Like the cuisine of many cultures, it is the spices in Indian food that make its dishes distinctive.
Italian and Mexican food is instantly recognizable. So it is with Indian food, and the native spices are a major factor.
Superb spices from India
Everyone has heard of curry, to be sure. And, without doubt, curry (actually a variety of spice alternatives) is chiefly responsible for the flavor of Indian food in the eyes of Westerners. Or, should that be the 'palates' of Westerners? But that well-known and delightful combination of turmeric, coriander, cumin and cayenne is only the beginning of the rich palette of spices from India.
Cardamon, a member of the ginger family, often makes its way into curry, and a great many other dishes besides. It has a flowery aroma that adds a scent for which there is simply no substitute.
Aroma, as important as it is, still makes up only the background of a spice, though. The main event is the sensation and flavor on the tongue.
Nothing proves that point better than fennel seeds. This cousin to anise, with its licorice-like flavor is an important ingredient in a wide range of Indian dishes. For an even stronger zing there is always the option of using caraway seeds. Dried and ground or used whole, they add what no other spice can.
Beyond the 'spicy' (i.e. hot) element, many Indian spices are sweet, sweet, sweet.
Cinnamon, often associated with traditional American dishes, is as native to India as they come. With its inimitable brand of pungency and sweetness, it is often used in chutney recipes. For a more delicate option there is always cassia.
Nutmeg is another spice that has become viewed as belonging on American-style cuisine - including pies, hot chocolate, and more. But nothing could be more indigenous to the Asiatic continent. Made from the same plant as cinnamon, but with a lighter touch, is an alternative preferred by many chefs: mace.
There are literally hundreds more. Using them can be as easy as sprinkling on the right amount on top or folding in a teaspoonful shaken from a jar. But many aspiring Indian-cuisine chefs will want to go that extra step and make their own.
Growing the plants is carrying things a bit far. But grinding, roasting and other preparatory steps can add lots of tools to the toolkit. They can allow the truly choosy cook to tailor more precisely the exact flavor profile desired.
That need not be as difficult as it sounds. A spice grinder or spice mill is a basic tool in any well-stocked kitchen, even when it is nothing more than a traditional mortar and pestle. A sauté pan is the perfect device for toasting spices when required. And anyone who has roasted and ground their own coffee beans will find that same skill transfers very well to preparation of Indian spices.
Once they're made, storing spices properly is a must. Fortunately, a set of jars that seal well to keep out air and moisture can keep spices fresh up to six months.
Know your Indian spices and you will be well on the road to preparing some of the finest dishes in the world. Nothing else compares.
For such a simple sounding item it can be very challenging to make. The reasons are, in part, the result of that wide variety. It is possible to start with the most basic ingredients and do all your own drying, chopping, mixing and heating. Or, you can start with some elements already prepared and bought from the store.
Let's sample a few and move from simple to more complex as we go.
There are literally hundreds of ways to prepare curry powder and curry-based sauce. One reason is the variety of cultures in India. The other is that, like any ancient land, there was just bound to be experimentation over the generations. Modern curry is the outcome of all that wonderful diversity!
Basic curry mix
Nothing could be simpler in this case than just taking all these pre-dried and pre-ground ingredients and simply putting them together in the proportions listed.
For a nice variation, but one just as simple to prepare, add:
This gives the curry a sweet tinge that helps soften and offset its spicy nature. To go even further, try:
The ginger provides tang and sweetness at the same time, while the mustard powder takes it in a slightly more zingy direction. For those who prefer a little more heat, just increase the proportion of cayenne a bit.
Next up the scale of difficulty, but not much, is a wonderful curry sauce. Take the ingredients listed above from your preferred combination. Pour a couple of tablespoons of canola oil in a pan and heat to medium.
Once the sauce pan is hot, add some cumin seeds and brown them. Stir in two cloves of chopped garlic. Add a couple of small, diced tomatoes and a bit of chopped cilantro. Now add all the other spices. Cook for a minute or two until the mixture thickens. For a deeper flavor, you can hold off on the cilantro until the end.
Now let's really get cookin'!
For a delightful variation, add 1 teaspoon worth of ground black peppercorns and a teaspoon of mustard seeds along with a 1/2 teaspoon of fennel seeds. As you can see, curry is VERY flexible. For the truly adventurous, crumble in a dried bay leaf.
For a sweeter variety, add a cinnamon stick. Let it simmer.
To make a traditional Indian alternative, go with a few ounces of fenugreek. Yes, you read that right. This Asiatic spice is an herb of the bean family with a bitter flavor and a texture similar to celery.
Tarka is a hot oil that is flavored with spices, garlic and sometimes chilli. It is used in Indian cuisine. It is added at the end of a dish, particularly those with lentils (dal) and legumes. Tarka can also be used as a final topping for a curry. It is always used freshly made.
To make tarka, heat some vegetable oil in a pan with sliced garlic, cumin seeds and some chili cut in thin strips. When the garlic browns, pour the contents of the pan over dal or a curry.
Garam masala is the Indian name for curry powder – masala is the Indian word for spice. Curry is not one spice but a mixture of spices.
There is more than one curry spice mix. It is as personal as every cook is.
An Indian market
India is a very colorful country, and so are the many spices used in Indian cuisine. Going to see a spice trader in an Indian market becomes a true feast for the eyes. One does not know where to begin, maybe the piles of bright yellow turmeric and the lighter yellow cumin, perhaps the heaps of dark brown cloves and light brown coriander, or the orange mounds of cayenne pepper and green stacks of cardamom, to name just a few of the spices to be found.