Seven Seasonings: The Key Spices of Indian Cuisine
Indian cuisine may seem daunting to the casual cook, but it all begins with a mere seven spices.
For authentic Indian cuisine, you can’t go wrong with cumin, coriander, brown mustard, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom or spicy red chilli pepper.
India is home to a billion people, more than 16 languages and upwards of 36 distinct cuisines. What binds together the culinary diversity of this nation is something small but alluring: its spices. A part of Indian culture for 3,000 years, these spices are legendary for their medicinal properties, not to mention their delightful flavours and food-preserving powers. From sweet, fragrant cardamom to the world’s spiciest chilli pepper, from smoky cumin to pungent mustard seeds, bold, aromatic spices add character and a rich bouquet to Indian dishes. “Spices remind me of my childhood, when my father would duplicate many Indian-inspired dishes that he was taught by his family’s Indian cook,” says Ashley James, the executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. “Our home was often filled with magical, exotic aromas.” While there are numerous spices to choose from, you can bring a taste of India into your home by focusing on just a few basic ones. The key is to understand how a particular spice can affect your dish. Think of spices as musical notes. Get to know a few main players, and your dishes will sing with flavour.
For a basic Indian pantry, start with smoky cumin seeds, lemony coriander seeds, robust brown mustard seeds, earthy turmeric, sweet cinnamon, aromatic cardamom and spicy red chilli pepper. In different combinations, these spices can be used to flavour sweet dishes (ground cinnamon dusted on rice pudding) and savoury offerings (crushed cardamom seeds stirred into a hearty lamb stew). All these spices play well with each other, too.
Before deciding what foods to pair the spices with, it’s important to learn the best way to cook with them. Spices are friends with fat: Heat coconut, grapeseed, peanut or vegetable oil, or clarified butter, in a pan and add the spices. This helps the spice release its essence. Later, the seasoned fat can be used to distribute the flavour throughout your dish. Another great way to intensify the flavour of whole spices like cumin, coriander and cinnamon is to dry-roast them in a medium-hot skillet. Less than a minute is all you need. Once they’re done, grind them to use as finishing spices.
Cumin is one of the world’s most beloved spices. To bring out the best in cumin seeds, make sure they are dry-roasted before you use them. Cumin can dominate, so it’s best not to use it as a finishing spice.
Mustard seeds have an interesting personality that shows up when you add them to hot oil. They sizzle and splatter as though they are furious—that’s precisely the point at which you’ll know they’re at their best. “One of my favourite ways to use mustard seed is to make a mustard seed oil,” says James. To do: Toast 1/2 cup mustard seeds in a warm skillet for a couple of minutes, shaking the skillet constantly. Add toasted seeds to a blender, along with 2 cups of light olive oil, and blend until crushed. The mustard oil can be used to sauté or marinate, in salad dressings, and to baste grilled and roasted meats and vegetables.
Turmeric, a spice present in almost all regional Indian cuisine, gives many Indian dishes their characteristic yellow colour. Generally sold ground, it is harvested from the plant’s rhizome, much like ginger, and is one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants. Use it to season rice, stews, soups and stir-fries. A little of this golden spice goes a long way; use too heavy a hand and you may make your dish bitter.
To play up the sweetness of dessert, add ground cardamom or cinnamon to dishes like rice pudding and pound cake. But don’t save them for the end of the meal; both of these strong spices work well with meats and are often found in Indian lamb and poultry dishes. They also pair well with rice. Heat them in hot oil and use as a base for rice pilaf. Or crush a little cardamom to add oomph to a cup of coffee, lemonade or tea.
Try mixing mustard seeds, cumin, coriander and turmeric to flavour hot oil, and then toss into your favourite vegetables. Cook them until they are done and season with salt before serving. This combination works well for cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, tofu and more.
Finally: crushed red chillis. Chillis don’t just add heat to a dish—they also inject personality. Take a trip to an Indian grocery to sift through several types of red chillis. Some, like degi mirch, act much like paprika, adding more colour than heat. Some, like the small, round chillis you see, are a little more potent. And of course, you will always find the fine long ones (“Hot Red Chilli Peppers” in most Indian groceries) that will set a dish on fire.
“We Indians like everything to be dramatic—from our clothes to our movies to our food,” says Aarti Sequeira, the U.S.-based Food Network’s queen of spice and host of Aarti Party. “I am proud to come from a culture that has harnessed the full potential of spices: They turn a dreary meal of vegetables and pulses into a veritable Bollywood musical number for the tongue!” Harness the flavours of Indian spices, and your taste buds will agree.