India - long identified for its spices more than anything else, still stands as a signal post for all that relates to spice today. In the past, many a country gave in to the lure of spice and did their best to invade this country. It is this very lure of spice that led to the discovery of the Americas as well. Rather than go into the 'spice' history, I have decided to do a short article on some of the major spices of India with a few relevant details. Spices, something that none of us can go without these days, have ruled over the minds and hearts of men and women for quite a while now. Even today, spices would be perhaps one of the foremost things that most of the world would associate with the sub-continent. Here is my list of some of the top 10 spices from India.
1. SAFFRON : Saffron is one of the most delicate spices in the whole world. It is derived by drying the stigma of the flower Saffron Crocos . This spice is used both as a coloring as well as a seasoning agent. This spice is also one of the most expensive ones and is valued greatly for its coloring abilities more than anything else. Usage - Saffron is mostly used as a coloring agent in sweets as well as Kheers. It lends the Kheer a quaint yellow color and also imbibes it with the flavor as well. A few strands of Saffron are first taken and then grounded up in a bow with a small amount of milk. When the milk turns light orange, then it is ready to be added to the Kheer. A special point of interest in Indian cooking, Saffron is always added at the end of the preparation of a dish. This is in contrast to the European dishes like the Paella, where the Saffron is added either at the beginning or half way through. 2. BLACK CARDAMOM : Black Cardamom also known as "Bada Elachi" (Big Cardamom in Hindi) is well defined by the smoky aroma. It is widely used as a flavoring agent like its green cousin. The black Cardamom is widely used in cooking all the way from India to China and has found its place in a variety of dishes ranging from the erstwhile Biryani to the noodle soup. Usage - Black Cardamom is defined by its smoky aroma and is not used in Sweets like the green cardamom. Instead, it is used primarily in the preparation of Dals, Curries and Biryanis. It has a strong pungent aroma which is better suited for the preparation of curries than a kheer. It is stored in the same way as the green cardamom and the pods are released just before adding it to the dish. The black cardamom is also used in the preparation of the famous Garam Masala, a popular blend of Indian spices, used in several North-Indian dishes.
3. GREEN CARDAMOM : Green Cardamom is a small seed pod with black seeds in the shell. This is used primarily for flavoring anything from drinking water to a cup of Chai (Indian Tea). It is small in size compared to the other cardamom variety but packs quite a nice aroma inside its pod. The green cardamom is also used in medicine to treat infections of the teeth and the gums. Usage - Green cardamom is used mainly as a flavoring agent and it is best stored in its pod itself. Typically the pod should be opened just before the green cardamom is to be added to the dish be it a Kheer or a glass of Chai. To get the best optimum effect, it is better to just crack the pod and add the whole thing into the dish.
4. CINNAMON : Cinnamon is a spice derived from the bark of an evergreen tree. Cinnamon is native to India and as such, its uses range from that of a flavoring agent to a medicinal agent. Cinnamon oil can also be prepared from this bark. The Cinnamon is used both as a condiment as well as a flavoring agent and is light-yellowish brown in color. Usage - Cinnamon stick is used in Indian cooking for the preparation of Pulao (also spelled Pilaf at times), Biryanis and certain curries. While using it to cook Pulao, one should saute the Cinnamon stick in a little bit of oil until one can feel the aroma wafting high. Cinnamon is also used in traditional medicine to treat toothaches as well as bad breath.
5. GINGER : Ginger a perennial plant that adds its own bite to the food and is more of the stem than the root as is commonly believed. Ginger is found all over India and it has a pungent taste that is unmistakable. Ginger besides adding flavor to ones food is also known for its medicinal properties as well. Their medicinal uses range from being used in the preparation of many an Ayurveda drug to the ever famous 'Ginger tea'. Culinary wise, Ginger has a place of its own. It is predominantly used in the grounded form in Indian cooking. It is used to flavor North-Indian curries as well as the South-Indian favorites - Rasam and Sambar. Usage - Ginger is used as both fresh and dried forms. It is the fresh ones that give the bite to one's food. Ginger is utilized both in cooking and medicine. In cooking, Ginger is first grounded up and then used but there are a few Indian dishes where thin silvers of ginger are added up to the dish. Ginger is also predominantly used in Chinese foods as well.
6. CORIANDER POWDER: Coriander also known as Cilantro is a herb with a fresh, sweet aroma. The Coriander powder also known as Dhania powder is an essential item in almost every single Indian household. It is used as a flavoring agent in dals and curries. It imparts the dish with its unique aroma of freshness. The coriander seeds are first dried up, grounded into a powder form after which they are stored in dry packets. Usage - The coriander powder is used in Curries, Rasam and Sambar. One of the unique abilities of this spice is to make the dish seem 'lighter'. The Coriander powder is used in the beginning of the preparation of the dish so as to impart is flavor to all the ingredients of the dish, whereas, Coriander leaves are usually sprinkled as garnish or finishing on top of prepared dishes.
7. ASAFOETIDA : Asafetida also known as 'the devil's dung' is known for its pungent odor. It originated in the Americas but, in the recent past, seems to have made its home in the sub-continent. Asafetida is prepared from the sap of a plant which is later dried into a grayish resin like substance. Asafetida is quite hard and often has to be broken down with the help of a hammer or any other substitute. Usages - It is used as a condiment and flavoring agent in cooking. It gives that special flavor to the Rasams and Sambars of Southern India. Generally it is sauteed in oil or ghee and then added to the dish, be it a Dal or a Rasam. One should take care to store Asafetida in air tight containers to avoid your kitchen from smelling like the Devil's dung.
8. CUMIN : Cumin is widely used in Indian kitchens, mainly as a flavoring agent and as a condiment in certain dishes. Evidence of Cumin usages have been found to date from the second millennium B.C. Usage - All Curries and Dals have cumin in them in small quantities. Cumin gives these dishes an aroma that serves to enhance the dish further. It is used in the beginning of the preparation of the dish and as the flames heat the cumin seeds, it starts to give off its flavor. Cumin can also be used in the powdered form but for stronger aroma, it is best to use the seeds as they are.
9. PEPPER : Pepper is known as the 'King of all spices' and with reason. This is one of the spices that were responsible for making Indian spices famous during the medieval times. Pepper is derived from the berries of the pepper tree, and they come mainly in two varieties, black pepper and white pepper. Usage - Black pepper is slightly different in taste from White pepper, one hits the tip of the tongue where as the other one hits the back of the tongue. The black pepper is the dried berry, whereas the white pepper is just the seed alone. They are used to flavor a variety of dishes from soups to the main courses.
10. CURRY LEAF : Curry leaves are as essential to Indian cooking as bay leaves are to European ones. The curry leaves as well as the oil that is obtained from are highly prized not just as a flavoring agent but also for the medicinal properties of the oil. You might find it interesting that Curry leaves have nothing to do with the colloquial word 'curry' that is widely used in the western world as a generalization for spicy Indian dishes. Usage - Curry leaves are used as a flavoring agent mainly in Southern India. These aromatic leaves are best used when they are fresh. They are generally used to flavor a dish right at the end of the preparation. The leaves are crushed by the hand to help release the flavor.
Hope you find this listing helpful. Here's a piece of trivia for you to end this article - Did you know that India also has the only known 'Spice exchange' in the world? In fact, in the town of Kochi in Kerala, along the south-west border of the country, there is an exchange market that deals with one spice alone - Pepper. Trading goes on pretty much every day and it's quite interesting to watch. So the next time you are in Kerala, take a breather and pay a visit to their Spice Exchage. Happy cooking!
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