Hands on - Less common Asian spices
Sesame seeds come from Sesamum indicum probably a native plant of the Indian subcontinent. Un-hulled seeds are beige in colour and have a stronger flavour, while hulled, washed seeds (as shown here) are creamy-white. Sesame seeds have a nutty, earthy flavour which is enhanced by light toasting before use. They are ready when they start to jump in the pan. They are used in savoury and sweet dishes and to garnish foods like breads. The pale, golden oil is used for cooking.
Dried mango, amchoor
Amchoor is made from the fruit of the mango plant, Mangifera indica, which is native to eastern India and Burma. Sour, unripe varieties are used to produce amchoor. The flesh is sliced and sun-dried until it turns a dull beige-grey colour. It has a sharp, sweet-sour flavour and is used in condiments and curries in a similar way to tamarind. It is also used in marinades, in which it has the same tenderising qualities as lemon juice.
Ajowan seeds come from Trachyspermum ammi, a native plant of southern India. The small seeds are less than 2 mm long and have the same pattern of ridges as cumin and fennel seeds. They are frequently used in South Asian cookery whole, crushed or ground. The seeds have a distinctive thyme-like and are used sparingly sprinkled on breads, fish, savoury biscuits and noodle-like snacks made with chickpea flower. If used whole, the seeds should first be lightly bruised to release the oils and increase the flavour.
The leaves and seeds come from Trigonella foenum-graecum, native to southeast Europe and western Asia. The seeds are about 3 mm long, with a strong, nutty flavour with a bitter aftertaste similar to celery. They are usually roasted and ground before being used adding to meat, fish, vegetable and dal dishes and chutneys. In the south of India and in Bengal they are used in various spice mixes or are ground to flour to make dosai bread. The leaves are mild and pungent.
Asafoetida is the gum resin collected from the stems of species of the genus Ferula. The plants are native to Iran and Afghanistan. It has a sulphurous garlic-like aroma and a musky, bitter flavour. As it has such a strong smell, it must be kept in an airtight container. In South Asia it is widely used in vegetable and bean dishes. Used in small quantities, it is fried or added directly vegetable and bean dishes. In certain religions where the eating of garlic is not permitted asafoetida is used as substitute.
Cassia is the dried inner bark from Cinnamomum cassia native to Assam and northern Burma. It is sometimes known as false cinnamon because it has a similar, but stronger, flavour and aroma. It is also thicker, coarser and generally less expensive. In India cassia is mainly used as a flavouring for curries and pilaffs. The leaves of a related species are also used as a herb in India (tejpat) and are often given the name 'India bay leaves'. They are used in slow-cooked dishes and are removed before serving.
Poppy seeds, khas khas
Poppy seeds come from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. White varieties are used in India, rather than the dark blue seeds more familiar in European cooking. The tiny kidney-shaped seeds are less that 1 mm long and do not contain any narcotic chemicals. They should be stored in an airtight container in a cool place. In South Asia they are used in Bengali cooking to coat crusty, dry-textured vegetables. They are ground and used to thicken sauces or are blended with tamarind into a curry paste.
Nigella seeds come from a plant called Nigella sativa native to southern Europe and western Asia. The little tear-shaped black seeds, about 1 mm long, are used throughout South Asia as a spice and flavouring. They have an earthy, peppery taste, a little like oregano. The whole or crushed seeds are often mixed through dough or sprinkled on bread, giving the bread a black colour. The seeds are also used to flavour a variety of dishes ranging from sauces, curries, pickles and meat dishes to vegetables and fruit pies.