Here is the survival kit that you can find in any Indian family kitchen ! (Part 1)...
Spices you think you know : Whenever talking about Indian food, spices and especially chilly come to mind. But do you really know the spices that make Indian meals so famous and special? Looking at it a bit closer, you can notice that most often, the same spices are used.
So here is the survival kit that you can find in any Indian family kitchen !
Part 1 : Spices you think you know
Curry leaf, queen of spices
When hearing curry, maybe you too think of this yellow powder one puts with chicken to make... chicken curry? Well, in India curry is in fact leaves! So a distinction has to be made between CURRY, coming from the tamil word cari (meaning gravy), and referring to the Indian gravy that enhances Indian meals; CURRY POWDER, which is a powder made from a mix of spices containing dry curry leaves. It is seldom used in India but very common in Western countries. Finally, there is the CURRY LEAVE, very common in India. Let's describe this last one...
Curry leaf comes from a small tropical tree that grows in hot, tropical weathers. That's why you can find it easily in Asia and in Reunion, but it looses its freshness and its flavour in Western countries, where it is imported.
Its scientific name is murraya koenigii but it has other synonyms depending on the geographic place : kaloupilé in Reunion, or feuilles de curry in France.
Why they like it
First because of its sweet and perfumed taste, neither sour nor sweet but a bit lemon-tasty when crushing the leaf, enhancing the meal and giving it a more subtle flavour.
Indian people also like its antidiabetic and invigorating qualities that help metabolism; its slightly laxative power that help fight constipation; and its other broader properties, because curry leaves are said to help take care of hair and to give energy, and it is also said to be very good for eyes.
How they like it
Without the tree's kernel, because it is poisonous... Usually, Indian people only keep the leaves that they eat fried with mustard seeds and a bit of oil! This preparation is the basis of many Indian meals: chutneys, rice-based recipes (such as coco, tomato, tamarind or lemon rice, and sometimes for veg byriani), rasam or curries (spice mix such as the mixed veg kurma which is a vegetable curry, or coconut curry)
What's more, in India the average number of leaves used for two persons is five.
Cumin, the authentic spice
Cumin is well-known and often used to give flavour to many meals... But beware of mistakes! The spice called cumin in Western countries is in fact often carvi, a very similar seed. So how can the two be differenciated? First, the location will enable you to make a first guess: cumin grows in Asia and in North-African countries whereas carvi comes from Eastern Europe countries, especially the Netherlands. Then, the colour is slightly different, for carvi seeds are darker than cumin ones; and if you look at it very closely, you will notice small hairs on cumin seeds. What's more, only the seeds of the cumin are cooked, but seeds, leaf stalks and roots of carvi are used. But in most of cases, just tasting the spice will be sufficient : cumin taste is much stronger and enhances the meals, it gives asian and north-african meals their specific smell, but carvi is sweeter and it adds an anis taste to ingredients it accompanies: for instance, Dutch gouda is often perfumed with carvi (but we call it cumin... hence the confusions)
Now that everything is clear, let's discover the characteristics of cumin!
Cumin is a green plant that has skinny leaves. Its flowers only grow once a year, in hot countries. The seeds we know so well can be found behind the thin branches of the plant. Once dried they can be eaten. Cumin can also be transformed into essential oil through distillation.
Its scientific name is Cuminum cyminum, but as the curry it has many other synonyms: white cumin, Morrocan cumin, kamoun in arab language or jeera in different parts of India.
Why they like it
Because of its taste that you can really enjoy when you roast the seed. Cumin is also famous for helping digestion and thus fight digestive problems like diarrhea or sensations of bloating, but also for helping other problems like insomnias. Finally, it is sometimes used to fight fever or cold.
How they like it
Cumin is mostly popular in North India, where its use is as rife as mustard seeds use in the South. Thus, many meals are prepared from cumin in the North, as curry for instance.
You can find cumin in homemade rasam : just chop it with ginger, pepper and garlic and water it down. But cumin is appreciated with non-veg meals as mutton or chicken gravies, by mixing it with onions and ginger-garlic paste. It can also be grinded raw, and then sprinkled with red chilly powder on veg meals or different soups. Finally, it is used for jeera rice (cumin rice from the North)
Tamarind, the 6th spice girl!
Spices are tricky... Here again, be careful of the misunderstandings: tamarind used in India comes from tamarind tree, a tree that grows in tropical climates and that comes from Africa. HOWEVER, what is called Madras thorn is not a spice but tree the fruits of which people rarely eat, and don't like as much as tamarind pods...
Let's then discover Madras-way tamarind, which differs from Madras thorn!
Tamarind comes from the tamarind tree, a tree from Reunion and also growing in India. Pods look like big marroon beans. Inside the bean, you can find sticky pulp around the kernel. Tamarind is closer to a fruit than to a spice, but the way Indian people use it leads to classify it among the spices. Indeed, in Indian markets tamarind is sold in paste blocks that is obtained by crushing pod and pulp together, without the kernels.
Its scientific name is Tamarindus indica.
Why they like it
Because of its sour taste that will wake up your taste buds! Tamarind adds a subtle flavour to the meal, for it spices it up but remains very sweet at the same time.
Tamarind is also well-known for helping cure constipation, as well as awaking the apetite and the mind. Indian ladies especially like it: the younger ones grab it from the tree and eat the pulp, often with chilly powder and salt. The older ones and especially pregnant women like its anti-vomitive properties.
Finally, a completely different reason why people like tamarind is its efficiency in cleaning brass objects.
How they like it
With everything! Tamarind is used everywhere in India, and the paste is mixed with other spices to make masala, to accompany the curry, prepare chutneys or make a sambhar... It goes well with fish and meat and it it used with both in India. In order to cook it, only the pulp is used (even if seeds are also used sometimes)