India is the land of spices. Each region has its own special spices used in local cuisines but there are certain spices that are used throughout the country and Indian cuisine would be incomplete without them. Here are some popular spices of the Indian subcontinent!
The Bitter truth – Fenugreek
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), methi, is a very important part of Indian cusine. It is a very different kind of a herb/spice because it is bitter in taste. The leaves are used as herbs and making a vegetable side dish with other vegetables such as potatoes or carrots, in pakodas, with poultry dishes…the list goes on. The dried leaves are also used as a flavoring agent in vegetable and meat dishes or in dals and stuffing of various Indian snacks like samosas. The seeds…Ah, this is the real gem… are used as a tempering agent in various dishes. It is part of the spice mix called Panch Phoran, an integral part of the Assamese and Bengali cuisines. It is bitter, it hits you hard but Indian cuisine is absolutely incomplete with it. Apart from India, Fenugreek also is a part of Turkish, Persian, Egyptian and Ethiopian cuisines but to a lesser extent.
Rich with nutrients like Vitamins B1, B6, A, C, folic acid, calcium, iron, zinc and so on, both the seeds and leaves (a rich source of Vitamin K) have various medicinal values. As a cure and prevention for diabetes, methi seeds are soaked in water overnight and then consumed in the morning along with the water they have been soaked in. It has been proved that fenugreek contains 4 hydro isoleucine, the only plant to do so, which helps increase the insulin secretion. It is also known as an aphrodisiac, a hair conditioner, and a cleansing agent.
India is the largest producer of fenugreek with Rajasthan accounting for 80% of the total amount.
Methi Gajar (Fenugreek leaves with Carrots)
Take around 5 carrots. Peel and dice carrots finely. Take a small bunch of fresh methi leaves and remove the hard stalks. Wash the remaining tender leaves well and the chop them. Heat 2 tsps of oil in a wok and add methi seeds for tempering along with dried red chillies and a bit of asafetida. Add the diced carrots first and then the fenugreek leaves. Keep stirring. Add salt according to taste and half tsp of coriander powder. You may add a bit of red chili powder too. When the carrots are done, your dish is ready.
Cumin for more taste
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum), jeera, is another spice that is so much a part of Indian cuisine that without it, half or more than half of Indian kitchens will probably be clueless of what to add to their daily dal or subzi. You can use it as seeds or ground into powder. Middle-Eastern, Indian, Mexican cuisines are some that use a lot of this spice. India produces 70% of the cumin grown in the world. What is more amazing is that it consumes 90% of its own production. That makes it both the largest producer as well as the largest consumer of the spice.
It has a distinctive aroma, more apparent when roasted. It is ground into powder that is added to more vegetable dishes. Jeera or jira is a great digestive aid. Either in the form of pills ground with sugar and salt or by itself, it is believed to cure many digestive and gastric problems. It is rich in iron, helps in fighting against flu and cold and also helps in feminine illnesses. It is also know n to prevent cancer in liver and stomach.
Jeera Aloo (Potatoes and cumin)
Boil potatoes and quarter them. Heat about 3-4 tbsps of oil and add cumin seeds. When they splutter, add a quarter tsp of red chilli powder, 1 tsp of roasted and crushed coriander seeds, ½ tsp salt, 1 tsp of jeera powder. Add the potato cubes and stir well until the spices coat the potatoes well. Let it be on the heat till the potatoes gain color. Sprinkle dry mango powder (amchoor powder) on it. Stir once more and then it’s ready to serve.
Coriander (Coriandrum Sativum), dhania or cilantro, is used in cuisines across the world although its flavor is predominantly Asian/Mexican. In Indian cuisine, Dhania is use both as a fresh herb and as dried seeds (or powdered dried seeds). The leaves are used as flavoring agents added towards the end of cooking, and sometimes it is one of the main ingredients as part of the base of a dish. The seeds either crushed or ground into powder are used in various different dishes. It is part of almost every curry powder or masala available in Indian spices. In far eastern cooking, the roots are also an important component, adding a lot of flavor.
The Indian kitchen stumbles without dhania. India is the biggest producer of coriander in the world with Rajasthan accounting for 54% of the production. Most of what is produced is consumed in the country itself. There are many health benefits of coriander or dhania. It is a tonic for skin disorders. In fact coriander juice is drunk by many to help their skin. It helps in stomach ailments, diabetes, blood pressure…the list is truly endless. It is a natural way to fight salmonella poisoning.
