Growing up in India, I experienced the amazing ability of spices and herbs, used in accordance with the seasons, to warm or cool the body. No matter how blustery the winter weather might get, I know I can turn to my spice cupboard to bring some of the warmth of India into my life. The sweet smell of cinnamon, pungent turmeric and smoky cumin perk up my senses and take me home again. Of the many spices and herbs used there, each region has its special flavorings.
The Spice of Indian Cuisine
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a bright yellow spice central to Indian cuisine. A member of the ginger family, it is made by boiling and then drying the perennial’s rhizomes. Called haldi in India, turmeric is in almost every dish and is one of the main constituents of curry powder. Turmeric has a musky aroma and is used as a base upon which other spices build their flavor. A word of caution—the warm yellow color, though appealing, can stain almost anything. Turmeric, which has its origin in South Asia, is used in Thai, Indonesian and Ethiopian cuisine as well.
The use of turmeric extends well beyond the kitchen in a traditional Indian home. It is used in prayer and wedding ceremonies as an offering and a symbol of God’s blessings. The spice also is prized for its healing properties. Recent research suggests it might have the ability to fight cancer and Alzheimer’s. In India, traditional wisdom deems turmeric an immune booster, and people drink it in warm milk to fortify health. Also regarded as an antiseptic, it is applied to cuts and bruises and as a warm poultice on sprains. Turmeric also is a skin conditioner thought to cure acne and blemishes. Brides-to-be are anointed with turmeric for a radiant glow (see Turmeric Facial Mask).
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum), originally from Western Asia, is a member of the parsley family. To create the spice, cooks dry roast or fry in oil the plant’s dried seeds to release their flavor. Called jeera in India, cumin is another main component of curry powder, along with coriander and turmeric. Cumin has a smoky flavor with a strong bouquet. In India, people use two varieties—black cumin and the more common, everyday variety, white cumin (which actually is brown, not white). Cumin is popular in other parts of the world as well, such as Mexico, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. The French and Dutch use it to flavor cheese.
Cumin is considered good for digestion. Cumin water, or Jeera Pani (see Cumin Cooler), is a popular cooling drink in North India during the summer months. Cumin also plays a part in South Indian wedding ceremonies: The bride and groom apply a paste of cumin and jaggery (the traditional unrefined sugar used in India) on each other’s hands to symbolize their eternal union through the bitter and sweet moments of life.
Cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are the three most fragrant spices in Indian cuisine. They often are used together to give a heady aroma and depth of flavor not possible with any one spice. Cardamom (Eletaria cardamomum) belongs to the ginger family and is native to both India and Sri Lanka. Called elaichi in Hindi, it has a spicy, peppery aroma with sweet undertones and the raw leaves leave a fresh mint taste in the mouth. Cardamom should be bought in its pod, as this keeps the fragrance and flavor intact. There are two varieties of cardamom: Green cardamom is the more commonly used; black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) has a more peppery flavor and is used mainly in North Indian meat dishes.
Cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata) belong to the myrtle family and are native to Indonesia, where they are used to flavor cigarettes rather than food. They are unopened flower buds that are green when harvested and turn brown as they dry. Called lavangain Hindi, cloves have a sharp, woody, yet mintlike flavor.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is a member of the laurel family and is the dried inner bark of the tropical evergreen. Known as daalcheeni in Hindi, it has a sweet, woody aroma. It, too, is native to India and Sri Lanka.
The sweet, nutty undertones of these three spices make them equally at home in sweet and savory dishes. In Europe and America, they are used mainly in desserts. But Indian cooks rely heavily on these spices to flavor meat dishes, heating them in a drizzle of oil to release their aroma before adding to the meat. Alternatively, they sprinkle the freshly ground spices on top of dishes to give an extra burst of flavor. In the Middle East and North Africa, these spices frequently flavor coffee. They are all considered warming spices, and Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) prescribes their use to combat colds. A special tea called Masala Chai (see Spiced Tea) features them. Cloves and clove oil also are used to treat toothaches. Cardamom is another auspicious spice that is offered in prayer. In addition, people often eat cardamom seeds after meals to freshen breath and aid in digestion.
Herbal Flavors of India
Indian herbs often are overshadowed by their more powerful and colorful cousins, the spices. But herbs are integral to Indian cuisine and many dishes would be incomplete without them.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) belongs to the parsley family and is found in the Mediterranean, Asia and Latin America. A popular herb in Mexican cuisine, it is also one of the most common herbs in Indian cuisine and often is added to lentil dishes. It closely resembles curly-leaf parsley but has a distinguishing earthy lemon aroma with a peppery edge. Cilantro leaves are delicate and bruise easily. They lose their flavor upon being heated, so added them to a dish at the end of cooking or use them as a garnish. The plant’s seeds, called coriander, taste quite different but also are used extensively in Indian food.
Cilantro is very easy to grow indoors. A sunny windowsill and a fast-draining potting mix is adequate to grow cilantro year-round. Pluck the leaves regularly to keep the plant bushy and compact. Harvesting regularly delays flowering and extends its growing period. I find partial shade adequate for my potted coriander, but it can also grow in full sun.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), also called kasoori methi in India, is a member of the bean family that grows across the Mediterranean and Asia. Like cilantro, both the seeds and leaves are used in cooking but with different applications. Fenugreek is pungent and has a bitter taste, so a little goes a long way. Used dry, it keeps its flavor for a long time. Fenugreek adds excellent flavor to spicy Indian soups, vegetable and meat dishes.
Fenugreek is regarded as a warming herb and is generally used in the cooler months. The seeds are thought to be nourishing for pregnant and lactating mothers, helping them increase milk production. The seed is often prepared crushed and mixed with jaggery and gram (chickpea) flour to mask its bitter flavor. The seeds also are made into a paste and applied to the scalp to treat dandruff, prevent hair loss and bring a shine to dull hair.
Curry leaf (Murraya koenigii) belongs to the citrus family. Indigenous to India and called sweet neem, curry leaves have a lime-like aroma and impart a slight bitter taste. They are used mostly in South Indian cooking, especially in tangy lentil soups, such as rasam and sambar, that often are eaten with rice crepes (dosas). Despite its name, it is not an ingredient in curry powder.
A fully grown curry leaf tree is 13 to 20 feet tall, but potted plants will be smaller. Though extremely sensitive to cold, curry leaf trees can live indoors over the winter. Fresh curry leaves are highly desirable and many cooks refuse to even consider using the dried variety. But they can be an acceptable alternative when used appropriately. Cook dried leaves longer and keep in mind that the flavor will be milder.
Indian basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), also called sacred basil, belongs to the mint family, as does the sweet basil more commonly found in America. This cultivar differs slightly in both taste and appearance from sweet basil. The leaves are smaller and have a strong liquorish taste and aroma. Known as tulsi in India, it is not used as a culinary herb, but is thought to have great medicinal value and is used to treat a wide variety of illnesses. A tea brewed from the leaves is a popular remedy for colds. Indians also eat the raw leaves to aid digestion, improve memory, strengthen the nervous system and lower cholesterol.
Virtually every house in India has a tulsi plant. As children, we would pluck leaves right of the tree and chew them. The plant is considered sacred in the Hindu religion and women seeking a happy married life offer the plant prayers.
Antara B. Mitra is a freelance writer and independent radio producer living in Manlius, New York. She loves traveling and sampling new foods.