Introduction to Indian spices for a rookie chef

Imagine a plate of Punjabi choley without the  garam masala tadka, or the classic chicken casserole without the flavours of cumin powder. Sounds unappetising, right? Spices are the lifeline of Indian cooking. They have the magical power of making each dish distinct and aromatic. In fact, remembering the vast array of spices used in any kind of cuisine can make it intimidating for any rookie chef. Picturesque bottles of spices not only add a dash of colour to the kitchen shelves but also bring depth to any dish. Moreover, if you are looking to give your lifestyle a wholesome touch, spices are an amalgamation of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, and essential oils, necessary for the body’s wellness. Akansha Jaiswal, food specialist, gives the distinctive characteristics of some common kitchen spices.

n Cumin: This spice is a companion to a lot of spicy foods and is widely used in Indian, Middle Eastern, Eastern, Mexican, Spanish and Portuguese cuisines. It smells warm, spicy, and sensual and tastes pungent and slightly bitter. One can use it both as seeds and as a powder. Use the flavourful cumin powder in Mexican enchiladas, Spanish rice, Indian chicken curry, Moroccan Tofu dishes and Lebanese chickpea dishes and get ready for the compliments to pour in.

n Fenugreek: Also called methi, fenugreek is mostly used in Indian cuisine and around the Middle East. It adds a complex sweetness and a slight bitterness to gravy dishes. The fenugreek seeds have a mysterious but distinct sweet smell similar to maple syrup, which is why it can be used to flavour artificial maple syrup, butterscotch syrup and others.

n Star anise: This pretty looking lesser known spice is a key ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder, along with cinnamon or cassia; other possible mixtures may include Szechuan peppercorns, black peppercorns, cloves, fennel, anise seed or ginger.

n Fennel: Remember those small greenish bulbs you used to eat as a post-meal mouth freshener and how you enjoyed their liquorice flavour?  The same seeds can be used both as herb and spice. Native to Mediterranean cuisine and grown in India, Australia, South America and the United States, the mild-flavoured fennel carries a warm, sweet, aromatic fragrance.  It is also an important element of Chinese five-spice powder, curry powders and liquors. Season your sausages with some fennel or put it in the marinara sauce to add some depth to it.
 
n Garam masala: It’s the most preferred spice in Indian cooking. As the name itself suggests, garam means “hot” and masala means “spice mix.” The amalgamation is a delightfully aromatic spice with the scent of roasted common spices like coriander, cumin, cardamom, mustard seeds, bay leaves, fennel, fenugreek, black peppercorns, cloves, mace and cinnamon. Use it to make pakodas, parantha mixtures, minced patties, shorbas and all Indian curry dishes.

n Paprika: This savoury spice is for those who prefer the umami flavour. Paprika, which is ground from capsicum or chili peppers, can taste sweet and smoked. A native to South America and also grown in Europe’s Spain and Hungary, Spanish paprika is mild in flavour whereas the Hungarian version is much stronger. The bright red coloured spice with its warm and sweet aroma, adds some savoury spiciness to a dish. Use it to flavour Italian sausages or quirk up the Indian tandoori dishes.

Though all the above spices provide countless benefits and add tremendous flavour and twist to your dishes, they should be used in moderation. An excessive use of spices while cooking can cause harm to your health. Try to limit to a specific amount of usage to be able to reap maximum benefits from these natural resources.  Strike the right balance while you cook and let these spices bring some zest to your life.

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