For those of you who are new to Indian cooking, the following descriptions should be helpful when buying the spices and herbs you will need.
Bay leaves. These will be familiar to cooks as they are used for flavouring all sorts of dishes of many different origins. In Indian cooking we use them whole for rice dishes and grind them with other ingredients to make garam masala.
Cardamoms (green). Small, whitish green pods full of dark, sweetly aromatic seeds. Used in sweet and savoury dishes.
Cardamoms (black). Larger than their green counterparts, these are dark brown in colour with stronger flavour and aroma. They are an important ingredient in garam masala.
Chillies (green). They vary in length from about one inch to about four inches, have dark green flesh and flat, round white seeds. Generally speaking, the small chillies have a tendency to be hotter than the larger ones, so they will work out more economical. Besides providing the heat in Indian foods, green chillies impart a special flavour not found with the dried red chillies.
Store whole and unwashed in paper, and place in the salad compartment of the refrigerator.
For freezing, grind in a blender or food processor with a little water and freeze in ice-cube trays. Fresh green chillies are past their best after a week or so, so this is a good idea if you cook Indian food infrequently.
Handle chillies with care as the irritant in them will cause a burning sensation on contact with skin. Always wash your hands before touching your face.
Chillies (red powder). Chilli powder adds colour to Indian curries as well as heat and flavour. Unlike other dry ingredients which are best bought whole, I recommend that you buy these ready ground as chilli powder. The reason for this is that grinding red chillies requires particular care as the fine powder will escape to irritate eyes, nose, and throat causing terrible bouts of sneezing and runny eyes.
Coriander (fresh green). This is easily the most wonderful, versatile, and widely used herb of all in Indian cooking, both at home and in the restaurant. Commercially grown coriander is taller – growing to some ten inches or so – than the home grown variety and is readily available from ethnic grocers and greengrocers. The flavour and aroma of this lovely herb makes it a vital ingredient for turning a good Indian dish into an excellent one, whether stirred into a curry or sprinkled onto hot food as a garnish.
Use leaves and stems and chop finely (discarding any tough pieces) and add to food right at the end of cooking as the delicate flavour is easily lost.
Fresh coriander will keep for a week or so if you immerse the stems in water as you would a bunch of flowers.
Coriander seeds. As delicate in flavour as the plant from which they come, these seeds are small, round, and beige in colour. In the restaurant, coriander is ground and used as a spice in its own right as well as in garam masala.
Cummin seeds (black). Finer and darker than regular cummin this spice is also more expensive. It is unlikely that you will find black cummin in supermarkets, so you may have to go to an Indian or Pakistani grocer.
Fenugreek (dry leaves). Not to be confused with fenugreek seeds, this is a dark green leafy plant similar in height to coriander. The flavour is not as subtle as that of coriander and becomes more concentrated when the plant is dried. Known as ‘methi’ it is available from Asian grocers in both its fresh and dry form. It is the dried ingredient that is used in restaurant cooking and although methi is not perhaps an essential herb for restaurant curries, it certainly add that ‘extra something’ so it is worth trying if you can get it.
To prepare for use, pick out and discard any straw-like pieces. Grind in a coffee grinder, sieve, and store in a glass jar. Do not forget to label.
Garlic. A familiar and popular herb, garlic is particularly necessary for the flavour of restaurant curries where it is used in generous amounts. Buy bulbs that have firm, plump cloves, and store in a cool dry place as you would onions.
Ginger (fresh). This looks like a knobbly root. Scraping away the pale brown skin reveals a creamy yellow, slightly fibrous interior. The fresher the ginger the less fibrous it tends to be, so to ensure freshness, look for plump pieces with a taut skin.
To store, keep in a cool dry airy place as you would other vegetables.
Freezing. Peel and grind into a paste with a little water and freeze in ice-cube trays. You can then take out a cube or two as you require it.
Paprika. A personal favourite, paprika is excellent for adding colour and a very slightly tangy/sweet flavour to curries. It can be bought in small tins with tight fitting plastic lids which is an ideal way of storing this spice. If buying in polythene bags, transfer to a glass jar and label, as it is difficult to distinguish between paprika and chilli powder without tasting.
Turmeric. This spice is used in Asian cooking mainly for its yellow colour although it also aids the digestion and has a mild, earthy flavour. Buy turmeric that is a bright yellow colour and handle carefully as it will stain hands and clothes.
The ‘garam’ means hot and the ‘masala’ a mixture of spices, so this is a hot spice mixture. The heat however is not a heat you would taste as with chillies, but one that affects the body. This theory originates from the Hindu concept of medicine and diet called tridosha, which teaches that some foods have a warming effect on the body while others have a cooling one. Spices such as cloves, cinnamon, black cardamoms, and nutmeg are garam constituents of this aromatic mixture.
The garam masala should be put in foods towards the end of cooking and is sometimes also sprinkled onto cooked meat, vegetables, and yoghurts as a garnish.
When storing the ground ingredients, use glass or plastic containers with tight fitting lids and keep in a cool dry place away from strong light. Whole spices will keep their flavour for months when stored this way. Remember to label all your containers clearly as it is extremely difficult to tell which spice is which after they have been ground.