The spice blends that lend Indian cuisine its infinitely varied yet instantly recognizable flavors are complex and mysterious. Although some of the characeristic herbs and spices are familiar—coriander, cinnamon, and pepper, to name a few—many are rarely seen in Western cooking. Yet many of the plants from which the more unexpected flavors derive can be grown in this country, either as house plants or outdoors.
Most of the plants discussed below are native to the tropics; gardeners in Zone 10 whose sage and tarragon have given up the ghost can enjoy the satisfaction of growing these more exotic herbs outdoors, in the ground, all year round. Those who live in colder regions will need to provide special care for the tender species, but even someone with no garden at all and a black thumb to boot can coax a grocery-store ginger rhizome to survive—maybe even grow—in a pot of sand on the windowsill.
This species resembles love-in-a-mist (N. damascena), an annual garden plant often grown in this country for its cheerful blue, pink, or white flowers, threadlike leaves, and decorative seedpods. N. sativa also has finely divided leaves (thus the name fennel flower) but is less showy in bloom; native to the Mediterranean region, it is cultivated in India for its pungent, angular black seeds, which have given rise to many of the herb’s names, both in India and elsewhere. Kalonji means “black onion seeds”, the generic name Nigella means “blackish” (sativa means “cultivated”), and the name nutmeg flower refers to the seeds’ spicy fragrance. The seeds taste somewhat like poppyseeds with a hint of pepper, celery, and oregano. Nigella seeds are found in many Indian spice blends (see "Beyond Curry Powder"); in naan, a leavened flat bread of northern India; and in pickles, vegetables, and fish dishes. They are usually toasted to bring out their flavor before grinding or adding whole to the other ingredients.
The seeds have numerous nonculinary uses in India including repelling insects from stored clothing, stimulating the secretion of mothers’ milk, and aiding digestion. In Europe, the heated ground seeds were once thought to restore the sense of smell.
Nigella will grow in zones 3 through 10. It does best in full sun and well-drained garden soil. Plants started indoors and transplanted to the garden are not as sturdy as direct-seeded plants; therefore, sow the seeds in the ground in fall or spring, barely covering with fine soil. Seeds germinate most readily at 65–70°F. Thin young plants to stand about a foot apart. Mature plants grow 12 to 15 inches tall. Single white flowers tinged with blue begin to appear in summer and continue into late fall. Harvest the paper-thin, urn-shaped pods when they turn brown, and dry them in the shade. Break them open to release the seeds and dry the seeds for a few days before storing. You will need quite a few plants to obtain a jar of seeds. Leave a few of the fruits on the plants if you wish to take advantage of nigella’s tendency to self-seed.
Fenugreek, native to southern Europe and Asia, is a legume that resembles alfalfa, and it has been used as cattle fodder since ancient times. The name fenugreek and its Latin equivalent, foenum-graecum, both mean “Greek hay”. (Trigonella means “little triangle”, but which one is unclear; some sources think it refers to the shape of the flower.) The herb is cultivated in India primarily for its hard little ocher seeds, which are used in many spice blends and pickles; their nose-twisting aroma contributes to the characteristic smell of American curry powder. Indians also use fenugreek seeds with eggplant, meat, and potatoes, and they cook the aromatic, bitter leaves as a potherb. Though a maple taste is only barely detectable in the seeds, the food industry uses the ground seeds and essential oil in imitation maple flavorings. As a medicinal, the seeds have long been used in tonics for horses and cattle as well as to treat diabetes, digestive problems, and other disorders in humans.
Fenugreek seeds may be sprouted like mung beans and the sprouts used in salads or sandwiches. Put a tablespoon or so in a jar, cover with water, and let stand for a day. Then drain off the water (a piece of fine screen or cheesecloth held over the mouth of the jar with a rubber band helps here) and rinse with fresh water. Keep the loosely closed jar on its side in a warm closet, rinsing twice a day until seeds have sprouted, about three to six days.
Fenugreek is as easy to grow as snap beans. This herb needs full sun and well-drained, loamy soil. Sow the seeds 1/4 inch deep in spring after the danger of frost is past. Soil temperature should be at least 55°F to avoid the possibility of root rot. Thin seedlings to 4 inches apart. Plants are rather spindly with small, oval, three-parted leaves like those of clover. They will grow 1 to 2 feet tall. Fragrant whitish flowers in the leaf axils are followed by skinny, upright pods 3 to 6 inches long. To harvest, pick pods when they turn brown or pull up entire plants and hang them upside down to dry. Remove seeds and store when thoroughly dry in a cool, dry place. They remain viable for years.
