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Masala Guide
[Food-October 2008]

We all know what a huge role masalas, or spices, play in our cuisine! No dish is complete without an extensive use of spice but what exactly is the reason behind it? What is the purpose of each spice? Well, each spice has its own benefit and flavor that give a unique taste to each dish. What are garam masalas and what do they do? Some spices are flavoring agents, others are utilized for their aroma. Today we answer all your questions and give you the details of every spice.

INDIVIDUAL SPICES:

AJWAIN: Often sold under the name Carom. It belongs to the caraway and cumin family. The small and distinctive light brown seeds have a peppery taste and digestive properties often used to alleviate minor stomach aches. It is used with foods that cause flatulence. This spice is known by many names: carom, lovage, omum, or Bishop’s weed. The seeds are deceptively fragrance free but when crushed release a thyme like flavor. When eaten raw, they have a hot, strong, and pungent bite.

KABAB CHEENI: Allspice, in English, tastes like cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The world’s largest supplier of allspice is Jamaica. Medium sized berries are picked white still green and dried in the sun until they turn dark brown.

ANISEED OR FENNEL: Known commonly as saunf or viryari, fennel is an aromatic and digestive spice with elongated seeds that are pale green to very light brown in color. The taste and smell is very similar to liquorice. Aniseed is more commonly used in Bengali and Kashmiri cooking, either whole or ground. It is commonly chewed after a meal to aid digestion or brewed in tea to cure mild colds.

HING: Asafoetida is derived from the resin of a plant grown mainly in Iran and Afghanistan. Hing can be bought in it’s solid form but is very hard and can damage the blades of a grinder. It conveniently comes as a powder in small tins. It produces a very pungent smell due to the content of sulphur compounds but works well to counteract flatulence and is often added to dals, beans, and green vegetables. Hing is dull, yellow-brown, and has a bitter taste and strong odor almost like rotten eggs!

KALI MIRCH: Popular as black pepper throughout the world, is a traditional ingredient in the preparation of of medicines in the Indian Ayurvedic system. It enhances the flavor of any dish and is also a digestive stimulant. Kali Mirch is a “warm” spice, hence belonging to the garam masalas. Good quality black pepper should be free of dust and stalks and should not be soft enough to get crushed between nails. It is essential to use freshly ground black pepper.

ELAICHI: India is the home of cardamons, both green and black. White cardamons have been bleached and have less flavor. Green cardamons should be pale in color and firm to the touch. The seeds inside should be black or dark brown and slightly sticky. They are surrounded by a white membrane. The flavor is pungent and highly aromatic. Cardamon is a digestive spice and is often chewed after a meal. Its medicinal properties alleviate nausea and helps to clear sore throats and colds when brewed with tea. Cardamon is also a garam masala. Elaichi is a signature Indian spice. It is also the world’s third mose expensive spice after saffron and vanilla.

BLACK CARDAMONS: They belong to the same family as green cardamons but are larger and coarser. They cannot be eaten raw because of their bitter taste and strong flavor but are often used in meat and rice dishes as well as chai.

MIRCHI: One of the most important essentials, mirchies vary in color and shape. They are either green, when unripe, or red, when dried and often come in a powder form.  The seeds of a green chilli are responsible for its fieriness but the skin has a very pleasant flavor. Red chillies, lal mirch, have a much more concentrated flavor when ground and should be used sparingly.

CINNAMON: Dal chini or tuj, it is the bark of a treen grown in the tropical forests of Sri Lanka, South India, and other Asian countries. The bark of two different trees is often sold under the name cinnamon. Cinnamon often comes from the cassia tree, grown in India. It has a very strong flavor and is also a garam masala.

LAVING: Cloves are dried flower buds from evergreen trees which grow in the monsoon forests along the southern coast of India. Cloves have analgesic qualities, ideal for toothaches. The essential oil can also be used for toothaches or just be chewing one or two cloves. They are also used in pickles and are a garam masala as well.

CORIANDER: Dhania or kothmeri are used fresh for their leaves or the seeds are ground. The seeds are most aromatic when ground into a fine powder.

JEERA: Cumin comes in two varieties: white and black. The true flavor of cumin emerges when it is added to hot oil or dry roasted. Cumin forms the basis of many dishes. Black cumin is highly aromatic and should be used in small quantities. It is commonly used in meat dishes and biryanis.

