Even though spices are readily accessible today and used in so many of the things we eat, they're still seen as an exotic ingredient when we cook. Something to treat gingerly (ouch).
From my years of teaching people about Indian food, it's become clear that most of us are rather afraid of using spices as we're not sure what to use, how much and when. It's just easier to get a takeaway or buy a jar, particularly when it comes to Indian food. But I can assure you that the end result will never be as good as cooking it yourself.
So I'm on a one-woman crusade to change the way we look at these little treasures (as part of my cookery classes even I run Spice Master Classes where we investigate and unveil the mystique surrounding them).
Over the next few months I'll be taking you on a spice trail and guiding you through the Indian Masala Dubba (that's the tin we keep the spices in, not a desert just outside Delhi) to bring to life these wonderful aromatic ingredients so you can go on to use them confidently in your cooking.
Definition and Qualities
Spices are defined as being 'vegetative substances; either a fruit, nut, seed (even their outer skin) or bark, used in small quantities as food additives to enhance or hide flavours, for colouring and preserving'.
Spices often hold many other properties that have been used for centuries in medicine, cosmetics, perfumery and even in dyeing fabrics.
For example, cloves contain a chemical called eugenol that inhibits the growth of bacteria (and they numb pain – the Elizabethans wedged them between their teeth to alleviate toothache). The active agent in Turmeric, Curcumin, not only gives it the yellow colour but is also being investigated for its effects on diseases such as Alzheimer's. And the list goes on. It seems most spices have health benefits and are used routinely in various forms of alternative or contemporary medicine such as Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine native to India.
So that's the background story. When it comes to everyday uses, spices come as either whole (in their natural state) or ground (broken down into a powder). It's always best to go with whole spices and grind them yourself as and when you need them. That way they retain their natural oils and goodness for longer and so retain their flavour-enhancing properties.
Keep your spices dry in an airtight container in the dark. Even better, invest in a Spice Kitchen Masala Dubba (available from harighotra.co.uk) this is a traditional Indian spice tin and contains a Spice guide, miniature spoon and the seven main spices including my family blend of homemade Garam Masala, plus Coriander seeds, Cumin seeds, Mustard seeds, Fenugreek, Turmeric and Kashmiri chilli powder. Whole spices are best used within about six months or three months for ground. That means it's time to clear out your dried tarragon from the 80s and throw out that awful spice rack (we've all got one).
The Science of Spice
Last thing. When we eat, our chemical-sensing system goes into action allowing us sense flavour. Over 85% of our perception of taste comes from our sense of smell (try holding your nose and eating some chocolate to see what tastes you get – then let your nose go and experience how the flavour hits you, it is amazing!).
Flavour is really the result of smell, texture, temperature and taste all coming together. Spices enhance aroma, which in turn heightens our sense of flavour, and it is this that makes Indian food so special and so delicious. So now you know!Back to Blog