Herbs and spices are an essential part of good cooking. If you know how to used spices properly, you can live for a week on only cabbage and yet never eat the same dish twice… (not that I am reccomending you try). Simple vegetables become delicacies with the right use of spices.
Below is a list of useful spices to have in your kitchen. If you keep at least a few of the basics all the time, you will be able to create tasty dishes quickly, easily and without having too think too much. Generally, my recipes tend to use whole spices, not powders or spice mixes. The whole spices have a different taste, and also have certain health benefits. Pre-prepared spice mixes, on the other hand, often don’t help in digestion, and you also have less control over the flavour. When using whole spices, it is important to know that in order to get the flavours and benefits of the spices, you have first to fry them in a little oil. It is very simple: just heat a little oil (for example, 1 teaspoon) in the pan where you will cook. When the oil is hot, add the spices, and wait until they start to pop. Then immediately add the vegetable or other ingredients. The trick is letting them pop, but not letting them burn, and placing them in the oil only when it is hot enough (if you use an electric stove, you will have to wait a little, but if you have a gas stove, the oil will heat very quickly.)
CUMIN- Cumin seeds are one of the essential spices in Indian cooking. They are also good for digestion. This is one of the first spices you should keep in your kitchen!
MUSTARD SEEDS- Along with cumin seeds, they are one of the basic spices to have around. In South Indian cooking, they are often used in combination with curry leaves.
FENUGREEK- This is a healthy spice, which is added to dishes in small quantities. For example if using cumin seeds, the quanitity of fenugreek seeds will be about 1/4 that of cumin. They can also be soaked and sprouted. Fenugreek leaves are also a very healthy ingredient, which can be used fresh or dried.
BLACK CUMIN- This spice has a unique and delicious taste, and is mostly popular in Bengali cooking. You will also find it sprinkled on top of Turkish bread. It fact, is not related to cumin, and it the seed of a pretty flower called Nigella Sativa. Also know as Kalonji, Kalo Jeera, Nigella, or Black Onion Seed (though it has nothing to do with onions) it seems no one has actually decided on a standard English translation…. It is one of my favourite spices, and is becoming incresingly well know for its health benefits, including being anti-immflamatory and helpful to digestion. Google it and you will find long lists of possible benefits and medicinal uses.
Painch Poron, which literally means ‘5 spices’ is a staple of Bengali cooking. This spice mix included: cumin seeds, black cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds and fenugreek seeds in equal proportions. Thus you get an instead mingling of different flavours all in one. The fennel adds a hint of sweetness, fenugreek and mustard are a little bitter, and cumin and black cumin then add their own unique touch. Each of the spices also adds their own digestive benefits. If you can’t find the pre-mixed version, just by each of the spices seperately, and mix them yourself. I love this mix, and it adds flavour to even the humblest of vegetables. I highly reccommend becomign aquainted with it!
TURMERIC- Turmeric is the powder that adds the characteristic yellow colour to Indian dishes. As well as making food attractive, it has a long list of medicinal benefits, which are also being proven by modern science. Iit is one of the most essential ingredients in Indian cooking. Turmeric powder whould not be added at the same time as frying the other spices, as it will burn. Add it afterwards, together with the vegetables or other ingredients.
HING (ASOEFETIDA)- Hing is a strong smelling powder made from the resin of the ferula plant. It has a smell somewhat like onion or leek, and as well as being used for its own unique flavour, it can also be used to replace onion and garlic. Hing is used in very small quantities: just a pinch added with the other spices will do. It can be used in almost any vegetable dish to add flavour.
AJWAIN- Ajwain, or carom seeds, are used less often than other spices, but are still useful to have in your kitchen. They have a strong flavour, and are only used in specific dishes. They are added to fried snacks, and samosa or paratha dough, as they are very helpful in digestion. If you are ever suffering from indigestion of any kind, gas, constipation, or headache, boil a spoonful of seeds in water, and drink the tea. You will find that your indigestion is quickly relieved.
CARDAMOM- A well know spice, which can be used in both sweet and salty dishes.
CLOVES- Added in moderation, they add unique flavour to the right dishes.
AMCHUR POWDER- this is a powder made from dried green mangos, and is actually quite easy to find in many Indian shops. It has a slightly acid taste, and is added in small quantities at the end of cooking, often to help balance the sweet flavour of certain vegetables. It is a kind of natural flavour enhancer- it does not have a strong flavour of its own, but helps to make the whole dish more flavourful.
BLACK SALT- a pinkish (not black) coloured, finally ground rock salt. It has a strong smell, somewhat like egg, because of the presence of sulfur. It is often added to salads, chutneys, etc. It is an aquired taste, but one which most people start to like.
CORIANDER SEEDS- Coriander seeds are quite large, so the best way to use them is to dry roast them, and then grind into powder. You can also by finely ground coriander powder, but the taste is quite different.
BAY LEAF- well known around the world, so not much explanation is needed! Bay leaves should be used when dry. They are an exception to the rule that ‘fresh is best!’
CURRY LEAF- Can be used fresh or dried, and is especially popular in South Indian dishes.
CHILLI- To be added according to your taste!! You can use dried red chillies or fresh green chillies, depending on the recipe and what is available. I tend to avoid using red chille powder, as the whole chillies give enough flavour, and are better for health.