Classic. Originally Published: Report, May 2003.
There is one major feature of Indian cuisine that launches it into the gastronomic stratosphere: the Indian way with spices. I say with confidence that Indian chefs are the master spice practitioners of the entire culinary world; they know best how to select, treat and blend spices so that the finished effect in a dish is breathtakingly flavorful.
The magic starts with the sheer number of spices that they use; it is not unusual for a single dish to have a dozen spices in it, or even more. Some of the most commonly used spices in Indian cooking are allspice, aniseed, caraway, cardamom (both green and black), cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, chili peppers (whole and ground), fennel, fenugreek, mace, mustard seeds, nutmeg, peppercorns, poppy seeds, saffron, and star anise.
What’s especially exciting about Indian practice is that the spices may be used in so many different ways. For starters, there’s the perennial question for seeds (like cumin): whole, crushed, or ground? Then, the Indian chef must decide whether to toast the spice or not–and whether to toast it before or after grinding. Another poser: is it toasted on a dry griddle, or sizzled in oil? A big question: at what point in the cooking do the spices come in? Early, before the meat of a stew is added? In mid-braise? Perhaps towards the end, as a flavor lift? Perhaps some spices early and some late? In what ratios should the spices be added, whenever they’re added? These are just a few of the questions that Indian chefs are grappling with all the time–and, there are literally millions of possible spice permutations. Which is exactly what makes it so much fun for you to improvise at home!
First, of course, you’ll have to acquire the spices–and you want the freshest, most intense spices available! A good tip is to buy your Indian spices whole, store them well, and, if grinding, grind them with a spice grinder as you need them. Now, your supermarket will have some of the spices–but they’re not likely to be especially fresh or intense. Specialty purveyors are a much better bet. However, after tasting hundreds of spices, I did come up with a few specific choices in spice-buying that will help you get the best of the best into your kitchen:
Two types of cardamom are used in Indian cooking. The most common one by far is “green cardamom,” the third most expensive spice in the world. Luckily, a little goes a long way! These are small, brittle pods (peanut-sized), picked before ripeness and dried; they are naturally green, but some producers bleach them white (totally unnecessary). When you crush them, about 15 small, black, amazingly aromatic seeds spill out, the carriers of the flavor.
Chillies and Chili Powder
Indian chefs use lots of red chillies, both dried whole ones, and in powdered form. For either use, approval is nearly unanimous for one type of chillie above all: the legendary red chillie of Kashmir. It gives the deepest red color, and it is remarkably flavorful without being especially hot. Unfortunately, Kashmiri chillies can be very hard to find. Even in India, chillies of a similar type grown in Karnataka are often passed off as “Kashmiri Chillies.” The real ones are only medium-long, and a little stubbier than most chillies of their length.
I haven’t tasted every cinnamon in the world–but I can’t believe that it gets any better than Vietnamese cinnamon. You can buy cinnamon in its stick form; I love to use them as they are when cinnamon stick is called for (as in rice pilafs), or to grind them in my spice grinder when powdered cinnamon is called for. (AUGUST 2012 NOTE: cinnamon from Sri Lanka is even better!)
Latino cooks love the leaves of this plant (which they call cilantro), and Indian cooks do too. But Indian cooks especially love the dried seeds of the coriander plant, one of the building blocks of any “curry” or “curry powder.”
This member of the parsley family is one of the workhorses of the Indian kitchen; I couldn’t imagine Indian cuisine without it. You should be sure to give a little dry-griddling to any cumin seeds you buy; it greatly increases the flavor. Make sure to griddle over low heat for a few seconds only; cumin seeds burn easily and turn bitter.
Speaking of bitter–these little babies (known in India as “methi” seeds) are bitter before toasting, impossibly bitter after over-toasting! However, chefs love them because, when added in small quantities to cooked dishes, they lend a flavor that is more like “curry” than any other single spice. Please make sure to dry-toast over medium heat for no more than 20 seconds.
When I think about “sweet” spices for Indian , normally my thoughts turn towards clove, cinnamon, cardamom, even nutmeg. So I was not prepared for the passion I recently developed for mace, perhaps the wildest-tasting of any of these spices. Mace, famous in Jamaica but also grown in India and Sri Lanka, is the netted casing that envelops the nutmeg kernel.
Photos Via: Bigstockphoto