This week we will be exploring many of the signature spices used in Indian cooking. A good friend of mine, foodie, and fantastic Indian chef, Markley Boyer’s will be explaining what regions these spices come from, what they are used for and even what they look like. Here is what Markley has to say about the world of Indian spices:
When one thinks of Indian food, it is the spices that stand out as one of the most distinctive features. The infinite variations available from varying the spices bring incredible variety to the cuisine.
Spices are used liberally throughout India, but each region has characteristic spices and spice mixtures that define its cuisine. In Tamil Nadu the principal spices used are mustard seeds, curry leaves, turmeric cumin, coriander, fenugreek, asafetida, cardamom and cinnamon. Some of these are used in other cuisines and most are used to some extent in other parts of India, but the South Indian way of combining them creates distinctive flavors.
Mustard Seeds are found many of the dishes in Tamil Nadu, these tiny round black seeds come from the mustard plant, and are more or less the same as the seeds that would be ground to make mustard in the west. In South India, mustard seeds are almost always thrown into very hot oil at the beginning of cooking where they pop and sputter and impart a distinctive flavor to the oil. Other seeds such as cumin and fenugreek can be used in much the same way, either in combination with mustard seeds or on their own.
Cumin Seeds will be familiar to most of you as they are used around the world, in Mexican food for example, and they are commonly employed as the basis of north Indian curries with which we may be familiar. Fenugreek is a pungent seed that comes from a pea-like plant and is often the dominant note in commercial curry powders. Although it is sometimes hard to taste this, it has some similarities to the taste of maple syrup and is used in imitation syrups.
Coriander Seeds are usually ground into a coarse powder and used to thicken and flavor some dishes. These are the seeds of the same plant that gives cilantro leaves.
Turmeric is a distinctive yellow powder that gives a characteristic color to so many Indian dishes. It is the powdered rhizome of a plant in the ginger family and has multiple health benefits. In fact, it is often used in India as skin conditioner and you will see women walking around with yellow- orange faces from its use. Turmeric is almost always used when cooking lentils – a few spoonfuls are added to the cooking water, but it can also be added to other cooked dishes part-way through cooking.
Black Pepper grows in abundance throughout South India, and the spice trade which drove so much exploration and trade was distributing South Indian black pepper throughout the world. Before chilies arrived from the new world, black pepper was the major source of the spiciness that south Indians crave. There are a number of interesting dishes where black pepper is treated as an ingredient not a seasoning!
Cinnamon and cardamom are both used to add a rich warm flavor to foods. Desserts make particular use of these spices.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of Markley’s Indian spice tour.
If you are interested in Indian spices and cooking you should join us on our Spiritual Adventure of Food and Photography in Northern India next March. This spiritual adventure has been planned to take you off the beaten path, providing unending photographic opportunities, a culinary experience to dazzle your taste buds and culminating in India’s most colorful festival – Holi! Join us in March 2015 on one of our most spectacular and luxurious spiritual adventures yet. Intrigued? Check out our itinerary.