play a very important role in Indian Cooking. Spices were
originally used in Indian cooking to not only season, but to preserve
the food as refrigeration was not around. Many spices also have
medicinal uses and are used for many home remedies. Let us understand
the word "Masala" which is commonly used in Indian
is the Hindi word for "spice".
When a combination of spices, herbs and other condiments are ground
together, it is also called "masala".
Masala" : Water, vinegar, yogurt or
other liquids are sometimes added to the ground spices. This wet
mixture is called "wet masala" and is used as a marinade
in oil before adding the main vegetable
or meat so that the delicate flavors of the spices are released in the
Either use a mortar & pestle or a small
electric coffee grinder. A good coffee grinder is excellent for
grinding dry spices. Keep one just for this purpose. If not, make sure
you clean it thoroughly before grinding coffee beans, or you'll have
wierd-tasting coffee. We
will learn more about "Dry Roasting Spices". Once
the whole spices have been dry-roasted and cooled down, they need to be
ground to fully release their flavors.
To keep your coffee grinder lid from discoloring, stretch a piece of
plastic wrap over the grinder, then put the lid and use.
Spices : Spices
degrade quickly if they are exposed to either light or air.
Light has a detrimental ‘leaching’ effect whilst exposure allows the
essential oils to escape. Therefore, many Indians often use
a special spice storage box.
INDIAN SPICE BOX
An Indian Spice
Box is called a Masala Dabba or Masala Dani. Almost every Indian
household will have a spice box.
is a round stainless steel box with seven round compartments along with
a small teaspoon measure which fits in the box. A good masala dabba will
have a tight fitting lid in between the lid and the compartments of the
box to ensure that the spices do not mix.
Indian cook will then fill these compartments with his/ her seven
favorite and regularly used spices. You can fill the spices that you use
frequently and personalize your "masala dabba". Cooking will
become a breeze and you will not have to look for the spices, which get
lost in the cabinets sometimes !
are the basic spices that will help you get started.
or Lal Mirch (Hindi)Red chilies come in different varieties. Red Pepper
is commonly known as "chilies" or "chili peppers,"
are fiery red or orange pods which rarely grow to more than 4 inches in
length. Dried red chilies can be found in many Indian grocery stores.
Also, a great alternative is to use the crushed red pepper from the
pepper packets when you get your pizza.
Red Chilies : A large, very dark red chili which looks almost black
when dried. It gives good color to dishes in which it is used and is
not as pungent as some of the smaller varieties of chili
or "Degchi Mirchi" : These chilies are smaller and rounder
and less pungent but give a very vibrant red color to a dish.
Chili Powder or
Lal Mirch (Hindi) Indian chili powder is made from ground chilies. It is
much hotter than the chili powder commonly found in most stores here in
the US which is mostly a blend of red peppers and cumin, coriander etc.
The ground product ranges from orange-red, to deep, dark red. Red pepper
is a pungent, hot powder with a strong bite. Paprika is a mild form of
the red chili powder.
Haldi (Hindi) This smooth bright yellow powder is mildly aromatic and
has scents of ginger. It has a pungent, bitter flavor. Ground
Turmeric comes from the dried, ground fingers which extend from the
root, as shown above. Though often called Indian saffron, it
should never be confused with true saffron and the two may not be used
interchangeably. Be careful while handling Turmeric powder as it can
stain plastic and wooden utensils. Therefore, it is wise to keep special
wooden spoons for making Indian food.
Turmeric has been
used medicinally throughout Asia to treat stomach and liver ailments. It
also was used externally, to heal sores, and as a cosmetic. It is an
excellent preservative and is therefore used extensively in pickles.
