Indian food is far less complicated to make than it tastes. What can seem intimidating at first are the long lists of ingredients, but when you take a closer look, you’ll find that the majority of the list consists of spices. Once you assemble the spices, the rest is easy. It is the variety and combinations of spices that distinguishes Indian cuisine. Sometimes one spices flavor predominates; more often relative proportions of spices are balanced with seasonings and other flavorful ingredients to compose a vibrant mosaic of complementary and contrasting flavors, including sweet, bitter, nutty, pungent, salty and astringent. Balancing enticing colors and textures is important too.
How you use spices determine a successful dish. Spices can be used whole, ground, fried or roasted. In this blog you will learn the techniques to unlock each spices special property. As you gain confidence, you will instinctively balance spices and bring out the best flavor of each one. This can be accomplished by dry toasting and freshly grinding spices to add at various stages or sprinkle over a finished dish, or whole spices can be sizzled in hot oil to start a dish or pour over a finished one for extra aroma and flavor. Most of the same spices are used throughout India, but are manipulated differently depending on the region. In the north, whole spices are toasted, then ground and added while cooking. In the south, both whole and powdered spices are blended into wet pastes, often with grated coconut and used in various stages of cooking. A pinch of the warming spice blend, garam masala is sprinkled over dishes in the north. Cooks in the south finish off a dish with a seasoning of curry leaves, dried chiles and mustard seeds spluttered in hot coconut oil.
If spices are the heart and soul of Indian dishes, spice mixtures (masalas) are the spine—the underlying foundation of most Indian dishes. When Indian cooks ask for a recipe, they are requesting the special masala that makes each cooks dish unique. Every housewife has their special blend that makes their fish curry sing or spicy chicken sizzle. Like a musical raga, recipes are melodic patterns with plenty of room for riffs off the classical foundation. Commercial spice blends are sold in Indian markets, but no self-respecting cook uses them—instead the blends are made in the kitchen from freshly roasted and ground spices as the recipe is cooked. Some blends that are used on a daily basis can be made in large batches and stored in airtight containers.
Stay tuned for yet more spice talk with tips on assembling a spice box....