Cooks of Indian cuisine enjoy an abundance of spices and aromatics available to them. The result is the most fragrant, rich and flavorful food. It is no surprise that these coveted spices attracted colonizers from the western world in a quest to control the spice trade. The benefits of using spices in their food is something the rest of the world is still slowly waking up to, a sign of this change is that we no longer need to offer translations for ingredients such as garam masala. The Curry powder, still touches a raw nerve though. Something we discuss in this episode of the Kitchenpostcards Podcast where we take a whiff of our masaaldaans and spice drawers. Go ahead and press play for a spicy, flavorful, and humor-filled ride!
Exploring our Masaaldaan or Spice drawers
Unless you are new here, we don’t need to tell you that our shopping lists for pantry staples go much beyond salt and pepper when it comes to seasonings. Black pepper is an essential spice in Indian cooking of course, its use pre-dating the use of chillies in our food. But, since we stock much more than salt, pepper and chili powder, we have an entire container designed just for the purpose of storing spices for easy access while cooking. Aptly named the Masaaldaan, Masaaldaani or just Masala Dibba/Dabba, this round metal box contains smaller bowls that fit in a floral pattern inside, each housing a specific spice. Each kitchen has a particular set of Indian spices, seeds and seasonings in their Masaaldaan based on how they make a tadka for recipes they cook most often.
Essential spices for a basic tadka
A Tadka, Chhaunk or Bagar is an quintessentially Indian tempering often added at the beginning or end of the cooking process of most Indian dishes. Most popular on top of a yellow dal, the Chhaunk is what makes most Indian dishes, Indian! But there is not just one kind of tadka. Each regional cuisine in India has its own special way of making chhaunk – Punjabis use jeera and khade masale quite a bit, Kashmiris love using saunf, sonth, cardamom and cinnamon, cuisines in the west and south of India use rai or mustard seeds, dried red chillis and curry leaves, while the Bengalis love their panch phoron comprising of methre, kalonji, jeera, rai and saunf. These various kinds of tadkas (in no way an exhaustive list) are incomplete without the use of these spices and seeds.
Making a tadka or chhaunk is an experience in itself, not just for the cook but for all those present in the house at the time and sometimes, even the neighbours. The auditory and olfactory senses of a new or uninitiated cook making a chhaunk might get overwhelmed by the splashes, loud crackling sounds, sizzling and strong smells.
Badi elaichi, tez patta, laung. Yeh toh hamesha hote hain.
Khade Masale – differentiating between everyday and special spices
While common Indian spices like jeera/zeera (cumin seeds) find their way into everyday cooking, there is another category of whole spices called Khade Masale. Khade means standing in Hindi which here implies that the spice is in its whole form, not ground or crushed. Some common Khade masale that we find in our pantries are: Badi elaichi (black cardamom), Tez Patta (bay leaf), Laung (cloves), Dal Chini (cinnamon), Dhania (coriander seeds), Kali Mirch (black pepper), Sabut Laal Mirch (red chilli), among many others. Which whole spices are sitting in your pantry? Have you used them lately? For which recipe? Tell us!
“Bas bahut hai, aur nahi dalo!”
The Use of Chilli in Indian Cuisine – Hot or Spicy?
Tez, teekha, karara, hot, spicy, mirchi, chili, masaledar, tez mirchi – there are as many ways to describe what adding chili does to a food as there are ways of using this ingredients. Though not native to the Indian subcontinent we’ve adopted it as our own and make a huge variety of dishes that use chillies – red, green, long and small – as their main ingredients. Case in point, a plethora of chili pickles that vary in style from region to region. Do you use chili in your food? How?
Other spices mentioned in this episode:
- Jaiphal and Javitri – Nutmeg and Mace
- Kalonji – Nigella Seeds
- Chironji/ Chiroli
- Ajwain – Carom seeds
- Saunf – Fennel Seeds
- Elaichi – Green Cardamom
- Heeng – Asafoetida
- Amchur – Dry Raw Mango Powder
- Sonth – Dry Ginger Powder
- Methre – Fenugreek or Methi seeds
- Deghi Mirch / Kashmiri Laal Mirch – A mild variety of red chili pepper.
Main toh Kalonji humesha rakhti hoon
Special Mention – Heeng aka Asafetida
One slightly smelly but much loved ingredient common in Tadkas is Asafetida or Heeng. The interesting thing is that while Indians use the most heeng in the world, we don’t produce it. It is imported! Listen to the podcast or read this story where food writer Marryam Reshi talks about the impact of terroir on Heeng. And, if you are tempted to try, go ahead and make a tadka for this easy Sambhar! You can literally, add heeng to anything. Just a pinch is enough.
Real cinnamon and bay leaf – what’s the story?
Spices come from organic, living beings aka plants. One set of spices have an intertwined life – cinnamon and bay leaf. Cinnamon is a bark and bay leaf is often the leaf of that same tree! Well, often but not always because there is a true bay leaf and true cinnamon and the rest are relatives. Some reading for you, if like us you too are confused by these!
- Spices Board India’s entry on Cinnamon
- Cooks Illustrated on Bay Leaves
- Chicago Tribune: True Cinnamon is Pricey, but is there an honest difference?
- Punjabi Chhole
- Hot Chocolate
- Three Ingredient Chicken
- Arhar Dal with Heeng Jeera Chaunk
- Chicken Biryani
- Bedmi Aloo
- Moong Masoor ki Dal
- Achari Chicken
- Thandai Concentrate
- Tea Flavourings
- Pav Bhaji
- Chaat Masala
Maine kabhi achaar daala nahi hai, abhi meri batti jali hai!
Tell us about your list of essential spices!
This conversation about the spices we use and count as essentials in our Punjabi kitchens is in no way comprehensive. As discussed in the episode, our masaaldaan and spice drawer house a different combination of spices. And, as we cook recipes from different regions the list is ever changing. So, tell us what you use to spice up your meals. Write to us at email@example.com or leave a comment below.
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P.S Wondering what those phrases mean? Read on.
Badi elaichi, tez patta, laung. Yeh toh hamesha hote hain. | I always have black cardamom, bay leaf and cloves.
Bas bahut hai, aur nahi dalo! | That’s enough! Don’t put more.
Main toh Kalonji humesha rakhti hoon. | I always keep kalonji.
Maine kabhi achaar daala nahi hai, abhi meri batti jali hai! | I’ve never pickled anything, but now the light bulb’s gone on!