Zimbabwe. This plant is from the family Mrytaceae . Cloves are the dried flowers from this tree. Cloves are used in North and South Indian cooking. In North Indian cooking, cloves are primarily used as part of garam masala. It is a main ingredient is masala chai. In South Indian cooking, it is used sparingly in briyani.
Cumin seeds (Jeera)
Cumin is derived from a plant in the Apiaceae family. This plant is a native of Eastern Mediterranean to Eastern India. Cumin seeds are used as spice due to their distinctive flavour. In Indian cooking, it is used both ground and as whole seeds. An Indian beverage which uses cumin seeds in Jal Jeera.
Dried mango powder (Amchur)
This spice is derived from dried mango which has been plucked unripe from the mango tree and powdered with turmeric. The unripe mango is then left to dry for 5-6 days. Dried mango powder is commonly used to flavour curries and chutneys. Amchur is also used to flavour kebab and add also used as a marinade for chicken and fish just before preparing briyani. A famous North Indian dish which used dried mango powder is Chaat Masala and Hariyali Dal.
Fenugreek (Kasuri methi)
This spice comes from the Fabaceae family. It's leaves are used as herbs whilst its seed is used as spice. India is the major producer of fenugreek where it has about 8 states producing this plant. The dried leaves are used to make Kasoori Methi which is an important ingredient in Indian breads.
This is basically a blend of ground spices common in India. Both north and south india have unique garam masala blends suited to their region and locality. However, the common ingredient in garam masala includes black pepper, cloves, cumin seeds, cinnamon, green cardomom, star anise and coriander seeds. This individual spices are roasted together before being they are to make the garam masala spice blend. Garam masala is used in Indian cuisine such as Aloo Gobi (Potato & Cauliflower mixture), Rogan Josh (Lamb curry) and also in Murga Kari (Chicken curry).
This comes from the non-centrifrugal part of the cane sugar. Jaggery can also be made from palm tree. In cane sugar, it is the concentrated product of cane juice without separating the molasses and crystals. In the palm tree, jaggery, is made from the sap of the date palm. The sago palm and coconut palm are now tapped to make jaggery and major producers of these type of jaggery are South India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Jaggery is used in both sweet and savoury dishes.
Mustard seeds (Sarson)
Mustard seeds are from the mustard plant. The mustard seed have to be roasted first and they produce a "pop" sound once roasted. Mustard seeds are basically used in stir fried vegetables, the most famous being sarson ka saag or a spinach and mustard leave vegetable.
This spice is from the flower saffron crocus or Crocus sativus . Saffron is the world's expensive spice as it has to be handpicked at the righ time. This plant is a native of Southwest Asia. Saffron is added to Indian cooking because it contributes to the yellow orange colouring in Indian cuisine. It can be used in simple briyani. Saffron's aroma has been described as sweetened honey taste.
Sesame seeds (Til)
Sesame seeds are derived from the Sesamum plant. Sesame seeds are always used in whole in Indian cooking due to its nutty flavour. Specifc dishes where sesame seeds are used in Indian cooking are Til Pitha which are sesame balls. In Northeastern India, sesame seeds are used in two main salad dishes which are 'Thoiding' and 'Singju'. In South Indian cooking, sesame oil is used in "ell urundai" which is just ground sesame seeds mixed with ghee. The english term for "ell urundai" would be ghee balls.
Turmeric comes from the ginger family, Zingiberaceae . The plant is produced in Tamil Nadu in a city known as Erode or better known as the "Yellow City". It is widely known as Indian saffron as it provides a cheaper alternative to the most expensive saffron as they both (Saffron & Turmeric) produce a yellow hue when added in Indian cooking. An Indian food which uses turmeric is Patoleo which is made by layering rice flour, coconut jaggery mixture and wrapping the mixture with turmeric leaf.
Tamarind is derived from a tree from the Fabaceae family. The plant is a native of Africa, especially Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria and Tanzania. This plant is a tropical plant and as such is also available in tropical countries throughout South East Asia to China. In Indian cuisine, the most famous usage of tamarind would be in the Imbli chutney where tamarind is mixed with sugar and spices to suit the regional taste required. Tamarind is also used in rasam, sambar. In Kerala, tamarind is added to fish curry, masalas and ground coconut for flavouring.
I hope the above the above glossary is useful. Happy reading !!