By Conchita de Souza
We know that the cuisines of India are defined by the different combinations of spices, some of which are unique to different regions of India, such as panch phoron which is found in eastern parts of India as well as in Nepal and Bangladesh and contains the seed forms of the following spices: cumin, nigella, fennel, black mustard and fenugreek. The realm of spices used extend beyond dried, powdered and whole spices to fresh spices as well, or what we would term as ‘herbs’ in western cuisines.
Today’s post explores the common ‘herbs’ used in Indian cuisines. Whilst herbs are often used as garnishes or in marinades, some of the herbs listed below are used during the tadka or tempering stage of cooking. Fenugreek leaves can be used as the star of the show. Not surprisingly, most, if not all of these herbs possess medicinal qualities, which has not been discussed in depth.
Green chillies - Depending on whom you are asking, green chillies pack a lighter punch and can be used as a decorative garnish on dishes that are milder. Green chillies are often eaten as an accompaniment to meals and often you will see it served with cucumbers and onion slices alongside any street food dish as the heat from it intensifies the flavours of the dish.
- Red chillies - Usually more pungent in flavour and used at the beginning stages of cooking. Remove the seeds for less potency. Add as a garnish as you would with green chillies if you like a bit of zing.
- Curry Leaves - Heavily used in south Indian cuisines, these little leaves are bitter-tasting but once tempered, are easier to digest and actually have numerous health benefits such as enhancing digestion. Curry leaves have antibacterial and antifungal properties. As an illustration of such properties, I have friends who insert a small part of the stalk (washed beforehand I assume) into their piercing holes to prevent the holes from becoming infected when they remove their piercings. The twigs from the tree were used as toothbrushes back in the day to promote oral hygiene because they would protect the mouth from harmful bacteria.
Fenugreek leaves - These bitter-tasting leaves are prepared as a vegetable or added to breads like parathas and thepla. When the leaves are dried (known as kasuri methi in Hindi), they can be crushed into a dish as it is completed adding a flavour and aroma that permeates the dish but doesn’t take away from its original flavours. We have dedicated an entire post to the awesomeness of this plant which you can read here.
Coriander - Whilst it may seem that the world is divided between those who like coriander and those who do not, it goes without saying that it is used heavily in Indian cuisine, especially as a garnish. It tastes wonderful on top of egg-based dishes such as the Parsi version of shakshuka or the classic masala scrambled eggs and adds a pop of freshness to the dish.
- Bay Leaves - A subtlely fragrant and pleasant-smelling leaf that is used by other cultures in their cuisines as well. It is usually added during the time of tempering which releases its oils and goes well with red meat dishes and rice dishes as well.
- Mint - A cooling and soothing herb that goes well in drinks but also on top of raita. It can be made into a standalone chutney or blended with coriander.
- Dill - One of my all-time favourite herbs thanks to the beautiful fragrance and taste it produces. Like fenugreek leaves, it can be used to make a vegetable, mixed in with dough to make flatbreads and added to lentil-based curries like dal.