If television and eating out is any indication, there’s a trend I’ve noticed here in the US. Whole spices are not really appreciated in food. I have watched enough British cooks and chefs to realize that they have no problem bunging in whole spices. The Spanish and Italians don’t seem to mind it either. I’m not sure of the French, but then they are big on subtler flavours. Tune into any food related show on US networks and you will see the cook/chef-of-the-hour urging you to use powder as opposed to the whole version. I’m guessing this is because moving the spice out of the food to the side of a plate may not be something one may want to do while eating. For Indians, it is so part of the food, we do it without thinking. And occasionally if you end up putting it in your mouth, well, unless it’s a cinnamon stick or a black cardamom pod, it’s highly unlikely to hurt you at all. In fact, chew it and deep flavours will be revealed to you in true glory.
Indian cooking is an excellent showcase of whole spices. In fact, they are much appreciated and their use can alter a dish significantly as opposed to the powdered spice. There’s a certain sprightliness and deep earthiness which they bring to a dish. The powdered spice brings the same thing only with a different degree of deep heat. It’s hard for me to imagine a biryani or pulao or meat curry without the inclusion of whole spices. It would be like the deep base missing from the symphony.
This certainly doesn’t mean that I only use whole spices. I do think there is a place for everything. In a pinch, the powdered variety is a godsend. Surely you wouldn’t want pebbles of whole pepper in your burger. But I don’t see why you can’t have it in your chili (as in the con carne type deal, I know with the general theme here it would be so easy to think otherwise). And I’d rather have the powdered spice than not at all. I’m not a snob about freshly grinding my spices every time. The store ones can be pretty good. Of course, if you leave them lying around in a box for very long, they will be about as useful as a pile of dust. What is true of dried herbs is true of powdered spice. A long time ago, my friend Sherie, who is a magnificent cook and was cooking whole dinners at the age of sixteen by choice, took a spice and pickling class and told me it was a lot of fun. I took her word for it and tried to experiment without a class, armed with a recipe. It took me days to clean up the mess I made and another few to recover from the random fits of sneezing. I’m sure I will try this dry spice blend making process someday, just not soon. The powders I use are most likely to come pre-packaged.
Look in most Indian kitchens and you will find the spice box. No I don’t mean that romantic and highly impractical wooden rendition I saw the other day at Cost Plus World Market, that looked like it should contain gifts of frankincense and myrrh (yup, the three wise men reference; my convent school education is subconsciously omnipresent). I mean the very useful little storage device in the photograph above. It at once houses quite a few of the powdered spices that we are likely to use in Indian cooking. Instead of hunting through myriads of little containers, it is all here, at the opening of one lid. This is also a great way to package away the rest of your stash and keep it from repeated exposure to air and humidity, and don’t have to open the whole thing for a pinch of something.
I also use the same sort of box for my whole spices. These too, just like their powdered counterparts, tend to go together often, so grouping them in one place is a smart idea. They have tremendous shelf lives but can be affected by insects so it is wise to keep the bulk of your stash properly sealed in air-tight bags or containers and squirreled away from direct light.
While looking at most Indian recipes might make you think that there’s entirely too many different kinds of spices in them to work, this is not true. If you use the right blend in the right quantities, the spices all come together just like instruments in an orchestra. There are no solos here. Just a wonderful symphony of fragrance and taste. Another key difference between spices and herbs. Use too many herbs in the same way and the dish could end up tasting like experimental toothpaste. (I know. I learned the hard way a long time ago. It was very bad toothpaste that did nothing for my teeth.) But a good blend of spices can change a few simple ingredients into a completely different dish. As a matter of example, let’s go with something you will definitely find in any restaurant showcasing South Indian food (and one of my favourite things ever!), sambar.
Sambar (the lentil preparation, vegetarian, not to be confused with sambar, a species of deer native to India) is basically dal elevated to a whole new level. It can be just a simple lentil and onion preparation or can become something akin to vegetable stew, lending itself to pairing with hosts of vegetables like okra, eggplant, carrots and runner beans. The spice blend for this is sold ready-to-use in Indian stores every where. Just look for sambar masala. Badshah and MTR are great brands to use. Or if you are less clumsy than me (and who isn’t??!!), you can look here for a fabulous recipe and make your own. This is just one version of it though, the ingredients of the blend vary slightly from region to region.
My mother-in-law’s Sambar
Toor dal (Yellow pigeon pea) - 2 cups
Red Onion – 1 large, cut in half, then thinly sliced
Tomatoes – 2 to 3, quartered
Tamarind Paste – 1 tbsp
Coriander seeds – 1/2 tbsp
Red Chilli Powder – 1/2 tsp
Sambar Powder – 1 tbsp
Turmeric Powder – 1/2 tsp
Asafoetida – 1/2 tsp
Oil – 2 tsp
Cilantro – 1 1/2 tbsp, chopped fine
Salt to taste
Clarified butter (Ghee) – 1 tbsp
Dried Red Chillies – 5 to 6
Curry Leaves – 5 to 6
Mustard Seeds – 1 tsp
Cumin – 1 tsp
Asafoetida – 1/2 tsp
- Boil or pressure cook the toor dal with the turmeric and asafoetida. The proportion would roughly be 2:1, water to lentil. Cook until the lentil is completely soft and mashable and all the water has been absorbed.
- In a deep vessel, heat the oil. Introduce the coriander seeds, which will start to split open immediately. Add the onions and saute until transluscent. Add the tamarind paste and mix thoroughly. Cook for a couple of minutes.
- Add the sambar powder and dal and mix to incorporate. Pour in 2 to 3 cups of water. This will make a fairly thick sambar.
- Add the tomatoes, salt and half the cilantro. Cover the vessel and let this come to a boil, stirring intermittently. Then let it simmer quietly, bubbling away while you prepare the tempering.
- In a separate smaller vessel, heat the ghee on low heat. Add the mustard seeds, cumin, asafoetida, curry leaves and dry red chillies in the mentioned order. Let this fry for a few seconds. Watch the heat as the spices could burn very easily. When there is sufficient sizzling and a warm spice aroma, take the vessel off the heat.
- Carefully pour the oil and spices into the boiling sambar.
Garnish with the remaining coriander and serve warm with rice. Pairs very well served with this potato vegetable.
You are likely to get a vaguely different sambar recipe from different people, and also various serving suggestions. The basis of dal and onion will likely remain constant though. The above recipe will produce a deep thick sambar that I eat like soup, rarely even requiring rice with it. My mom-in law, the wonderful and practical cook that she is, makes it thick as she doesn’t add more veggies to it, so the lentils are wonderfully substantial. If required, or if you will be adding other vegetables, it can be thinned down considerably by the addition of couple more cups of water without any discernible loss in flavour. Any host of vegetables can be added to this, except for potato. It doesn’t work very well here, getting lost in the dal and sort of making everything ridiculously bland and starchy. You need a vegetable with some bite to it. Okra and brinjal are tops here.
In an absolute pinch you could substitute 2 tsp of very sour lemon juice for the tamarind, but really, don’t. The deep tamarind sourness is hard to replace. All the ingredients here are easily available in Asian and Indian stores. This dish is a superlative example of how a harmonizing blend of spices create wondrous music for your taste buds.
(Oh, and you should probably move the curry leaves and chillis out of your food should you encounter them on your plate. I just eat it all.)