Native to the old-world tropics, sesame is cultivated today in China, India, Mexico, Guatemala, and the southwestern United States for its sweet, nutty seeds and oil. The seeds are most familiar in American kitchens as decorative bread toppers, but in the Middle East they’re also used whole in za’tar spice mixtures and ground as tahini (sesame butter) and halvah (sesame candy). In India, the seeds are used often in masalas and to flavor potatoes. Sesame seeds contain approximately 50 percent oil, and sesame oil has been esteemed as a cooking oil for thousands of years because it can be heated to relatively high temperatures before it smokes. The raw seeds produce a clear oil (not an essential oil, for it is not volatile), and the toasted seeds yield a nutty brown oil that is delicious drizzled on Oriental stir-fried dishes after cooking. (Toasted whole sesame seeds make a fine garnish for such dishes.) The clear oil is often used in India for deep frying and as a traditional anointing oil, and some people use it in making soap and cosmetics.
Sesame, which has naturalized from Florida to Texas, needs 120 days of hot weather in full sun to mature its seeds. (“Open, sesame!” apparently refers to the way the ripe fruits explode, shooting seeds hither and thither.) In zones 7 through 10, sow the seeds 1/4 inch deep in well-drained soil when night temperatures reach 60°F. Germination time is five to seven days. In cooler climates, sow seeds indoors in peat pots six to eight weeks before the expected date of the last frost. Put a few seeds in each pot and thin to the strongest seedling by snipping off the others with scissors. Thin direct-sown seedlings to 8 to 10 inches apart. Plants may grow to 3 feet tall with green leaves up to 5 inches long. The lower leaves are opposite, but upper ones are alternate. Single pinkish or white flowers are borne in the leaf axils. To maximize your harvest, cut the tops just as the lowest pods open and place them in a paper bag, which will catch the seeds as the remaining pods open.
Asafetida is a giant fennel native to Afghanistan and India with a notoriety to match its size. Actually, the plant itself is a rather attractive ornamental in the garden; it’s the nasty smell of the oleoresin harvested from the roots that probably gave rise to its alternate name devil’s dung. (Asafetida and assa-foetida mean “stinking resin”; Ferula simply means “giant fennel”.) This unlikely “food of the gods” was esteemed by the Romans and is today highly regarded in India as a condiment, thought by some to stimulate the brain. Only a tiny piece of the resin or a speck of the powdered form is needed to flavor a batch of pickles or a dish of vegetables or dal. The penetrating, rancid, garlicky-onion smell (which becomes overwhelming when the resin is ground) and sharp, bitter taste are mellowed and made more palatable by frying the ground asafetida in oil, and in that form it is often used as a substitute for onion or garlic. To avoid contaminating other foods with the odor, store asafetida in resin form in a tightly closed glass jar. It will keep for years. Like other bad-tasting plant products, asafetida has traditional medicinal uses; in India, it has been prescribed for digestive upset, flatulence (in people and horses), and respiratory illnesses.
The herb is hardy at least to Zone 6, making a striking clump of robust stalks up to 6 feet tall. Give it plenty of room. The leaves are ferny and fennel-like. The flowers, in numerous small umbels, are yellow. A purchased plant may bloom the first year; plants grown from seed may take a couple of years to flower. For good germination, sow fresh seed in deep pots in fall, and winter them in a cold frame or refrigerator. Germination is usually low and may take three to four weeks, so be patient. Asafetida grows best in moist, fertile soil in full sun. Plants have long taproots, and large specimens are thus difficult to transplant. Mulch well and water during dry periods. In cold regions, mulch the crown thickly in winter. The evil-smelling asafetida resin is obtained by slashing the roots of mature plants before they flower in summer, waiting a few weeks for the milky sap to ooze out and harden, and scraping up the resulting reddish resin.
Curry leaf is a small evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka and India with pungent, slightly acrid-smelling compound leaves, tiny white flowers in clusters, and small, blue-black edible fruits. It’s not related to the ornamental herb called curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), which actually does smell like curry powder but which has little or no flavor, especially when cooked.
As a culinary herb, curry leaf is little known in American kitchens. In India and Sri Lanka, where the tree is found in many gardens, the fresh leaves (actually leaflets) are toasted or fried in oil until crisp, then ground and added to masalas, particularly for use in vegetarian dishes. Dried leaves have much less flavor and are a poor substitute for fresh ones.
