[I am pleased to tell you all that this article has been originally published in Zomppa, the International food magazine. I sincerely thank Patricia Hines and Belinda for publishing my article in the esteemed magazine.]
Discovering Indian cuisine is a gastronomical journey through the “spice route”! Indian spices can weave magic to any bland dish with their versatility. The reason whyIndia boasts of thousands of recipes is because of its amazing variety of spices and spice mixes (powder or paste of an assortment of spices), along with a plethora of cooking techniques and other ingredients.
Spices are good for you!
Indian spices have amazing medicinal properties, and the popular ancient Indian medicinal practice known as Ayurveda employs these wonder spices for various kinds of healing, with no side effects!
For example, research has proved now that turmeric (active ingredient: curcumin) has anti-cancer, anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory properties. Warm turmeric-milk is extremely effective against indigestion and sore throat. Similarly, cloves have healing properties against toothache, gum decay, asthma and acidity. Fenugreek seeds help in easing any kind of pain and are given in plenty to women after child delivery. Ginger is very effective against cough and colds. On the other hand, cumin is known for its healing properties against indigestion and other stomach problems.
Popularity of Indian spices
So much is the importance of spices in India and the global demand of these that there is a separate authority for the promotion of Indian spices worldwide, called Spices Board India, maintained by the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India. The board does a lot of effort for the development of Indian spices, which are the “heart” of Indian cuisine!
Spices in three forms: whole, ground and paste
The whole spices mainly include fenugreek seeds (methidana), bay leaves (tej patta), dry red chilli (sabut laal mirch), nigella seeds (kalonji or mangrel), aniseed, nutmeg (jaiphal), mace (javitri), cumin (jeera), black cumin (shahi jeera), mustard (rai), coriander seeds (sabut dhania), Cinnamon (dalchini), brown cardamom (badi elaichi), cloves (laung or lavang), fennel (saunff) small and big, white sesame seeds (till), green cardamom (elaichi), tamarind (imli), dry ginger (saunth), black peppercorns (kali mirch), black pepper (kali mirch) and poppy seeds (khuskhus).
The ground spices (powders) are coriander powder (dhania powder), pomegranate seed powder (anardana powder), turmeric powder (haldi), dry mango powder (aamchur), asafoetida (hing), red chilli powder (laal mirchi powder), cumin powder (jeera powder) and mint powder (pudina powder).
A few masalas (mixture of spices) like paan masala, pav bhaji masala, chat masala, garam masala, chana masala, tea masala, sambhar masala, tandoori chicken masala, meat masala, jaljeera and kasoori methi are very famous and used commonly in Indian households and restaurants.
These are the common Indian spices. However, there are many more too!
Relishing Indian curries!
Curry is believed to have originated in India. A curry is a side dish, cooked with a combination of spices and herbs, along with one or more kinds of vegetables, fish, meat and/or egg and sometimes, the fruits. During the British rule in India, curry was introduced slowly to the Western palate.
Originally, the word “curry” was the British way to pronounce the Tamil word kari, the Punjabi, Sindhi and Gujrati kadhi and the Bengali tarkari! Alternatively, the word curry might have originated from the word “karahi”, which is a cooking utensil, also known as wok in English.
Roughly, there are more than one thousand curries existing in India itself!
Two tried-and-tested recipes of spice mixes (masalas)
Garam masala: This versatile masala is added to increase the richness and aroma of a huge number of dishes in India. You may alter the amount of this masala in a dish to suit your spice tolerance. There is, however, no set measurement for the ingredients in any masala. But I am sharing with you the one I have tried and tested almost on a regular basis for almost seven years now. Store them in airtight containers in a cool, dry place. [Tip: Replace the lid of the container immediately after use to prevent the aroma from escaping.]
For the basic garam masala, two cinnamon (one-inch) sticks, four cloves and six green cardamoms are ground to a fine powder.
For making the special garam masala (used especially in meat dishes), you need the following, to be ground to a fine powder: two cinnamon (one-inch) sticks, four cloves, six green cardamoms, two brown cardamoms, 1 tbsp black peppercorns, 2 tsp caraway seeds, 1 tbsp cumin seeds, ½ tsp nutmeg powder and ½ tsp mace powder.
[Note: The commercially available readymade masalas such as tandoori masala, dhansak masala, sambhar masala, chana masala, etc, have either garam masala or curry masala as one of their constituents.]
Curry powder: This can be made in a couple of ways. The amounts of the ingredients may be varied. The recipe given below gives great results!
Dry-roast 2 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp cumin seeds, ½ tsp fennel seeds, ½ tsp fenugreek seeds, 3 dried red chillies and 3 curry leaves until these become nicely browned and release a rich aroma. Put these (after cooling) into a spice mill or a grinder to grind them into a very fine powder. Now mix ½ tsp turmeric powder and ½ tsp salt with this and store in an airtight container.
Jaljeera: the healthy and spicy Indian summer drink!
The word “jal” means water and “jeera” means cumin. This is an exotic North Indian drink, which is very popular in Indian restaurants worldwide. This is a spicy drink and an appetizer, which is believed to not only cool the body (because of mint in them) in hot weather, but this aids in digestion (attributed to the cumin and rock salt) as well! It is a drink served in Indian get-togethers and cultural ceremonies.
The jaljeera drink has lemonade as the main constituent. This is mixed with the jaljeera powder and finely chopped mint or fresh mint paste is added at the end, topped with unsweetened mini gram-flour balls called boondi (optional). Following is the recipe of light jaljeera.
- Cumin seeds: 1.5 tsp
- Dry ginger powder: ½ tsp
- Dry red chilli (optional): ½
- Black peppercorns: 5
- Fresh mint leaves (finely chopped): 4
- Black salt: ¾ tsp
- Dry mango powder (aamchur): ½ tsp
- Sugar (optional): ½ tsp
- Asafoetida: two pinches
- Lime juice: 2 tbsp
- Cold water
Method of preparation:
Make a paste of the mint leaves with black salt, dry ginger powder, dry mango powder, asafoetida and sugar.
Dry-roast the cumin seeds and the dry red chilli till these release an aroma and are lightly browned. Add the peppercorns and roast for another 1 min over a low flame. Cool this mixture under open air and grind to a very fine powder.
Mix this powder with the mint mixture and store in an airtight jar. This becomes the jaljeera powder.
To make one glass of jaljeera, put the lime juice and 1 tsp of jaljeera powder into the glass. Add cold water to fill the glass. Check for salt and sugar and adjust if needed.
Sprinkle a few chopped mint leaves at the top or use salted boondi.