Friday, January 08, 2010

Building blocks of Indian Curries - The Flavouring

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Building blocks of Indian Curries (2 of 3) – The Flavouring

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1.: Coriander Seeds These dried berries are widely used across India as a powder mixed in with the simmering curry, lending the curry a warm, nutty flavour. The powder also acts as a thickener. It is a key component of south Indian Sambar powder and north Indian garam masala, two of the most common spice mixes used in India. Mild spice - can be used liberally.

Indian Curries:

It is humbling to know that most of the popular Indian flavourings came to us from Central Asia and the new world

Most Indian flavourings come from just two plant families. The Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family (Hollow stemmed aromatic plants) gives us cumin, anise, coriander seeds, cilantro, caraway, royal cumin, asafetida & fennel. The ginger family (Zingiberaceae) gives us turmeric, cardamom and ginger. All these spices were once used across India, but north Indian cuisine lost the use of harsher flavourings like mustard, turmeric and asafetida, instead relying on milder (and more expensive) spices like cinnamon, cardamom, clove, saffron, and garam masala probably due to the Moghul influence. However, in pockets of north India (especially Kashmir, Gujarat, Bihar and Bengal), we still see the extensive use of mustard, turmeric and asafetida.

General guidelines :

# Whole spices always have a greater flavour when they are roasted and ground.

# Ground spices lose their flavour dramatically on long storage. Buy them in small packets and use fast.

# Fresh herbs are usually added to the curry at the very end, whole spices are usually fried in oil, and spice powders are usually mixed in with the simmering curry.

# Do not burn spices. It is better not to use spices than to use burnt spices as a flavouring

# A strange spice / oil can put people off a curry. Use them sparingly.

# Using too much flavouring is

the surest way to spoil a curry.

# Usually a very strong spice

( say asafetida) is not used with a delicate spice (say saffron)

# Delicate spices are not cooked for long.

# Know regional preferences.

Brahmins / Orthodox Hindus do not use elaborate flavourings. Moghul cuisine does not use strong flavourings like fenugreek / turmeric / asafetida. Curry leaves, red chilies, asafetida and mustard is used in almost all south Indian curries. Chopped cilantro can be used to garnish almost all Indian curries. Coriander seeds, Cumin. Ginger. Garlic &, Chili are used across India.

2.: Cumin The tiny seeds (actually fruits) of the plant Cuminum cyminum are fried whole or mixed in as a powder in many north Indian curries. Cumin blended with coconut and chilies is frequently used in South Indian curries. It lends a warm flavour and a strong aroma. Many Indian languages borrow the word from central Asian Dzira, through Sanskrit Jra (to digest) as cumin aids in digestion. Cumin is a popular spice across the world. (It is often confused with caraway (carum carvi / foreign cumin). A smaller, black fruit from the same family (Bunium persicum) called black cumin / royal cumin is occasionally used in North Indian curries. Mild spice - can be used liberally.

3.: Chili Introduced to India by the Portuguese 500 years back, chili was wholeheartedly embraced by Indian cuisine, almost totally replacing black pepper in most curries. Chili powder is mixed in with the simmering curry / chopped fresh green chilies / torn dry red chilies are mixed in with the simmering curry, or stir fried in oil. Different varieties of chilies with varying degrees of heat are used across India. The seeds pack most heat and smaller chilies have more heat than larger ones.

4.: Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is the underground stem (rhizome) of a plant in the ginger family. It is mostly used as a powder, especially in South Indian curries. It imparts a deep yellow colour and an earthy flavour to curries. It is anti bacterial and is used in many Indian pickles. Strong spice. Use sparingly.

5.: Garam Masala is the most popular spice mix used in north Indian ( especially Moghul) curries. It is a powdered mix of various combinations of toasted and ground cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves, bay leaves, long pepper, cumin, royal cumin, cardamom (black, green), nutmeg, star anise, mace, dry ginger, fennel, caraway and coriander seeds. Each region has its own version, omitting some and emphasizing some ingredients. Prepackaged versions are commonly available. A few pinches of garam masala is usually mixed in with the simmering curry just a few minutes before it is taken off heat.

6.: Mustard Seeds is one of the oldest spices of India, used widely in Kashmir, Gujarat, East India and especially South India. Almost all south Indian curry recipes start with, "fry a pinch of mustard ". When fried it imparts a mild nutty flavour to curries. Mustard powder / paste is never used in curries (except in Bengal), but is widely used in almost all Indian pickles. Mustard oil is the preferred fat in East India. Mustard is also a part of the famous five spice mix of East India- the panch phoron.

7.: Oils Different regions prefer different oils, which impart different flavours to food. Sesame oil is preferred in south India, coconut oil along the west coast (and in all of Kerala), Peanut oil in Andhra & Maharashtra, Mustard oil in East India and Kashmir, Butter and ghee in Punjab and most of north India. Refined vegetable oils are now used across regions.

8.:. Asafetida is a resin extracted from the stem and root of the plant ferula asafetida (commonly called giant fennel) native to Iran. It is available as a hard resin and as a powder (mixed with rice flour and gum arabic to prevent caking). When fried in oil, it mimics the flavour of onion - garlic. Onion / garlic were considered aphrodisiacs and are not eaten by orthodox Hindus, nor used in any temple cuisine. Asafetida is used in their place. The Moghul influenced north Indian cuisine does not use asafetida as extensively as south Indian cuisine, where it is added to almost all curries. It is has a very strong odour and is stored separately in airtight containers. It is usually fried in oil or boiled with the simmering curry. It is antimicrobial and is used in many south Indian pickles. Strong spice - use sparingly.

9.: Ginger - Garlic Chopped ginger / garlic or the readily available ginger- garlic paste is stir fried in oil right at the beginning while cooking most north Indian curries.

10.: Other Flavourings Curry leaves, mint, cilantro, dry red chilies, fenugreek seeds, saffron, nutmeg, mace, pepper corns, fennel, nigella (nigella sativa) , lichens, ajwain (carom), black salt, mango powder, pomegranate powder and various spice mixes ( masalas) listed below are used across the country.

South Indian Sambar powder : 2 : 1 mixture of coriander powder, chili powder with a bit of other spices.

Bengali Panch phoran,: Equal quantities of whole mustard, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and nigella.

Sindhi Dhan Jeera: Equal measures of toasted and ground cumin and coriander seeds.

Marathi Goda masala : Roast & ground coriander seeds, cumin, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, bay leaves & lichens ( dagadh phool).

Kashmiri vari / ver Masala : Fennel, caraway, bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, peppercorn, mace, star anise & nutmeg roasted and ground together.

Chat masala : Roast and ground mixture of cumin, pepper, black salt, mango powder, ginger powder, garam masala, chili & coriander seeds.

Goan Bafat Masala : Roast and ground mixture of dry red chilies, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns.

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