Great Indian spices

Great Indian spices

HOT 'N' SOUR

Great Indian spices

India is the nation of a billion people, housing over 100 regional dialects and upwards of 36 distinct cuisines. What binds together a country this culturally diverse, other than Bollywood, is its alluring spices.

Today, a hundred variations of blended spices are available in ready-made packaged versions. Some of these spice blends have souring agents — such as lime, green mango, yogurt and tomato, and colouring agents — such as turmeric, saffron and red tomato, for greater taste. Once these spices are added to a pan of hot oil or ghee, the cumin begins to sizzle, the cinnamon stick unfurls, the garlic turns golden, and together, they release their essence into the dish. The markets today are flooded with packaged blended spices but the advent of these ‘cheap’ spices have infiltrated its authenticity.

To truly deliver a flavour-punch to a dish, it is important for the packaged spices to be collected from places where the climate and soil benefits its natural flavour. The warm, humid climate, loamy soil rich in organic matter, distributed rainfall and special cultivation methods — all contribute to make Kerala and Karnataka’s cardamom truly unique in aroma and flavour,rich with a parrot-green colour.

South India’s terrain favours cardamom cultivation, giving it a distinct fragrance that is famous in the international markets, just as Rajasthan’s tropical climate makes it ideal for cumin cultivation. And Malabar has been famous from the 16th century for the black pepper it produces, often known as ‘black gold’. Malabar’s peppercorns have a distinct taste — zesty with high sweet notes, and aroma varying from fruity to grassy to citrus and pine — but most of all, a certain freshness that lacks in most peppercorns from other regions. Its sweet, balanced flavour and complex aroma makes it a great standalone pepper, and just a hint of Malabar’s black pepper in your chicken’s seasoning will completely elevate its taste.
Deep inside

It is a little known fact that spices have natural oils in them which form their characteristic flavour. Malabar black pepper, or Kerala cardamom are so flavourful because of these natural spices oils. Thanks to technology, spice oils can be extracted from whole spices and, today, spice oil is one of India’s biggest export industries. Once spice oils are removed from whole spices, they are called ‘spent’ spices.

So, when you next buy spices from the market, ensure that your masalas are made of ‘un-spent’ ingredients that still have their natural oils intact, because only that will give you the true natural flavour. Also, freshly ground and stone-pounded spices retain much of their robust flavours and natural oils as the heat released in these processes is much lower, leading to stronger aroma after grinding.

We Indians have a flair for drama in everything — from our movies, clothes and paintings, to even our food. Our food represents our culture, and the true flavour of the dish can be achieved by the spices, building a stratification of flavours and turning the dearest sabji into Beethoven’s edible symphony for the tongue. A sprinkle of Malabar black pepper, some chopped pistachios, half a spoon of mystery, and you’re ready to serve!

(The author is consultant nutritionist & regional head, dietetics, Max Healthcare, New Delhi)

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