The Secrets of Indian Cooking: How to Handle Spices

13 January, 2021

Photo by: Stockfood

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Dal is one of those recipes that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Unlike dishes such as biryani, brought to India by the Moghuls, it is one of those foods that has always been there. It is therefore a building block of Indian culture.

You don’t add spices, you cook spices

The spices in your airtight jars have so much potential. However, to realise this, one must know the magic formula:

Spice + heat = great food

The application of heat unleashes the performer in your spices: it will make them sing and dance, and elevate your cooking. There are many ways in which this is done, none of which take long at all.

On preparing your dish of choice, one should temper the spices for 10-20 seconds in hot oil (i.e pre-heat the oil in your pan). The spices should sizzle on hitting the oil but not burn – a medium-high heat usually does the trick. This releases the natural oils from the spices and with it comes the depth of flavour and aroma that you are looking for.

Toasting Spices

Image: Screenshot from YouTube, How to Make the Perfect Indian Rice

Similarly, toasting spices is critical to unleashing the flavour of your spices and is crucial in making spice blends and garnishes. All that is required is a minute or two on a medium-hot dry pan, and voila! Most Indian spice blends are made from toasting different mixed whole spices, which are then ground down into an incredibly fragrant powder – like garam masala. Indian families often have their own signature spice blends, and that includes the secret garam masala recipe, which has been passed down through generations of my family. As garam masala is pre-toasted, you’ll often see it added to dishes right at the end – as a finishing flavour.

On the topic of finishing flavours and garnishes, I love to make roasted cumin powder from scratch. This is a wonderfully potent, nutty powder that is delicious and adds an earthy richness when sprinkled over yoghurt ratios and dips, and even works as a salad dressing.

To make your very own roasted cumin powder:

  • Heat a dry frying pan on a medium heat setting. Once hot, add the cumin seeds (as much as you require) and allow to toast for a couple of minutes.
  • You should begin to smell the fragrance of the cumin seeds after a minute or so. When you see the cumin seeds have turned a whole shade darker of brown, turn the pan off and transfer to a plate to cool. There is a fine line between perfectly toasted and burnt so do be quick.
  • Once the roasted cumin seeds have cooled, pour into a pestle and mortar, or alternatively, you can use a coffee grinder. Grind into a powder and allow to cool once again.
  • Use immediately in your cooking or transfer to an airtight jar.
monica haldar spice club

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