A Guide to Indian Spices
From North India's hot & spicy tandooris & curries, to the dahls and sweets of South India, spices are synonymous with Indian cuisine. In Indian cooking, spices are not merely used to make food taste good. Here, spices serve a more holistic, harmonious purpose. Cinnamon and chiles warm the body, while green cardamom cools. Fenugreek seeds reduce bloating. Garam masala, one of India's most well-known spice blends, is a mix of warming spices like cumin and cinnamon and coolin spices, like coriander and green cardamom. These combinations help to transform simple rice or dal into a beautiful, deeply flavorful dish that is meant to help the whole body.
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Indian spice blends, or masalas, vary from region to region—garam masala in the North, sambar masala in the South, panch phoron in the East—and even from house to house.
Essential Indian Spices
Add heat: Red chiles, such as lal mirch and cayenne, add heat to dishes, while Kashmiri chiles give a notoriously deep red color to tandoori chicken. Cinnamon is often added for warmth and give complexity.
Add depth: Black peppercorns are freshly ground and added halfway through most cooking. Black mustard seeds, caraway, cloves, cumin, fenugreek and fennel seeds are usually tempered in hot oil and added to stews, vegetables, seafood, poultry and meats. Black cardamom, with its deep and smoky flavor, is used to spike rice dishes, while green cardamom, light and herby, is delicious in desserts. Turmeric powder is often used to give a lovely yellow color and slightly bitter taste to both savory and sweet items.
Add alliums: Ginger, garlic and shallots are heavily used in most Indian dishes, while asafoetida, or hing, provides a wonderful substitute for alliums. Kala namak, on the other hand, is a vegan's best friend. It is rich in minerals and often a lovely substitute for eggs.
Add acidity: Indian cuisine adds acidity to dishes using ingredients other than lemons and limes. Experiment with tamarind and yogurt for sourness and a creamier flavor profile, or try adding amchoor, powder made from raw green mangos, for a uniquely acidic flavor.
Add sweetness: For desserts, green cardamom is India's equivalent to vanilla in the U.S. Saffron threads, used for their flavor and beautiful color, are a close second. Rose water and nut extracts spike lassis and kheer, while jarrery, a dark, smoky brown sugar, sweetens sweet breads and coffee.
Buying Indian Spices in Small Batches
Indian spices, particularly ground spices, should be purchased in small batches and then stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark spot like your kitchen pantry. We recommend buying in small batches as ground spices will lose their flavor after just a couple months, changing the flavor profile of the blend.
Cooking With Indian Spices
Spice infused dals and rice dishes are staple foods, while an endless number of seed and spice studded breads, from doasa to naans to crepes, are found all over the country. Northern Indian cuisine heavily favors dairy, like paneer, ghee, yogurt, with amchoor used for acidity. South India, on the other hand, uses tamarind for tartness. Western India, incorporates coconut oil and milk into many of its staple dishes. Various religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam, have also influenced the country's cuisine (nearly one-third of the population is vegetarian). Alternatively, keep it simple and combine these spices and masalas with a bit of oil and use as a rub on chicken, tofu or your other favorite foods.
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