Have you been to an ice-cream shop and someone asked you your favorite flavor? Now, visualize yourself in a room full of people you knew, would you be able to pick a favorite person?? (Moms, grandmas and certain relatives are obviously exempt).
Any parent or teacher (or even the common goat-herder) would attest, anyone who is given the charge of a few different personalities will find it extremely difficult to choose any one individual as their favorite.
A friend had once addressed her younger son as ‘my favorite 6 year old son’ when he was hurt and pouting. Considering she did not have twins, she was not lying; she was stating an obvious fact without hurting her other child. Smart lady, I tell ya, that Mrs. D!
Cooks & chefs also get asked which spice is their favorite, so do I. It is such a difficult question – in the 300+ spices and flavors from around the world, how could you just pick one?
To me, spices are not merely ingredients; they are like guests that come to a house party, with unique personalities, temperaments and qualities. Just like guests to a house party, some come early and help out, some show up at the appointed hour, stay just as long as they are invited, and leave just as promptly as they came. Some cancel at the last minute (after the third time, it becomes stale), some come bearing gifts, others wait long enough to take doggie-bags home. Some come late to the party, some help you clean up and others end up sleeping on your couch. You invite each guest for a reason and most times, the most fun at a party happens outside the appointed hours. Too many guests arriving all at once, arriving at the wrong time, or leaving all at once can be just as problematic, but as they mingle gradually the ambiance of the occasion gets better and better.
Much in the same way as guests are to a house party, I believe that each spice in a given preparation / dish is supposed to do just that - they are there for a reason, and a good spice must be able to
(a) help out before or after, and / or
(b) be part of the fun
If every component did nothing but show up and leave within a specified time, what fun would it be? How do they contribute to the dish? Do they enhance the flavor? Do they compliment the main ingredients? If they do more than their fair share of the work, they make great repeat guests.
Let me introduce you to each of my set of ‘cheaper by the dozen’ dry spices. It includes some of the most hard-working guests and are in no particular order of favoritism. (Follow links in the title to learn more about the health benefits of some of my favorite spices)
1. Curry CravingsTM Goda Masala
Goda Masala is a rather traditional blend of spices, favored in the western part of India. Each home makes its own blend. My recipe is based off of an ayurvedic preparation for the same, minus the ‘dagad phool’ or a lichen that is found in the spice markets of India, but is almost impossible to procure in the US. My version of Goda Masala contains several spices from my list, including coconut and sesame seeds, but in a coarse and potent combination. It can be used sparingly in vegetarian dishes in place of garam masala – but gives it a unique unmistakable twist, and makes it dynamic to have around.
2. Black Cumin / Shaha-Jeera
Related to the regular simple cumin, the black cumin may look delicate but is more potent in flavor than cumin. It must be added carefully to a dish or it will overpower the flavors easily. In moderation, it is considered cooling for the body.
3. Fenugreek / Methi
This is my mothers’ favorite spice and I am growing to like it too. Although one must not use it carelessly in a dish, it is good for digestion, for arthritic joints and during the winter months. It is considered warming for the body too.
4. Black Pepper / Kali Miri
This simple, common black pepper has the ability to surprise the taste buds when least expected. Whole black pepper is very common in Indian cooking and most cooks prefer to leave it whole until it hits the pan. It is warming for the body and must be consumed in moderation.
5. Whole Coriander Seeds / Whole Dhania Seeds
Another new favorite is whole coriander seed. It is dusky, woody and has a slight lemony fragrance. For the best flavors, it must be warmed through or slightly roasted before use.
6. Green Cardamom Pods / Elaichi
I love cardamom because it can be used in both sweet and savory preparations and also as a mouth freshener. For more of my notes about Cardamom, see this link.
7. Black Mustard Seeds / Rai
Rai impart an unusual lemony nuttiness to dishes. Its flavors are best drawn out with the help of oils or ghee. Rai a good addition to daals and vegetarian entrees, and is sometimes added to savory pickles (aachar) but it does not do as well with meat preparations. In small quantities, they aid digestion.
8. Cayenne Pepper Powder / Mirchi
I would have a difficult time cooking without this. Well made cayenne pepper powder adds a warm heat to a dish. Most store bought powders are made with a combination of dried cayenne peppers and must be stored in a cool dry spot for it to retain its flavors.
9. Nigella Seeds / Kalonji
The dark, haunting nigella seeds offer an unusual onion like flavor to the dishes they are added to. They are dense and nutty in taste and are mildly digestive too. A sprinkle or a dash, they perk up many dishes.
10. Cumin-Coriander Powder / Dhanna-jeera Powder
This is a simple blend of dry roasted cumin and whole coriander seeds, sifted to remove the tiny fibers from the seeds. The powdered version allows you to extract the flavors more evenly in a dish, but this is powder also loses the punch of its volatile oils quickly, so store extra powder in a cool dark space in an air tight container.
11. Turmeric / Haldi
A frequently misunderstood and misused spice, turmeric is one of the best spices to have in your pantry. Its active ingredient - curcumin has potent antiseptic healing qualities and is believed to cure skin ailments, cuts, burns, bruises, and so much more. Use it sparingly but often in your cooking and you will be taking more care of your health than you think you are.
Last but surely not the least; cloves add some wonderful warmth and fragrance to any dish. It is the stem of the buds of clove and cloves hold on to their flavors and oils for a long time in a dish. Cloves are most used in rich savory meat dishes, in jams and preserves, but also as a mouth freshener in Paan. However, chewing more than one clove can also cause temporary numbness or short lived mouth ulcers, and it is warming on the body too, so use it in moderation.
But like a bakers’ dozen, I have a few other favorite spices too like cinnamon, fennel and nutmeg - they are unique but improper additions could permanently alter the flavors of a dish. And yet, I find myself reaching for them if I only need one or two high notes in a dish.
So, you now know my list of ‘cheaper by the dozen’ spices. They are wonderful on their own, but add unique flavors to the dishes they are part of. Too much of anything – and you could ruin a dish. Too little, and it will be lost in the crowd.
Do you have favorite spice or two? Drop me a line..
PS: You may ask why I didn’t include salt. This is because I don’t consider salt to be a spice, but a carrier / enhancer of the flavors that already exist in a dish. A long time ago, I had observed an annual traditional fasting period of five days over a course of 5 years, where only a vegetarian salt-free diet was permitted. When I returned back to ‘normal’ food, I found could discern the flavors differently – and that my palette did not really need the salt. If there was a little less salt than what was ideal, I was OK with it, because now I could focus on the flavors of the main ingredients instead. This exercise may not be for everyone though.