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SPICES AND HERBS
IN INDIAN COOKING
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Indian cooking is the most complexly flavored and the most aromatic of the world's cuisines. This magical property is created by spices and herbs, which are the foundation of Indian cooking. They are used not just to flavor food but to give color, piquancy, heat, and texture to the finished dish. Knowledge of spices and herbshow they interact with food to bring out the desired flavorhas to be mastered in order to become a natural Indian cook.
In addition to their culinary facet, spices and herbs have medicinal attributes; they are good for the body, mind, and soul. They also act as preservatives, an added benefit since dishes can be prepared ahead and refrigerated for several days without any change in flavor or appearance.
Spices must be cooked in order for them to be digested easily. For this reason, spices are always put into a dish at the start of, or at least early in the cooking. When spices are sprinkled over a finished dish such as a yogurt salad or a drink, they must be precooked. This is done by placing the whole spices in a frying pan and toasting them until they turn several shades darker and give off a roasted aroma. Then they are ground.
Spices should be purchased whole (except for ground ginger, cayenne, and turmeric, which are sold in powdered form only) and stored in airtight containers in a cool, dry place.Spices release more fragrance when crushed, so they are generally added to dishes in ground form. To grind spices, use a spice mill or coffee grinder reserved for grinding spices or a mortar and pestle. Grind only small quantities of spices as needed, as ground spices quickly go stale.
In India, herbs are cultivated all year round and are readily available for use. Both fresh and dried herbs are used in Indian cooking. Fresh herbsthe leaves and tender stemsare chopped and mixed into dishes or used as a garnish. They may also be chopped and mixed with fresh ginger, spices, and yogurt to serve as relishes and dips, or brewed with fresh ginger and honey in herbal teas. The tradition of using dried herbs began in the mountain regions of northern India where extreme weather conditions prevent year-round herb gardening.
Most spices and herbs used in Indian cooking are widely available. A few of the more unusual, such as ajowan (carum or ajwain) or nigella (kalonji) can be found in Indian or Pakistani grocery shops or through mail order, but in all cases I have given more readily available alternatives.
Finally, remember that spices and herbs are like perfume: They must be handled with a delicate touchjust enough to tease the palate, leaving behind a trail of exotic intrigue and haunting scents.
Spices and Spice Blends
Indian cooks have a way with spices, or masalas. In addition to being added separately during the cooking process, spices are often premixed into blends to produce special flavorings; these are also called masalas. They are an intrinsic part of Indian cooking, lending that special aroma generally associated with a particular dish. Garam Masala is the aroma of tandoori chicken, while smoky toasted cumin is that of yogurt salad, for example. The most frequently used prepared spices in the Indian kitchen are three spice blendsCurry Powder, Garam Masala, and Panch Phoron. All can be made ahead and stored in a cool, dry place.
The primary flavor in curry powder is coriander with undertones of fenugreek and turmeric. In the past, the mix contained kari leaf, a fragrant balmy herb, but today it contains only spices. This recipe, one of my favorites, contains fennel, which is used by some communities in South India. It has very little red pepper because I do not like my food fiery-hot. I like to enjoy and appreciate the aromatic aspects of the spices as well as the food. If you want it hot and spicy, add more ground red pepper to pour taste.
Makes about 1/2 cup
|3 tablespoons coriander seeds |
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
|1 to 2 teaspoons white peppercorns |
6 whole cloves
2 tablespoons turmeric
1 to 2 teaspoons ground red pepper
1. Put the coriander, cumin, fenugreek, fennel, mustard seeds, peppercorns, and cloves in a dry heavy skillet over medium heat. Toast the spices, stirring occasionally, until they turn dark brown, about 12 minutes. Do not raise the heat to quicken the process, or the spices will brown prematurely, leaving the insides undercooked. Cool completely.
2. Working in batches if necessary, transfer the mixture to a spice mill or coffee grinder and grind to a powder. Mix in the turmeric and red pepper. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. (Curry Powder keeps for 3 months.)
