National Curry Week: Essential spices for your storecupboard
It’s National Curry Week so what better time to learn how to cook amazing curries, daals and sides from the Indian subcontinent. The first thing you need to do is stock your cupboards with spices, they are absolutely essential and will make cooking Indian food much simpler, and of course tastier!
Most Indians have a metal tin with individual tins for each spice, called a dabba, so they can easily pick and choose spices to use when they are cooking. It’s much easier than lots of fiddly jars and they can be bought from Indian supermarkets or online from Spice Kitchen.
What needs to go in your spice collection? We’ve collected the essentials and some next level extras to spice up your meals:
Probably the spice most associated with Indian cooking, turmeric adds and unmistakeable fragrance and colour to your curries, as well as having anti-inflammatory properties. Use it sparingly otherwise it can be pungent, and refresh it regularly as stale turmeric doesn’t taste very good.
Kashmiri chilli powder
If you can find it then Kashmiri chilli powder is much superior to other chilli powders, it is hotter and the deeper red colour will pep up your dinner beautifully!
Ground cumin / cumin seeds
Both are fantastic, but buy ground if you’re on a budget. Cumin is used for fragrance and warmth without chilli heat, and the cumin seeds are wonderful fried and added to daal or sprinkled over rice. Gujaratis (like me!), from the North West of India, traditionally sprinkle cumin over fresh mangoes or mango puree for a sweet and spicy dessert – try it, it works!
Ground coriander / coriander seed
The seed or ground version of coriander is so different from the herb – it is rich and nutty with a hint of citrus. It will add a next level of depth to any curry, especially good in a keema curry.
Black mustard seeds
Absolutely essential for daal! Many daals are finished with what is called a vaghar, spices fried quickly in oil and poured over cooked daal. Usually black mustard seeds, curry leaves and dried chillies go into a vaghaar, and it brings a beautiful smokiness to yellow lentils.
The unique flavour of cardamom is used in sweet and savoury dishes and you only need a pod or two bit to transform a dish. Grind up the seeds and add to curries or try it in a lassi or as part of a spice mix for masala chai. Black cardamom has a smokier flavour whereas the more common green cardamom is gentler and fruitier.
Not just for toothache! Often used in biriyani to fragrance the rice and very popular in southern India with coconut-based curries.
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it’s the most expensive spice in the world! Painstakingly harvested from crocus flowers, it is more valuable by weight than gold. Luckily you only need a couple of fronds for each dish. Soak in water before adding it, water and all, to your curries or crumble straight into your dish. Adds a beautiful yellow colour to rice and tastes gorgeous in hot milk with honey.
A blend of spices that roughly translates to ‘hot masala’ – designed to provide ‘heat’ in the body according to Ayurvedic medicine. Most commonly used in North India, the composition depends on the cook but often includes black peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, cloves and bay leaves.
Upgrade that dusty ground cinnamon you use for apple crumble and invest in some cinnamon bark! Grate into sweet and savoury dishes, or simply simmer a whole stick in curry, particularly good with lamb curries.
The flavour of curry leaves is hard to explain – partly citrus, partly spicy, partly nutty – they are wonderful in pilaus, daals and with chicken curries. Fresh is the best but dried work well if you can’t get hold of them.
Dried whole chillies
Chilli powders tend to impart heat, whereas dried chillies offer fruitiness too. Fry in oil and add to daal, or simmer with other whole spices in sauce-based curries.
Asafoetida / Hing
This dried root has an extremely pungent, almost horrible flavour, but a tiny pinch of it imparts a gorgeous flavour akin to garlic. It is most often used by Hindus who don’t eat garlic and onion for religious reasons, particularly in lentil dishes. Store away from your other spices, as it is very strong, and use sparingly.
Feeling ready to cook? You have everything you need, and most large supermarkets stock these spices nowadays! If you’re serious about Indian cookery it pays to take a trip to your local Indian supermarket, the prices are much lower and it’s a treasure trove of deliciousness!