A Beginner's Guide to Using Spices in Indian Cooking

By Conchita de Souza

A Beginner's Guide to Using Spices in Indian Cooking

Have you ever wondered how people hailing from the Indian subcontinent figured out which spices goes with what dish? It comes down to numerous factors like; familiarity with spices originating from the pre-natal stage, consuming spice 365 days a year, recipes being passed down from generation to generation, going to the spice bazaar with mum or nana to buy stashes of spices, just to name a few examples. They all illustrate one strong theme: spice is a key ingredient in life.

This process can be likened to this: I give the same little black dress to ten women from all walks of life. I then give them a key to a magical room which contains an endless supply of clothing and accessories; from glittery eyeshadow to diamante-studded stilettos, from designer trench coats to ethically sourced bamboo hair clips. I then ask them to create an outfit using the little black dress and as many items from that magical room. I can guarantee you that all the women will come back dressed in a manner entirely different to each other, reflecting their individual style and unique personality.

In a similar way, if we replace the little black dress with a main ingredient like chicken, and go and ask each of the women to prepare a chicken curry using any of the possible ingredients available to them, the result will be ten different styles of chicken, each as sumptuous as the other.

Such dishes can only be created when one understands and appreciates how spices interact with each other as well as with the ingredients to which they are added. It is about knowing how much and when to add spices as you prepare a dish - a complex balancing act that requires precision of timing and quantities. This is exactly why we came up with the idea of No Worries Curries; we knew that preparing authentic Indian cuisine required an intimate knowledge of the power of spices, and so we decided to make things a little easier for you by creating the perfect blends and helping you out with recipes, so you can slowly familiarise yourself with the beautiful world of spices!

To help you get started, we have put together a brief guide to using spices in Indian cuisine.

Whole Spices

Whole spices are those spices in their original shape, such as an entire nutmeg or a stick of cinnamon.  They are always one of the first ingredients to be added to the hot oil, so that the essential oils and aromas contained in these whole spices, can be released, and intermingle with the other ingredients.

The flavour produced from whole spices are a lot subtler than those from ground spices and they bring a rounded, or more aromatic flavour to the dish.

Example: When I prepare a simple pilaf/pulao (spiced rice), I only ever add whole spices like cinnamon and bay leaves to hot ghee so that the rice becomes more aromatic than spicy.

Ground Spices

Ground spices are very delicate and are added at a later stage of the cooking to prevent them from burning and altering the taste of the entire dish. By the time you add the ground spices, you have already cooked the onion/ginger/garlic and the next stage where you are about to add the tomatoes or liquid (for example, coconut milk or yoghurt). You would have also lowered the fire which means the temperature of the pan has cooled sufficiently to gently receive the spices but also to cook them to remove their raw edge.

Example: When cooking a vegetable you add cumin, coriander and turmeric powder and stir-fry for a couple of minutes on low heat .

Like we’ve said before spices interact with each other and the main ingredient you are cooking. Here is a rough guide:

  1. Meat Dishes - Poultry, Beef, Lamb and Pork benefit from aromatics like: Cardamom (Green and Black), Cinnamon, Cloves and Mace.
  2. Veggie Dishes - With vegetables you stick to softer spices that do not overpower the flavour of the vegetables but enhance their flavours. Use: asafoetida, cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric.
  3. Fish Dishes - Like vegetables you you do not overpower the delicate flavour of white fish so use: cumin, coriander, fennel, mustard, turmeric. Aromatics like clove and cinnamon are used sparingly with meaty fish like tuna and salmon.
  4. Beans and Lentils - Lentils, because of their protein and carb structure create a lot of gas in the stomach.  Rinse them well in a pot of water. Empty the water and repeat the process, this might take 4 or 5 washes. You are ready to cook them when the water runs clear. The next step is to add spices that alleviate the problem. These are ajwain, asafoetida, caraway, coriander, cloves, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, nigella, pepper and garlic.
  5. Spices that go with everything - The base of every good curry dish is heat - use chilli (both fresh and dried) and pepper in ratios that you can tolerate. We love ginger too but use in moderation if you have high blood pressure.
  6. Chai - This is a digestive (and dessert after a meal) so use: Ajwain, Black Pepper, Cardamom, Cloves and Fennel. Our CHAI LATTE spice blend contains these spices as well.

So there you have it - A beginner’s guide to help you become familiar with some of the basic spices regularly used in Indian cooking. We hope that it sheds a little light on the ethos of using spices in Indian cuisine and most importantly, motivates you to use spices more often than not!


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