Curry leaf is hardy to Zone 10 and can be grown there as a specimen tree or in a hedge; elsewhere, it makes a handsome container plant. Curry leaf requires full sun to part shade and moist soil that is rich in organic matter but well drained. Fertilize with liquid fertilizer every other week during active growth, less often otherwise. In winter, keep the temperature above 50°F. Prune in spring; trimmings will keep in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for about a week. Curry leaf is propagated by seed or cuttings. Greenhouse-grown plants are susceptible to whitefly; treat with insecticidal soap.
Cardamom, a plant somewhat similar to ginger and a member of the same family, is native to India and cultivated commercially in areas of Guatemala, India, and Southeast Asia where the annual rainfall averages 150 inches. The fragrant blackish seeds, borne in small, oval pods, have been prized as a spice since ancient times; cardamom has always been one of the most costly spices. In this country, cooks are most familiar with the ground spice, much used in holiday sweet breads. In India, where it is known as the queen of spices, cardamom is used in both sweet and savory dishes and in garam masalas. Some recipes call for freshly ground seeds, which are far more flavorful than the commercial powder; others call for entire pods, which are bruised before adding to the other ingredients. (The pods are not eaten.) In India, the Middle East, and North Africa, ground cardamom is often added to coffee grounds before brewing, and the ground spice goes well with raw or cooked fruit dishes. Chewing the strongly aromatic, piny-camphorous seeds with betel leaves freshens the breath and is thought to aid digestion.
Cardamom is hardy at least to Zone 10 and does well in the hot, humid South. When growing it outdoors, plant the rhizome in fertile soil in part or full shade and provide constant moisture. The fragrant leaf stalks may grow to 2 feet tall, though under ideal (tropical) conditions they may reach 12 feet. After the plant is three years old, pinkish flowers are borne in loose, 2-foot-long spikes on separate, sprawling stalks. If you cut the plant back in the fall and give it winter protection while it’s dormant, it may eventually flower and produce seed. As a container plant in cooler climates, cardamom will grow on an ordinary windowsill. Give it plenty of water and fertilize it frequently with soluble fertilizer during active growth. In winter, when growth slows, ease up on both water and fertilizer. Cardamom can survive greenhouse temperatures as low as the upper 30s, but approximating its natural climate is preferable. Propagate by division of rhizomes or seeds.
Ginger is native to tropical Asia, where it has been valued for thousands of years. Today, it is cultivated commercially in Hawaii, Australia, West Africa, Jamaica, India, and China. In the United States, dried, ground ginger has a long history as a culinary spice, especially in such sweet treats as gingerbread and gingersnaps; in recent years, fresh ginger has become available in most good-sized supermarkets, accompanying the rising interest in Oriental foods. In India, both dried and fresh ginger are extensively used, the latter frequently in grated form. In many cultures, ginger has been used to treat digestive problems, colds, motion sickness, arthritis, headaches, and so forth.
Ginger plants are hardy to Zone 9. Like cardamom, ginger produces leaf stalks from a rhizome, and its flower cluster occurs on a separate stalk. Ginger’s flowers, borne in dense spikes, are yellow, the surrounding bracts green.
To start your own ginger plant, buy a plump rhizome from the grocery store; reject shriveled specimens or those with sunken or moldy area. Plant the rhizome on its side in a pot of rich, moist potting soil. A good mixture is equal parts of loam, sand, peat moss, and compost. Barely cover it, keep it warm and moist, and watch for leaf stalks to emerge from the “eyes”. In warm climates, transplant the rhizome to fertile soil in part shade in a spot that is protected from the wind. In cooler climates, move the pot outside to a sheltered location in warm weather, inside in cold. Fertilize and water regularly during the growing season. In the fall, the leaf stalks will wither naturally, or you can cut them back; then harvest part of the rhizome and replant the rest. It will be dormant in winter even if it is kept warm. If you’re more interested in storage of the rhizome between stir-fries than in growing a full-sized plant, you can just bury it in a pot of moist sand and keep it on the kitchen windowsill. Exhume it when you need a piece for cooking and bury the rest. It might even grow, if conditions are right.
— Betsy Strauch of Lenox, Massachusetts, is an excellent gardener who, as Assistant Editor of The Herb Companion, is learning more about herbs all the time. She has every intention of starting her own ginger plant.