Twenty years ago when I moved to the United States from India, finding fresh spices of any kind was an exercise in frustration. It was especially difficult to find the fenugreek, saffron, and cardamom that give some of my favorite Indian dishes their distinctive flair. I would find old boxes, totally past their prime, sitting on the shelves of out-of-the way ethnic stores. Thankfully, all that has changed. Now, fresh spices of every sort are not only sold at chain supermarkets, but are also available from reputable Internet outlets, such as Amazon.com and Penzeys Spices. As a result, home cooks are now able to whip up all sorts of delicious, authentic Indian dishes.
As the Washingtonpost.com spice columnist and author of three Indian cookbooks, I am often asked, "Why and how should I use spices?" I tell readers, not only do spices enrich dishes with savory aromas and flavors, but some have proven health benefits. Others act as natural preservatives, helping cooked foods last longer. As for how to use spices, most dishes in Indian cuisine are made with fresh whole or ground spices. While it is true that adding spices, dried or fresh, to your dishes is a form of art, it is one that can be learned through practice. Let your palate help you determine how much to use. Add a little, see how it affects the taste of your dish, and then go from there. Remember there is no right or wrong when you're experimenting with spice, only what tastes good.
When it comes to buying and preparing Indian spices, here are some things to keep in mind:
- When preparing Indian dishes, spices need to be cooked (either dryroasted or sizzled in oil) before use. There are exceptions, but when in doubt, check.
- Be sure to heat your oil or your skillet well before frying or roasting spices. The heat helps the spices release their flavors.
- When shopping for fresh spices, use your nose. Spices that have lost their aroma are essentially dead, will offer no medicinal benefit, and will have lost their flavor as well.
- Don't substitute without checking. Turmeric is not a substitute for saffron. Other than sharing the same color, they have nothing incommon.
- It's better to buy your spices whole, and then grind them when you need them. Pre-ground spices lose their flavor fast.