METHI: The fresh leaves of fenugreek are used as a herb or the dried seeds as a spice. Fenugreek seeds are small, rectangular, and light brown or mustard colored. They are extremely hard and mostly used whole. Methi is very bitter. Frying the seeds until they are dark brown helps to remove the bitterness.

GINGER: It is used both as a herb and spice. The fresh root can be referred to as an herb and the powdered form as a spice.

JAVENTRI: Mace  is the aril that surrounds the nutmeg. Small amounts of mace are used in both Hyderabadi and Kashmiri cooking, usually in non-vegetarian dishes.

AMCHOOR: Segments of unripe mango are dried in the sun and then either used whole or ground. Mango powder adds a slighly sour tang to savory dishes.

MUSTARD: Rai or Sarson belongs to the spinach family and is used as a green vegetable in Punjab. There are three varieties of mustard seeds: black, brown or Indian, and white (alba). The seeds must be fried in hot oil to obtain the full flavor.

KALONJI: Nigella seeds are small, triangular, hard black seeds that belong to the onion family.

KHUS KHUS: Poppy seeds are tiny, cream colored, slightly nutty tasting an dhave a cooling effect when ground and used. The Indian poppy plant is cultivated and the seeds are used in savory as well as sweet dishes. Khus khus also acts as a thickener.

SAFFRON: Also known as kesar, saffron is the dried stemens of crocus. The most expensive spice in the world, it is said to be worth its weight in gold. Five thousand flowers have to be hand picked to produce one ounce of saffron. It is a highly aromatic spice and gives a delicate yellow-orange color to any dish. A pinch is enough to color a fair amount of food and should never be over used as it will ruin the dish.

TIL: Sesame seeds are creamy white, small, almond shaped seeds with a nutty flavor. They are native to India but also grown in China and other sub-tropical countries.

TURMERIC: Haider or haldi is very colorful and also has digestive, preservative, and antiseptic properties. A small amount is enough to flavor a dish. Too much can make the food bitter.

BLACK SALT: Kaala Namak, rock salt, comes in irregular pieces that are grayish pink and almost odor free. When ground the odor is quite unplesant, almsot like hard boiled egg yolks. It adds a plesant tang and frangrance to foods and is prized for its digestive and anti-gas properties.

KOKUM: Also known as fish tamarind, kokum is the sundried rind of a fruit of the mangosteenoil tree. The fruits are dried into the sticky and sour black pieces of kokum.

NUTMEG: Jaiphul has a rich, warm, citrusy, and antiseptic fragrance. It balances a bitter yet sweet flavor. Both nutmeg and mace are narcotics and should not be consumed in large quantities. When used in moderation they are considered to be a stimulant, gas reliever, astringent, and aphrodisiac.

PAPRIKA: Kashmiri Degi Mirch or Rang Vaali Mirch is the brilliant red powder made from mild, non-pungent red chillies. It is used mainly for its color. Most of the Indian paprika comes from Kashmir. The mild Hungarian paprika can be substituted. Paprika is rich in vitamin C and is considered an appetite stimulant.

ANAARDANA: Pomegranate seeds are sun dried or dehydrated and then used as a spice. They are believed to cool the body, aid digestion, and relieve gas.

STAR ANISE: Also known as badian, badiyan, dodhful, dodphul, and anasphal. Star anise is an eight pointed star shaped fruit of a large evergreen tree. Each of the tips of the star has a seed. It has a sweet flavor similar to fennel and anise. It is considered to be gas relieving and good for the stomach and intestines.

SPICE BLENDS:

GARAM MASALA: There are four main garam masalas or warm spices: black pepper, cinnamon, cardamon, and cloves. Many garam masala blends can be found in stores. It is best to grind your own spices at home to achieve an optimum flavor.

CHARMAGAZ: This mixture of seeds comes from four different summer melons: cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumber, and pumpkin. Char meaning four and magaz meaning brain, the seed combination is rich in iron, zinc, and potassium and ranks high as brain food. The seeds are almost fragrance free and their taste is very delicate and mild. Charmagaz is believed to have body cooling properties and is also a diuretic.

