Spice Box in this case refers to the gorgeous round tin that our mums kept their colourful spices in. Getting the right mix of spices is a big part of Indian cooking and we want to help demystify this for you so you can start to master the art of Indian cooking.
The spices used in Indian cooking have a number of health benefits, and we have explained some of the healing properties of the spices and vegetables that we use, as well as revealing more about their origins and flavour.
The curry has become a famous cure-all for the colds and sniffles that accompany our long winters in the UK. We take a look at why this is.
Asafoetida is a powdered spice you may have heard of but never tried. It is popular in Indian cooking because it adds a flavour similar to onion and garlic. It tends to be heavily used in households that practice Jainism and so don’t eat onion and garlic. The smell is not the nicest but the flavour it adds is worth it and it also aids digestion.
Bay Leaf (Tamal Patra)
The bay leaf is an aromatic leaf which adds a distinctive flavour to curries and rice dishes. Leaves can be used fresh or dried but should not be mixed up with curry leaves (which are smaller in size and brighter green). Bay leaves are usually not eaten and removed before serving.
Black Salt (Kala Numak / Sanchal)
Black salt is a rock salt largely made up of sodium chloride, which gives colour and a very distinctive egg-like smell that not everyone finds pleasant. However, once ground into a powder and used in the right dishes the taste is distinct and flavoursome.
Cardamom pods are small triangular pods filled with black seeds and a lot of flavour. You can get green or white skinned cardamom according to the region in India in which it is grown. Cardamom is used in a variety of dishes from curries to rice to drinks like ‘chai’ tea. It gives a strong, warming flavor but it’s a good idea to remove the pods before serving.
Chilli (Mirch / Murcha)
Chillies come in a variety of forms and strengths and are used fresh and as a dried powder. Indian cooking is famed for its use of chillies, although curries are often made milder for the family then served with a chilli accompaniment for those with a taste for more heat. The green chilli is part of a trio of ingredients used daily in India. Along with garlic and ginger they are ground up and form the basis for many dishes. Red chillies are generally used in the dried form and to add a kick of heat that makes curries addictive.
Cinnamon (Dal Chini / Tuj)
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a tree and is a very popular spice in many cultures. These little rolled up logs are used in savoury and sweet dishes and add a warming flavour. Cinnamon helps to regulate blood sugars and is widely used in ayurvedic medicines.
Clove (Lavang / Laving)
Cloves, the dried flowers of an evergreen plant, are full of heated flavour and included in many dishes. Shaped like a little wooden flower and used sparing they add a subtle flavour to rice dishes. Clove oil is also used to help relieve toothache and cloves are even used in a type of cigarette.
Coriander seeds are small round balls and a very common spice in Indian cooking. The plant is generally used as a garnish as its bright green leaves add a refreshing taste to all dishes. Coriander powder is also used in certain dishes, often alongside cumin.
Cumin is another spice that is used in both seed and powder form. Often, cumin will be used with mustard seeds for a traditional tarka or vaghare (the oil and spices that form the base of most curry dishes). They come in white and black and white is more common, although it looks a shade of brown. Roasted and crushed they add flavour to salad dishes as well as drinks like salted lassi.
Curry Leaf (Limbdo)
These vivid green leaves are used widely in south Indian cooking and generally added at the start of a curry dish (tarka / vaghare). Once crispy, curry leaves add a great sweet and savoury flavour and unlike the bay leaf they can be eaten so don’t need to be removed before serving.
Dill comes in the form of seeds and fresh leaves, known as dill weed. The seeds can be use in cooking and are also used roasted as a breath freshner in India and Indian restaurants. The fresh leaves can be used as a herb for salmon dishes or as my mother used to cook it - with lentils and curried as a subji (veg dish). It is great for digestion and is given to mothers after childbirth.
Garlic is an ingredient used in nearly every Indian dish and is something all Indian kitchens have as a staple as part of the trio of ingredients - chilli, ginger and garlic. It is used mainly in the ground or crushed form, but some dishes require it to be sliced which brings out the flavor more. Another element of garlic that has become popular is using the green part which adds a lovely, subtle flavour.
Ginger (Adrak / Adu)
This root herb is used by peeling off the skin and then grinding, blending or grating. It is very popular in India where it is used in most meals and also to make chai (tea). Ginger tea made Indian style is an amazing start to a cold winter morning or on a daily basis. It is used in fresh form and as a dried powder. Again it is something given to new mothers to help them recover and provide vital nutrients.
Fennel seeds are used in various dishes including the Indian ‘paan’ recipe which is eaten after a meal to help digestion and as a breath freshener. The seeds are used in stocks and sauces while the fresh fennel bulb is used in salads to add a fresh taste that helps cleanse the palate.
Methi comes in the form of a ground powder as well as little yellow square seeds, and fresh or dried leaves - which have an oval shape. The seeds are used in many dishes in the tarka (oil and spices used at the beginning of most curry dishes) or towards the end of a dish when is it simmering with a squeeze of lemon juice. The leaves can be added to meat curries and are used in bhajis (pakora). They can be used to help reduce water in your body and while they have a strong bitter taste used in the right dishes they add an amazing flavour.
Mustard comes in the form of seeds known as ‘rai’ and in plant form. The seeds come in yellow and black and are commonly used with cumin in the tarka (oil and spices used at the beginning of most curry dishes), adding a tangy flavour. Crushed seeds are also used in pickling and sauces. Mustard leaves are common in a Punjabi dish called ‘saag’ which has a buttery taste and is served with corn chapatti/roti.
Nutmeg is a seed about the size of a grape that when cut in half has a vein running through. It is generally ground into a powder and used in both savoury and sweet dishes. Very good for settling the stomach.
Peppercorn come from a vine and are dried before being used. They come in black, green, pink and white, which mark the different stages of ripeness at which they were picked. We tend to use black pepper the most. Whole and ground down it adds a real kick to meat dishes.
Poppy Seeds (Khus Khus)
Derived from the opium poppy plant these little white and black seeds are used in curries including the korma. Ground down they add a nutty flavour and are also used in Indian sweet dishes and as a garnish for the Gujarati sweet ladoo.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices available. The little red and yellow thread-like strings are part of the crocus plant and pack huge flavour. Small quantities go a long way and they come in different grades, adding a distinctive yellow or orange colour to any dish or drink.
Sesame (Til / Tul)
These little teardrop shaped seeds are very commonly used worldwide. They are supposed to have one of the highest oil contents of any of the seed family, adding a rich, nutty flavour to savoury and sweet dishes, salads, chutneys and Indian sweets. Toasted they add a lovely flavor.
This amazing fruit is produced on a tree in the shape of a pod. It has a sour flavour and is generally used in sauces, drinks and even ice cream. It is also used in the famous ‘Worcestershire sauce’ that we are all familiar with. Added to dates and other spices it creates an amazing chutney that goes well with many Indian dishes.
Turmeric or ‘haldi’ is a root vegetable that looks a lot like ginger but is smaller. It is a vibrant orange colour and is most often used in its ground powder form. Be careful as it will stain your clothes, skin and countertops so use with caution! Easy enough to find in supermarkets and local stores, the fresh version is also becoming popular and is the foundation of the majority of our cooking. It has a bitter taste and has been used as a natural health remedy in Indian homes for many, many years. It's becoming known as a major superfood in the fight against a number of digestive disorders, including those that lead to cancer. It also has clotting elements so putting turmeric on a cut will help stop bleeding as well as being an antiseptic. We often use it in the winter to stave off sore throats by combining a quarter of a teaspoon or turmeric powder, or a centimetre of the fresh root (grated or blended) with some warm milk and drinking before bed. It works miracles.