This is the most aromatic and fragrant of all Indian spice blends. Used throughout North India in all types of dishesfrom appetizers and soups to yogurt salad and main coursesthis blend is indispensable to Moghul and North Indian cooking. It is widely available, but my homemade version is more fragrant and, of course, fresher.
Makes about 1/2 cup
|2 tablespoons cumin seeds |
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
|1 teaspoon grated nutmeg |
1 (3-inch) stick cinnamon, broken up
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1. Put the cumin, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon, and cloves in a dry heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Toast the spices, stirring occasionally, until they turn several shades darker and give off a sweet smoky aroma, about 10 minutes. Do not raise the heat to quicken the process, or the spices will brown prematurely, leaving the insides undercooked. Cool completely.
2. Working in batches if necessary, transfer the mixture to a spice mill or coffee grinder and grind to a powder. Stir in the nutmeg and saffron. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. (Garam Masala keeps for 3 months.)
A blend of five whole spicescumin, fennel, mustard, fenugreek, and nigellaPanch Phoron is a Bengal classic. It is used to flavor fish, vegetables, chutneys, and, on occasion, legumes. Although the blend can be assembled at the last minute since there is no roasting involved, I suggest making it ahead if only because measuring spices takes time.
Makes 1/2 cup
|2 tablespoons cumin seeds |
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 tablespoons black mustard seeds
|1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds |
1 tablespoon nigella seeds
Combine all the spices in a jar, cover, and store in a cool, dry place.
Treating a Chile-Scorched Mouth
If when eating a highly spiced dish you feel a need to extinguish the fire, reach first for the chilled sweet yogurt drink called lassi (page 172). Recent scientific research shows that the lactic acid present in yogurt works best to counter the burn (experienced as pain) in the mouth and throat caused by the chiles. Starchy foods, such as rice or bread, will also work to some extent. Take one or two swallows followed by a sip of ice water. All these are more efficient than a quaff of beer or wine!
THE INDIAN WAY
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The traditional Indian style of eating, thali, is somewhat different from what is customary in the West. Each of the courses is spooned into small individual bowls, which are then neatly arranged on a large (15-inch diameter) rimmed plate or tray. Rice, bread, pickles, and relishes are placed on the plate and this fully arranged thali is served to each person. The advantage of this style of serving is that once everyone sits down to eat, the meal proceeds without interruption.
It is not necessary, of course, to conform to the thali style of eating in order to enjoy an Indian meal. The Western style of serving separate courses is, in fact, very suitable, and I find it avoids the waste often associated with individual servings where it is hard to judge everyone's preferences and capacity.
To compose a simple meal, serve a main dish consisting of meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables and accompany it with bread or rice. For a more elaborate meal, include a selection of side dishes, such as vegetables, dals, and salads. Relishes and chutneys are not essential, but they add texture, herbal scent, and bite to the meal.
Finally, there is no reason why these dishes could not be combined with your everyday Western meal. For example, serve the Chicken Curry (page 104) simply with a nice loaf of bread or pita and a green salad, or serve Cauliflower with Nigella in Ginger Oil (page 135) with fried fish. To get you started and make menu planning easier, I have given serving suggestions with each recipe.
Traditional-Style Eating with Fingers
Most Indians eat with their fingers, which adds a highly sensual accent to the dining experience. Using fingers rather than a fork is also logical, especially when bread is served as an accompaniment. Indian breads, like Mexican flour tortillas or Chinese pancakes, are soft and pliable. It is easy to tear a piece and use it to scoop up or wrap around the food.
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Papaya and Potato Salad
Steamed Fish in Herb Sauce
Quick Saffron Pudding
Cauliflower with Nigella
in Ginger Oil
Green Pea Pilaf
Indian Rice Pudding with
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|Lentil Wafers |
Goan Warm Mussel Salad
Peach Chutney with
Walnuts and Saffron
Pan-Grilled Scallops with Ajowan
Excerpted from Indian Regional Classics by Julie Sahni. Copyright © 2001 by Julie Sahni. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.