Cooking at home is hard enough at the best of times. Once you’ve managed to gather the resolve and find the time to search for a recipe, there’s nothing worse than being confronted by an intimidatingly long list of obscure spices. What in holy hell is asafoetida? Where am I supposed to find black cardamom? Why I am even doing this? Don’t despair, it doesn’t have to be like this.
Most Indian dishes rely on just a few key spices that most people are familiar with. Once you get to grips with what each spice brings to the mix, you’ll find it easy to blend your own without having to follow complicated recipes religiously, making the whole process less daunting and much more rewarding.
Although each spice is a medley of aromas and tastes in itself, they can be broadly categorised to make their roles easier to grasp.
Earthy spices like cumin and coriander lay the flavour foundations, hot spices like black pepper and mustard seeds build complexity with background warmth, pungent aromatics like cloves and cardamom pack an intense punch and aniseed flavours like fennel, star anise and caraway round the whole thing out.
The key is to pick spices that complement each other and create harmony; a general rule of thumb is less is more. A traditional Indian spice tin has only seven compartments. This is all you need to create a multitude of spice mixes for hundreds of Indian dishes. Let’s stick with this number and take look at the key players more closely.
Musky or even sweaty (in a good way), spicy and warm, and certainly earthy, cumin is probably the most recognisable spice for ‘curry’ flavour. Used extensively in Mexican, Middle Eastern and Asian cooking, it was even used as a table seasoning in Roman times.
Toast the seeds in a hot, dry pan until the room is filled with that unmistakable aroma. Toasting releases the essential oils, which is where the flavour’s at. It also dries the seeds, making them easier to grind. Ground cumin is used for spice mixes, but the whole seeds can be sprinkled over dishes as a crunchy garnish too.
Spices should be toasted and ground as close as possible to when they will be used as they will lose their potency over time. Once ground, store in airtight containers away from light for the longest freshness.
Cumin works with almost anything but it complements hot spices particularly well, and has a great relationship with fennel. The social butterfly of the spice world, chuck her in anything.
Coriander seeds, once toasted, have a warm, nutty charm adding earthiness to curries just like cumin. The whole seeds have floral and citrus qualities and add crunch when sprinkled over a dish just before serving. When ground the fibrous seeds can add body to a curry as well as good background warmth.
Turmeric is the marmite of the spice world. Some swear by it, others wish to banish it from existence. Whatever your stance, it’s a key component in Indian cooking. Slightly bitter, slightly sour, while at the same time warm and earthy, turmeric powder comes from a bright yellow dried root closely related to ginger. Mixed with water, the powder has been used as a dye for millennia and is also used in colouring Indian dishes. Warning: don’t wear a white shirt.
For a teaspoon of cumin or coriander, try using half a teaspoon of turmeric or add a full teaspoon to change the dynamic of the mix, and the colour. The three spices together form a solid flavour base on which to build.
Most often used as a table seasoning, black pepper is also a very important spice in Indian cooking. It provides a deep warmth, rather than a direct chilli heat, with notes of pine, citrus and even eucalyptus, depending on the variety.
A teaspoon in your spice mix will add background warmth and depth of flavour that builds upon the earthy foundations. Go for two teaspoons to tip the balance into even warmer territory.
Indian cooks tend to favour black mustard seeds over the milder yellow or brown varieties. The seeds are usually fried in hot oil until they pop which takes away their bitterness and releases their flavourful oils leaving a warm pungency; sweet and only slightly bitter and, well, mustardy.
These little fellas punch above their weight, so try a half teaspoon in the mix and see how you go.
Chilli is a notable absentee from this hot spice list. Most people know what these fiery devils brings to the table. Chilli powder burns with a more direct heat and should be added to personal taste so it’s usually better to add chilli powder nearer the end of cooking, tasting as you go.
The inner seeds of green cardamom pods are often used in desserts, their intense resinous fragrance working well with the sweet richness of syrupy Indian sweets.
Throw a couple of pods into your dish mid-cooking to infuse into the sauce, or remove the inner seeds and crush them into a spice mix. Either way, use sparingly as these little pods pack a punch and all too often overpower other flavours. When used with care, the spike of intense cardamom can add an exciting dimension.
Other intensely aromatic spices like cloves and cinnamon can be used in a similar way to add intensity, either ground or whole.
The sweet, anise flavour of fennel makes it perfect as a high note to contrast with earthy spices like cumin and coriander and round out the flavour profile. A teaspoon of ground fennel seeds will blend well with the earthy, hot and aromatic spices.
Related spices like star anise and caraway also provide aniseed flavours and are a good alternative but too much can become unpleasant so remember – it’s all about balance.
**Sam Sinha is a modernist chef turned freelance journalist and copywriter. He helps food businesses produce authoritative content to engage and grow their target audience. Once that’s done he likes riding bamboo bikes and having a beer. You can find him at thewritingchef.com.