Seeds or Jeera (Hindi)
Cumin has a distinctive, slightly bitter flavor yet flavors any dish
with a sweet aroma. These brown aromatic small seeds give out more aroma
when roasted or added to hot oil. Cumin seeds do look a lot
like caraway seeds, but but the flavors are completely different.
or Jeera powder (Hindi) Cumin seeds powder is very commonly used in
Indian cooking. It lends a sweet and mild flavor to a dish. It is one of
the main ingredients in preparing "garam masala" This spice is
used more extensively in the cuisine of North India.
or Dhania (Hindi) Coriander seeds are not inter-changeable with
cilantro, although they are from the same plant. These seeds are very
light weight and mildly flavored. Used in many spice mixtures, curries,
vegetable dishes and pickles.
or Dhania powder (Hindi) Roasted coriander powder is an indispensable
item in the Indian spice box. The aromatic fragrance enhances the taste
of the dish. Coriander powder is used a lot in South Indian cooking. Make
your own coriander powder in a mortar or food processor after dry
is the mixture of "equal parts of Cumin and Coriander powder".
this mixture is commonly used in Indian curries and masalas. You can
make a mixture of this in your own kitchen using the freshly ground
a combination of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, cardamom,
cinnamon and black pepper that can be used whole or in powdered form. Learn
About Garam Masala" here.
or Tej Patta (Hindi) Bay Leaves come from the sweet bay or laurel tree.
The dry light green colored long aromatic leaves and have a sharp,
bitter taste. Mostly used in flavoring pulaos and some curries.
The whole leaves are used to impart a wonderful flavor only and are
bitter and hard to chew. Removed at the time of eating.
or "Choti Elaichi" (Hindi) Cardamom is sold whole or
ground by Indian grocers. Ground cardamom is often used in Indian
sweets. It is best to grind small quantities at home using a coffee
mill. Ready-ground cardamom is not only expensive but because cardamom
loses its natural oils quickly, it also loses its flavor. When a recipe
calls for whole cardamom, the pods should always be opened up slightly
to extract the full flavor of the cardamom, for it is the seeds that
have the maximum flavor.
or "Badi Elaichi" (Hindi) This larger dark brown variety is
used flavoring meat, poultry and rice dishes. The inner seeds are often
used for making Garam masala. This spice is coarser in flavor and larger
in size than the green cardamom.
bark of the Cassia tree is used mostly in India. The real cinnamon stick
which is found in the form of a scroll, are available in most
supermarkets and have a more delicate flavor than the Cassia bark.
Cinnamon sticks lend a sweet and mellow flavor to a dish. Although it is
generally used in many desserts in many of the World cuisines it is
mostly used in many curries and Puloas in Indian cooking. It gives a
dish a very rich flavor.
: Cloves are the
dried flower buds of the clove tree. Cloves are strong, pungent, and
sweet. Cloves are used in many meat dishes, marinades, pickles and in
many "garam masalas". It is used whole or in powder form.
When making your
own clove powder take caution, clove oil can cloud some plastics. Clove
oil can be has a lot of medicinal value. Many Indians chew on cloves to
relieve toothaches and it is used also as a mouth freshener after a
meal. Oil of cloves contains phenol, a powerful antiseptic that
discourages putrefaction, and the clove is hence one of the spices that
helps preserve food.
: Saffron is the
most expensive spice. Saffron threads as they are also called are
orange-red dried stigmas of a small purple flower called the Crocus
Sativus. It imparts a very pleasing flavor as well as a golden
yellow color. Saffron's aroma is unique and there is no substitute for
it. It is used for coloring and flavoring Indian curries, Pulaos
and Indian sweets.
In Indian cooking it
is highly prized and added to many Indian sweets and "special
occasion" savory dishes like Biryani, Pulaos and even some
curries. Saffron is available in powdered form also. Saffron should
always be bought as a whole and not in the powdered from. The
threads should be crushed just before using. Store saffron airtight in a
cool, dark place for up to 6 months or in the refrigerator.
A little pinch of
the threads goes a long way.
There are two
techniques for getting every bit of flavor out of the saffron:
powdering the threads
saffron ahead of time in hot water or broth.