Spices are the key to Indian cooking and curries. It is worth becoming familiar with the main spices which are in most dishes as well as the optional spices which can often be the ‘hidden’ secret ingredient in a favourite dish.
Spices are typically made from ground seeds or dried plants and roots. Cumin powder is made from ground cumin seeds, ginger powder from dried, ground root ginger and chilli powder from ground dried chillies.
Dried ground spices should be stored in air tight containers. Replace your spices regularly as they will fade over time. Breath the aroma in before use and discard old stale, musty or aromaticless spices.
There are four main spices found in nearly all Indian curries…
Cumin powder is made from ground cumin seeds, it is the primary ingredient which gives curries their distinctive aroma.
Garlic gives a strong pungent aroma. It is always best to use fresh garlic wherever possible.
Root Ginger, whilst not as strong and lingering as garlic gives a complimentary slightly sweeter aroma. Again fresh ginger, peeled and grated is best.
Chilli peppers (stricly speaking it should be spelt chile) are present in all curries even the mildest. There are many varieties each with differing levels of heat. As well as the heat, chillies do add a lot to the flavour of a dish and the flavour varies from type to type.
The seed of the cumin plant (Cuminum cyminum) is a small sesame seed sized seed. It can be used whole or powdered.The dark earthy brown powdered form is an essential ingredient of Indian curries. It has a slightly peppery taste and a strong aroma.
Garlic bulbs usually comprise around 6-10 cloves. These can be separated by squashing the bulb against the work surface. Discard the dry flaky white skin. chop the bottom off the garlic cloves and peel them.
Garlic can be used whole, sliced, diced or crushed. The best way to crush a garlic clove is to squash it hard with the flat side of a heavy knife and chop into small pieces.Garlic is said to have many medicinal uses, such as reducing cholesterol and thinning blood. The downside is that it does leave you with bad garlic breath!
Ginger grows in tropical, sub-tropical and warm temperate climates. This knobbly root can be peeled and grated into curries. When grating the flesh you typically end up with a stringy lump of ginger which you can squeeze the ginger juice from as well. Fresh ginger is the most moist
Ginger is popular in all Asian cooking, not to mention Ginger Beer, and Gingerbread men.
Chillies are in fact a berry fruit and they have a heat measurement scale called the Scoville scale devised by scientist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The hottest chilli commonly available is the Habanero pepper (sometimes called scotch bonnets), however a recently discovered Indian chilli called the Tezpur is said to score 855,000.
The chemical in chilli peppers which sets your mouth on fire is called capsaicin. This chemical causes the release of neurotransmitters which make your nerve endings think they are burning. The brain releases endorpins for the pain and this creates the chilli addiction so many of us have.
One of the most popular chillies is the Jalapeno. This green Mexican chilli scores only 5000 on the Scoville scale but packs a punch for most people and has a great flavour.
The most common chilli used in Indian cooking is the Cayenne chilli, a thin green chilli 1 to 2 inches in length. It scores 50,000 on the scoville scale.
Historical documents show evidence that chillis have been part of the human diet since at least 7000bc
Most chilli powders are not pure dried chilli, they include other herbs and spices and often salt.These powders are fine but can unwittingly add essences which you had not intended. For a pure chilli powder use cayenne pepper or buy dried chillies and crush them into a powder with a pestle and mortar.
The leaves and the seeds of the coriander plant are used in Indian cookery. The seeds can be used ground, whole or slightly crushed.
The dark earthy brown powdered form is used in most Indian curries.The fresh green leaves have a strong orange aroma. The leaves can be roughly torn and used to garnish a curry, or finely chopped and added to many curry dishes.
Turmeric powder is made from the ground root of the plant. It has a vibrant yellow colour and is used predominantly for colouring in cooking.Turmeric has little flavour but gives off a slightly bitter earthy aroma. Too much turmeric can lend a dish an unwelcome musty flavour.
Cinnamon comes from the dried bark of the cinnamon tree. It is most often used in powdered form but can also be used in bark form. This spice is sparingly used in some curries particularly sweeter milder curries.
Cloves come from the dried flower bud of the clove tree. Best used in its whole form. This spice is sparingly used in some curries for contrast. It is often used in sweet dishes.
Green cardamom pods come from the cardamom tree. They are strongly flavoured and sweetly spiced. With a slightly soapy taste (don’t let that put you off). The pods can be added whole to stews, curries and rice dishes or the seeds can be removed and used.
Dried berries of the pepper tree (Piper nigrum). Black pepper was originally where the heat for all Indian dishes was derived before the Chilli was introduced to India. It is not related at all to the chilli pepper or green peppers which were named after it by Columbus. It can be used whole, crushed or ground in any dish.
Salt is often overlooked by the beginning curry chef. In the belief that with all those other spices why would I need salt? Salt however is a crucial ingredient to increase the flavour of the curry. Add sparingly, stir in and taste. Alternatively to using plain salt consider using soy sauce which has a high salt content.