Seven Seasonings: The Key Spices of Indian Cuisine
Indian cuisine may seem daunting to the casual cook, but it all begins with a mere seven spices.
India is home to a billion people, more than 16 languages and upwards of 36 distinct cuisines. What binds together the culinary diversity of this nation is something small but alluring: its spices. A part of Indian culture for 3,000 years, these spices are legendary for their medicinal properties, not to mention their delightful flavours and food-preserving powers. From sweet, fragrant cardamom to the world’s spiciest chilli pepper, from smoky cumin to pungent mustard seeds, bold, aromatic spices add character and a rich bouquet to Indian dishes. “Spices remind me of my childhood, when my father would duplicate many Indian-inspired dishes that he was taught by his family’s Indian cook,” says Ashley James, the executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. “Our home was often filled with magical, exotic aromas.” While there are numerous spices to choose from, you can bring a taste of India into your home by focusing on just a few basic ones. The key is to understand how a particular spice can affect your dish. Think of spices as musical notes. Get to know a few main players, and your dishes will sing with flavour.
For a basic Indian pantry, start with smoky cumin seeds, lemony coriander seeds, robust brown mustard seeds, earthy turmeric, sweet cinnamon, aromatic cardamom and spicy red chilli pepper. In different combinations, these spices can be used to flavour sweet dishes (ground cinnamon dusted on rice pudding) and savoury offerings (crushed cardamom seeds stirred into a hearty lamb stew). All these spices play well with each other, too.
Before deciding what foods to pair the spices with, it’s important to learn the best way to cook with them. Spices are friends with fat: Heat coconut, grapeseed, peanut or vegetable oil, or clarified butter, in a pan and add the spices. This helps the spice release its essence. Later, the seasoned fat can be used to distribute the flavour throughout your dish. Another great way to intensify the flavour of whole spices like cumin, coriander and cinnamon is to dry-roast them in a medium-hot skillet. Less than a minute is all you need. Once they’re done, grind them to use as finishing spices.