Dhania Murg (Coriander Chicken)
Marinate the chicken (about ½ kg) with curd (plain yoghurt), ginger garlic past (just abt 2 tsps), a bit of chili powder, salt (abt ¼ tsp) and a tiny bit of turmeric. Mix well and leave covered in the fridge for about 5 hrs (or at least for 30 mins). Grind a tightly packed cup of chopped coriander leaves,a green chili or two, and a twig of curry leaves together into a paste and keep aside. In a wok, add about 4 tbsp of oil. Add dhania seeds, let them splutter. Finely chop 3-4 onions and a couple of green chillies and add. Stir in some ginger-garlic paste (just about 1tsp). Mix well and stir till onions turn translucent. Add the chicken with marinade. Cover and simmer for a bit till it’s almost half done. Add ¼ cup of tomato puree, dhania powder, garam masala and salt. Do this with judiciously and do not overdo. When the spices get absorbed which should be in about 5 minutes, add the dhania paste you had kept aside. Cook over low heat till the chicken’s done and the oil starts coming to the top. It’s done.
Asafoetida or hing, unlike most other spices, is not a fruit, seed or leave of a plant. It is the resin or gum of the root of certain species of the ferula plant, mainly found in Iran and the hills of Afghanistan. It is cultivated in Kashmir and to some extent in Punjab. Used mainly in South Indian cooking, hing is an integral part of Indian food. People across the northern belt of India, who practice vegetarianism use hing mostly as a substitute for onion and garlic. It is an acquired taste. Not subtle like the other spices like cumin, hing is bold and brass. The aroma of raw asafetida hits you hard but when you use it as a tempering agent in oil or clarified butter (ghee), it changes into a almost buttery kind of a flavor which is liked by most. The powdered hing available in commercial packets is mostly not pure hing but mixed with starches. You get two varieties of hing. The pale yellow kind (Hing Kabuli Sufaid) is lighter and can be mixed with water. The red or stronger hing (Hing Lal) is oil soluble.
Hing is mainly used as a tempering agent in Indian dishes and added directly to the oil before adding the vegetables or meat. It is a very good digestive aid and is also known as an antidote to opium. It is also believed to be a repellent for snakes and hing can be mixed with water to sprinkle and keep away snakes. A bag of asafetida hung around the neck or asafetida in general has been part of many movies and books such as Penrod, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business and Tony Morrison’s The bluest eye.
Moong Dal with hing (Moong lentils tempered with asafetida)
Wash ½ cup moong dal and add it along with 1 chopped tomato, and turmeric to a pressure cooker. Add 1 ½ cups of water and cook it under pressure for 3 whistles. Put off the heat but let the lid stay on for a while. After the pressure goes down, remove the lid, add a bit more water and salt and let this simmer for just a bit. Heat 1 tbsp of ghee in a wok. Add cumin seeds and let them splutter till they change color. Add julienned ginger and two dried red chilies. Add two pinches of Hing. Now pour this over the dal in the pressure cooker. You can also do it the other way round and pour the dal over this in the wok. Mix well. Your dal is done.
Turmeric ((Curcuma longa), Haldi, is a spice, a color, a plant that is as much a part of India or more than the peacock or lotus. The rhizome of the plant is boiled and then dried either in ovens or in the sun and then ground into turmeric or haldi powder. Almost all Indian dishes have at least a pinch of this deep orange colored powder. Salt and haldi is to Indian cuisine what salt and pepper is to ‘western’ cuisine. The leaves of the plant are used to wrap ingredients like rice or fish and then steam them. Turmeric rhizome is also used fresh. Apart from culinary uses, raw turmeric paste is used on the face and body to improve skin quality and color. A spoonful of haldi in warm milk will remove pain. Among the many health benefits of turmeric, the main are in treatment of Alzheimer’s, sprains, type-2 diabetes.
India produces 80% of the world’s turmeric and is also the largest consumer and exporter of turmeric. Andhra Pradesh produces 40% of India’s turmeric crop.
Haldi doodh (Turmeric milk)
Heat up one cup of milk. Lower the flame. Add ½ tsp of haldi powder and stir to completely dissolve. Add 1 tsp of honey, one clove, a bit of ginger. Stir well. Take off heat and strain. Drink warm.