Last week I delved into some basics about Indian spices and how to build a little spice box with essentials that most Indian recipes call for. The focus of the last post was whole spices like cumin, cardamom and cinnamon and this week I’d like to delve into ground spices. As I’d mentioned earlier, most Indian recipes will call for a mix of both, how they’re used in a recipe varies quite significantly. You might wonder why a recipe calls for both cumin seeds and ground cumin and the reason is that each flavours the dish completely differently. Whole spices are generally used in the tempering phase of the dish, right at the very beginning and they’re usually gently fried in oil or ghee to release their flavours before other ingredients are added. They’re also more fragrant and gentle in their flavour. Ground spices are added towards the end of the active cooking phase and the dish is then cooked further to allow their flavours to be be properly released and absorbed. They’re much more intense than whole spices and are usually used as combinations, for example ground cumin with coriander and chilli. You can use just these three spices to create many different flavours, the trick being what proportions each is being used in with relation to the other. Ground spices need some time to cook in order to allow them to lose their ‘rawness’ and release the richness of their flavours, so this is a phase that shouldn't really be rushed.
I consider the following five the absolute essentials for Indian cooking. Store them in airtight containers and they’ll keep for quite a while and since you’ll be using them quite sparingly, a pack will last a while.
1 / Turmeric
This spice is a powerhouse of medicinal properties. It has anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, protects the heart, is helpful for arthritis and is considered helpful against diabetes and cancer. It’s also a good anti-coagulant so if you cut yourself in the kitchen, you can sprinkle a bit of turmeric on your cut - it’s what my grandma (used to) and my mum do. Use this golden spice with some lemon juice and warm water to start your day, warm it with milk, ginger and pepper to help with a cold or sore throat and use in small quantities in curries and vegetable dishes for a warming flavour and a lovely golden colour.
2 / Ground red chilli
Rich in vitamins A and C as well as beta carotenoids, it is an excellent antioxidant, strengthens the immune system, acts as a natural painkiller, fights infections, helps fight nasal and congestive issues, reduces triglycerides and enhances blood circulation. It is also a good detoxifier and helps in waste elimination. Its used in a wide variety in Indian recipes, either to mildly spice a dish or give it a fvaour-boost but can also be used to dial the heat way up, as in many South Indian recipes.
3 / Cumin powder
Cumin is packed with minerals like iron, magnesium and calcium as well as vitamins like A,C,E and B6 to name a few. It helps improve digestion and immunity, helps with insomnia, skin disorders and respiratory problems and is is believed to be an anti-carcinogen. Its rich vitamin C content makes it a great disinfectant and helps fight viral infections. Its high iron content also makes it good for lactating mothers. It has a very fragrant, light flavour and I use it quite liberally, both with vegetable stir fries and in curries.
4 / Ground Coriander
A great source of minerals and vitamins A, K and C, coriander is an antioxidant and helps support the healthy functioning of the liver. it helps lower blood sugar, has anti-diabetic and antibacterial properties, eases digestive disorders, and helps boost the immune system against viral infections. Its high iron content helps in preventing anaemia. It has a more earthy, warm flavour in comparision to cumin and can generally be found in many curries and lentil-based dishes like sambar.
5 / Garam masala
A complex spice blend made by roasting and grinding a whole variety of spices, the name literally means means warm (garam) spice (masala). A traditional recipe often contains black peppercorns, cinammon, cardamom, cloves, mace and cumin. This spice mix raises the body’s temperature and consequently the metabolism as well, aiding digestion. It is antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, anticancer and lipid-lowering, and reduces the likelihood of cardiovascular disease. Used mostly in curries and towards the end of the dish, a little bit of this complex, rich spice mix goes a long way.
As a quick visual recap, you'll see all the spices we talked about in the image below. I hope this little series was helpful in giving you a bit of an overview into Indian spices and helped de-mystify them a bit. As always, if you have any questions, please write me a comment below! And - happy cooking!
Images: Vatsala Murthy