Hands on - Asian spices
Cinnamon, darchini, dhall cheene
True cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a tree called Cinnamomum verum. Sri Lanka was the first country to cultivate it in the 18th century and continues to be the major grower. It can be bought in "quill" form or ground as a powder. It has a warm and sweet flavour and is added to many Indian foods, particularly rice dishes. It is also an important ingredient in garam masala spice mix. In Europe and the USA, cinnamon is mainly added to desserts.
Coriander, dhanyia (seeds), hara dhania (leaves)
Coriander, Coriandrum sativum, is native to the Mediterranean region but reached South Asia in ancient times. Both fruits and leaves are used as flavourings. The rounded fruits, labelled as seeds on packs, are about 3 mm in diameter and have a sweet, woody aroma and mellow, warm flavour. They are bought whole or already ground and are added to savoury meat, vegetable and rice dishes. Ground coriander loses its flavour quickly, so it is best bought whole and ground at home when required. The leaves are one of the favourite herbs of South Asia.
Cumin is the fruits of Cuminium cyminum which is native to the eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia. The fruits are about 5 mm long and have a striped pattern of ridges on the outer surface. They have a strong, spicy-sweet flavour which can be changed to a more nutty taste after roasting. They are sold whole, ground or roasted and ground. They are widely added to South Asian savoury meat, vegetable and dal dishes. The ground fruits are an essential ingredient in spice mixtures such as curry powder.
Nutmeg is the dried seed of the tree, Myristica fragrans. It is thought to be native to New Guinea or the Moluccan Islands and was introduced to India over 1000 years ago. Nutmeg has a warm, sweet and slightly camphorous flavour. It is used sparingly, grated into savoury dishes and sometimes added to garam masala mixtures. In South Asia it is also sprinkled on spinach, cabbage, cauliflower and potatoes when boiling. It is better to buy whole nutmegs and grate them as they are needed because they keep their flavour better than ready-ground nutmeg.
Myristica fragrans also produces mace. This is the bright red lacy covering of the nutmeg seed, botanically known as the aril. Once the aril has dried, it loses its crimson colour and becomes a muted shade of orange. It is sold flattened and sometimes broken into smaller pieces, or ground as a powder. It has a similar but stronger aroma and flavour to nutmeg and is used in a similar way. It is also often ground and added to garam masala. Because it is more expensive, it isn't used as widely as nutmeg in South Asia.
Cardamom is the dried fruits and seeds of Elettaria cardamomum, native to southern India. Cardamom is sold as whole, green pods, or as whole or ground seeds. The pods themselves should not actually be eaten, but just used to add flavour. The seeds are about 1 mm long and are sweetly fragrant, with a pungent flavour. They are an essential ingredient in South Asian savoury and sweet foods and are also used to make cardamom tea. Various species of related genera are known as false, black or brown cardamoms. They tend to be used in meat dishes.
Fennel, barisaunf, madhurika, sonf
Fennel leaves and fruits come from Anethum foeniculum. This plant is native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, but is now cultivated throughout the world, particularly in India. The fruits are most popular in South Asian cuisine. They are about 6 mm long and are ridged in a similar way to cumin seeds. Their flavour is intense and aniseed-like which turns slightly bitter after roasting or grinding. They are often used to make fish and vegetable dishes, and are added to breads and biscuits. They are often combined with after-dinner seed mixtures.
Ginger, adrak (fresh), sont (dried, ground)
Ginger is the rhizome of Zingiber officinale, native to an area covering India, China and Southeast Asia. It can be bought fresh, or as a powder. When shopping for fresh ginger, it is best to look for firm rhizomes with taut skin. Fresh ginger can be stored in the fridge, or grated and frozen to make it last longer. Powdered ginger should be kept in an airtight container to preserve the flavour. Either way it is widely used in South Asian cookery in both savoury and sweet dishes. It is popular in savoury meat dishes, combined into a paste with garlic.
Several mustard species are used for flavouring and for their oil. Black mustard seed comes from Brassica nigra native to the Middle East, and yellow or white mustard seed is from Sinapis alba which originated in the eastern Mediterranean region. They are very pungent, rounded seeds of about 1 mm in diameter. They are often thrown into a frying pan to 'pop' before other ingredients are added. This gives them a nutty, sweet flavour. Mustard seeds are particularly characteristic of Keralan cuisine and are added to savoury dishes, pickles and yoghurts.
Turmeric comes from the orange rhizomes of Curcuma longa. Turmeric is generally available as dried and ready ground powder, although the dried rhizomes may be bought whole and can be ground at home. Dried turmeric has a rich and woody aroma with a slightly bitter, musky taste. In South Asia, turmeric is one of the staple spices prividing a warm flavour and yellow-orange colour to meat, vegetable, bean and dal dishes. It is also used to make curry powders and pastes.
Black peppercorns are the fruits of a climbing plant called Piper nigrum. It is native to south India, and provided the hot flavour to South Asian food before chillies were introduced in the 16th century. The round, 4 mm diameter fruits are treated in different ways to produce black or white peppercorns. Whole or crushed peppercorns are added to rice and meat dishes to give a fruity, pungent and biting flavour. In some south Indian dishes they are roasted before use to draw out a lemony flavour. You may also find preserved green peppercorns, eaten more like vegetables.
Chilli pepper, mirch
Chillies are perhaps associated with Indian cuisine more than any other spice, yet were unknown in Asia until the 16th century. They are the fruits from species of the Central and South American genus Capsicum. Many varieties exist, ranging in colour from green to red, and in pungency from mild to fiery hot. They are available in fresh or dried forms, either whole, flaked or ground to a fine powder. They are added to a huge variety of savoury dishes to add a unique flavour and spicy heat.