By Dhanya Samuel, The Spice Adventuress.
she would open her spice dabba, a round stainless steel box divided into
chambers, which held an assortment of ground and whole spices like mustard,
turmeric, fenugreek, chilli, coriander, cumin, pepper, cloves….’
her fingers mostly, my Mum would then add a selection of spices to the dish
which might seem unmeasured randomness to the uninitiated, but years of
experience had taught her to wisely judge which ones to use with her fingers
playing measured accuracy.
have always fascinated me; not just for its varied flavours and aromas but also
for its colourful, exotic and intriguing history as well. Whenever my Mum would
make a dish, she would let me taste it and ask if the seasoning and spices were
in balance. Little did I realise that subconsciously, my love affair with
spices had begun at that point.
cuisine has always been synonymous with spices. In fact, spices have played
such an integral role in the historical discourse of my homeland; the discovery
of black peppercorns being a prime example.
one of the biggest myths that still exist is the notion that every Indian dish
is made with a complex blend of spices. While that can be true for certain
dishes, there are also plenty of traditional preparations that use just one or
two spices, just enough to lift the flavour quotient of the vegetable or
of my favourite recipes is the simple potato stir fry. Heat some oil or
clarified butter (ghee), splutter a few mustard and cumin seeds, a hint of
turmeric powder, one slit green chilli and then toss precooked diced potatoes
through this. Next time, ditch the fries and make this side dish to accompany
your grilled meats; simple, delicious and healthy.
would be impossible for me to pick a favourite spice but I must admit that I am
partial to black peppercorns. I am a native of Kerala (a state in South India),
which is home to Tellicherry black peppercorns, considered to be the finest in
cuisine of Kerala celebrates their native spice unlike any other cuisine of
India or of the world. While there are so many to choose from, one of my
favourites would be ‘Kaalan’ (yam and plantain curry with coconut, yoghurt and
peppercorns); a vegetarian dish that is resplendent with the flavour of
most popular spice blend from the Indian subcontinent has to be the garam
masala. I like to make my own masala and I have 2-3 different versions that I
use depending on the dish. It’s best to prepare the masala just before using
it, but if that’s time consuming, it would be ideal to make small batches to
ensure that the freshness and aroma of the spices are retained.
masala is fragrant, aromatic and adds a complex layer of flavour and I love
using it in curries like this North Indian style potato and lamb mince curry.
But, one of my favourite ways to use this blend is while roasting vegetables
like these roasted carrots with citrus and garam masala. The only rule to
remember is that a little goes a long way, so don’t be heavy handed with it.
garam masala enjoys a pan Indian status, there are so many other spice blends
from the different regions of the country that are practically unsung heroes. And,
in my opinion, some of these are way more flavourful and versatile than garam
masala. A good example of that would the East Indian bottle masala, an
aromatic, fragrant blend from the East Indian region. It is often prepared in
bulk and stored in used beer bottles and thus the unique name.
love this blend for its versatility; use it as a rub or marinade like I have
done for this East Indian fish fry or to spice up a curry like this chickpeas and mustard leaves curry.
could go on and on about the different Indian spices and blends, its various
uses and unique recipes but let’s end for now with one more spice blend without
which no household can function in Southern India … the Sambhar powder.
blend has a base of lentils, dried chillies and other whole spices and is the
key ingredient for preparing sambhar, the famous lentil curry of the South. But,
I love to experiment in the kitchen and showcase the native spices in a modern
way like these deep fried spicy squid rings with a dash of sambhar powder.