There’s no denying Indian cuisine is aromatic and delicious. What many people don’t know though is the tremendous regional diversity that comes with Indian cuisine. A result of 5000 years of history and cultural influences, this diversity means that one of the most ubiquitous dishes in international menus around the world, the butter chicken, while a popular Indian dish, is not a true representation of Indian dish. Not even close.
There is no better way to showcase India’s rich culture than through its cuisine, and the diversity of cooking techniques, ingredients and preparations. A good example of this variety is the humble chicken curry.
Every home has it’s own version, even the recipe I learnt from my mother is different from many others that I’ve tasted over the years. The more traditional red-hued recipe from North India uses onions, tomatoes, garlic and ginger. In Southern India the same curry is white through the use of coconut milk, and the flavour is different with the liberal use of cardamom and pepper. In contrast, in the Western states of India the spices are muted through the use of sugar (usually jaggery) and in Eastern India with it’s proximity to Tibet the curry is totally different and served with rice noodles.
The diversity of Indian cuisine is part of its charm. But the ribbon that ties all the regional cuisines together are the spices. In every home on the subcontinent, in every dish people use their own combination of spices that add flavour and aroma to even the most mundane of foods. Plain naan is oomphed up with garlic and toasted black sesame seeds, and simple daal is finished with a tempering (tadka) of curry leaves, chilli peppers and cumin seeds.
At home in Canada I use spices in my everyday cooking much like my mother did growing up in India. Routine weeknight dinners come to life with the use of roasted spices. The flavour is amplified and often spices and herbs are natural remedies for boosting our overall health and well being.
And not all spices are “spicy” if you catch my drift. My 5 year-old has a pretty low threshold for heat and she can tolerate a good sprinkle of cumin and coriander.
7 Essential Spices To Start Off Your Spicebox
Over the next little while I will be sharing my family’s favourite recipes that also use healthy spices along with tips and tricks to cooking with spices. In the meanwhile here is my list of essential spices that you need in your spice; listed alphabetically in no particular order of fondness.
Peppercorns come in a rainbow of colours and while most of the colours are used in Indian cooking, black peppercorns are the most common and pack in the most heat. Spicy. Use carefully.
These comes in a pod with black seeds on the inside. It’s the seeds that have the aroma and are used in a variety of dishes. Sweet and savoury, entrees, desserts and beverages. It’s warm flavour and aroma will take you to a slower, happier place. Not spicy at all but quite overpowering in flavour. Use judiciously.
These can add a red, familiar colour to your cooking, along with of course heat. Not all chilli peppers are spicy though, starting from the paprika (that’s sweet and red) to the cayenne (that packs a punch) to the dried red Indian chillies that can knock you out. Spicy. Use carefully after sampling.
Much like cardamom, cinnamon can serve double duty in both sweet and savory dishes. It’s also great in cold and hot beverages. Packed full of healthy benefits, cinnamon can be used in stick form and added early in the cooking process, or ground up and added towards the end for aroma. Sweet and mildly spicy. Use as needed.
Dried seeds of the cilantro plant, these are roasted and ground up to be used most commonly in Indian and Mexican cuisine. The powder gives an earthy, smoky flavour with none of the heat. Works wonderfully in curries, stews and marinades.
These are used roasted whole or ground up in Southwestern U.S., Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine. These have an earthy flavour and are stronger in flavour than the coriander powder.
If I had written this list in order of health benefits this one would have been on the top for sure. Turmeric’s health benefits have been well documented and I use it liberally in any dish that will withstand it’s orange colour. It does particularly well in all manners of soups, curries and stews. Not spicy, though it does add a musty aroma and flavour that some say is acquired. Start small and build up your family’s acceptance of it over a period of time.
I use spices liberally in my everyday cooking. Over the years I’ve experimented and found my family’s favourite combinations. Most spices are healthy and their judicious use can lend that smoky Indian flavour with none of the heat. Go ahead, and push your family’s palate. Add in coriander powder to your mashed potatoes, and turmeric to your chicken noodle soup. Your family will love it and their health will be better for it.