Monday, March 2, 2009

Indian spices

There's some confusion that surrounds several terms used in Indian cooking. Since I am by no means an expert on Indian cuisine, I had to go to some expert sources to find the answers! A few links to some really good recipes and information can be found at the bottom of this post...I hope you'll be able to take some time and try some of them, supplementing the few things that I can share here!

One term that confused me is "curry". Once upon a time, I thought it was a spice, then I thought it was a mixture of spices, but now I learn that a curry is any dish cooked in a spicy sauce! There is no one recipe for the spice mixture that goes into a curry, and despite the fact that you can buy curry powders and curry pastes, there are really as many possible ingredients in a curry dish - both in the spice mix and in the dish itself - as there are cooks. In the mid-1800s, the British coined the term "curry" from the name of a spicy Indian herb, "kari". [Note - there are many other spellings of this word that you may's a transliterated word, from a different alphabet.]

According to Wikipedia, the following spices are commonly found in curry dishes:

Most recipes and producers of curry powder usually include coriander, turmeric, cumin, and fenugreek in their blends. Depending on the recipe, additional ingredients such as ginger, garlic, fennel seed, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, green cardamom, black cardamom, mace, nutmeg, red pepper, long pepper, and black pepper may also be added.

The Indian sensibility when it comes to spices is that no single flavor should predominate a mixture or a dish, but rather, that is should be a delicious and flavorful meld. Consequently, meats and/or vegetables are often soaked in spice mixtures for hours before cooking and eating. For western-style cooks, this means having to plan ahead!

You will also see the term "masalah" used a lot in Indian cooking. Masalah is a general term to refer to a mixture of powdered spices. At first, I didn't understand the difference between masalah and curry, but that was because I was confusing the spice mixture with the dish. Remember, a curry is any dish cooked in a spicy sauce, so perhaps you'll use a masalah to make a curry!

Garam masalah is one of the most common mixtures that you'll see listed. But there is no one single recipe for this mixture either! It is a blend of up to fifteen or so spices, including cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, cloves, and more. You can buy a bottled garam masalah spice mix in most large grocery stores, or you can blend your own:

Garam Masalah, Punjabi style
4 T coriander seeds
2 T cumin seeds
2 T black peppercorns
2 t cardamom seeds
1 t whole cloves
1 long cinnamonstick
Grind to a fine powder.

Here are some links to trustworthy information about Indian spices and cuisine:
Indian Food Forever
Ruchi's Kitchen

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