In any normal Indian kitchen, the spice box holds a prime position! While the actual box may just hold 6 – 7 jars of spices, the actual count you will encounter in the kitchen could be anything between 20 – 30 different varieties.
Spices are used in different forms in Indian cuisine. They are used whole for tempering and infusing flavors, or in a powdered form to giving the food a stronger flavor. Fresh like ginger, garlic, mint and coriander (cilantro) or dried and powdered, like raw mango, ginger, coriander seeds. They can be used individually or in pre mixed combinations like garam masala. Regardless of what form they are used in, spices form the core of Indian cooking.
Every serious cook has their own blend of spices that are meticulously portioned out, sometimes roasted and then powdered for their use. At times these are heavily guarded secrets that are passed down families – generation to generation.
A recent Washington Post article referred to a scientific study on what makes Indian food so delicious. After crunching tons of data from recipes, they realized that Indian food tastes so unique because it does something radical with flavor – on a molecular level.
This unique combination of flavors is native to Indian cuisine and spices play a major role in forming combinations that aren’t necessarily complimentary or standard pairings. The other interesting thing about all these spices is that they individually have medicinal properties and in combinations are therapeutic.
What we are loosely referring to here as spices, is in effect a collection of herbs, seeds, fruits and vegetables that are used to flavor food. The way spices are used is predominantly based on region. Each region in India boasts of a completely different style of cooking and using almost identical ingredients with a few unique or local ones thrown in.
The coastal cuisine in India is dominated by seafood, and coconut. The cooler North is rich in dairy and uses a lot of milk and milk products in their food. Yogurt is used across the country as a coolant in its different forms. The South boasts bold and robust flavors while the North uses whole spices to for a more delicate and subtle flavor.
The standard spice box in any Indian kitchen will have powdered turmeric, red chili powder (cayenne pepper), powdered cumin, powdered coriander seeds (cilantro) and a collection of whole spices – mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried red chilis, green cardamom pods, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Ginger, garlic, fresh coriander, mint, curry leaves, tamarind and limes (for juice) are always at hand. One smelly member – Asafoetida is derived from a tree resin and is stinky! The stink mellows to a lovely musky fragrance once warmed in a little oil.
Nigella, Fennel, Poppy, Fenugreek, Caraway & carom seeds, peppercorns & sesame fight for space with black cardamom, nutmeg, star anise, saffron, dried ginger and dried mango powder in regional kitchens.