CURRY POWDER: Though associated with Indian cuisine, curry powder is not really Indian. In fact, it was invented by the British who ruled over India. The spices in curry powder are definitely used in Indian cuisine but not bought all together as seen in the Western world. Curry powder recipes vary but usually contain: cumin, coriander, turmeric. It may also contain cayenne, paprika, and dried fenugreek leaves.

HERBS:

MINT: Pudina, taaza, or sookha is one of the most valuable and popular herbs in the world. There are about 40 varieties of mint. The fresh leaves are strong and pungent. They are also very aromatic. The dried leaves are mellow but full of minty flavor. Mint is prized as an appetite stimulant and believed to be a home cure for indigestion and stomach disorders. Mint leaves are a natural antiseptic and keep the mouth fresh and taste buds healthy. Mint juice and tea are effective cold and sore throat remedies.

KOTHMERI: Dhania or fresh coriander is chopped and used to finish off almost every savory dish.

TULSI: Basil is used in very limited amounts. Even though the tulsi plant grows in India, it is not often used in the cuisine.

HARI METHI: Fenugreek leaves are bitter and prepared as a vegetable.

LUSSAN: Garlic has a pungent flavor and should be used in moderation. It is considered to have medicinal properties and is good for the blood.

TEJ PATTA: Bay leaves come into two types: the leaves of the bay laurel found mainly in the West and those of the Indian cassia tree. Indian bay leaves are deep green, long, and elliptical with pointy tips. They have a delicate and sweet cinnamon like fragrance, a bitter taste, and are valued as an appetite stimulant and for gas relief.

CURRY PATTA: Curry leaves come from the Neem tree, native to southern India and Sri Lanka. They release an exotic, warm, nutty, and citrusy aroma when crushed, bruised, or chopped. Curry leaves are slightly bitter and believed to be a tonic that removes toxins from the body. They also help digestion and act as a mild laxative.

OTHER ESSENTIALS:

ROSE WATER AND ESSENCE: Gulab Jal and Ruh Gulaab are made from the petals of specially cultivated and highly fragrant deep pink-red roses called succha or pure gulaab. Rose water looks just like plain water but has a strong, sweet, rosy fragrance. Rose essence is a more concentrated version and is available in small bottles. Two drops of rose essence are equivalent to one tablespoon of rose water.

KEWRA: Screwpine essence is made from the flowers of a tropical tree with narrow, sword-like leaves. It has a delicate floral or piney perfume, quite different from rose essence but used in the same way.

CHANDI VARK: Silver leaves are used as garnish and are an integral part of North Indian cuisine. They are made from pure silver, pounded between paper to form sheets that are paper thin and weightless. The vark is so delicate that it will melt if picked up by hand.

THE WORLD OF SPICES IS INTENSE AND OVERWHELMING BUT DON’T LET MASALAS INTIMIDATE YOUR PALETTE. USE THEM WISELY AND INCORPORATE THEM INTO YOUR DIET FOR THEIR RICH AROMA AND HEALTH BENEFICIAL PROPERTIES.

[photo credits: k-pra.com, worldspice.com, lenaskitchen.files.wordpress.com, indiatimesweekly.com, spicesofindia.co.uk, picasaweb.google.com, 365daysveg.files.wordpress.com, arsalantraders.com, hawkeyeindia.files.wordpress.com, lesliebeck.com, health-garden.com, spiceworld.uk.com, theheadnut.com, 1001resepi.com, dadamo.com, dkimages.com, food-forthought.blogspot.com, the-magical-peppercorn-p.motime.com, saffron.biz, indiamart.com, power-of-turmeric.com, gourmetsleuth.com, goabagayatdar.com, weblo.com, tienda.com, persianmirror.com, herbalextractsplus.com, foodpictures.org, herbgardening.com, sailusfood.com, zquantum.com, giniann.files.wordpress.com, herbalextractsplus.com, oldspicetraders.com, da-academy.org, torchofindia.com]

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2 Responses to “Masala Guide”

  1. Dhak-Dhak Girl Says:

    What a fabulous guide! Thanks so much for all this information. One error: curry leaves aren’t actually from the neem tree. They are from Murraya Koenigii, an unrelated plant whose leaves resemble neem. That’s why some Indian languages call it “sweet neem.” Neem leaves don’t smell and taste very bitter; curry leaves have a delicious scent.

  2. reife Says:

    hi!!!

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