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I have often been asked what is it about Indian curries that make people the world over drool. They may find the curries a trifle spicy but yet they cannot resist them. To that my answer is – Indian spices. The way the spices are used, the combination in which they are used, the chronological order in which they are added – all of this and more make the curries so irresistible.

The Indian Spice box is indeed a many splendored thing. Experience tells us that there are certain things we need in our kitchens that will make our lives easier while cooking. Apart from the various pots and pans, ladles and knives, we need proper containers for groceries and spices. Just like having larger containers for ingredients that are needed in large quantities, it is important to keep similar ingredients at one place. Yes I mean the spices. Though needed in small quantities, they play a very big part in making the dish from just palatable to simply delicious. Well I won’t beat round the bush anymore, I am talking about the Indian Spice Box or Masala Box as it is more commonly known as. These boxes have seven small containers that fit snugly into the box. In it I keep whole dried spices like coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, onion seeds, carom seeds and fennel seeds. This is because they release their flavour only when cooked. The other whole spices I prefer to keep in separate containers because they are highly flavourful and if kept together in one box the individual flavours could overpower each other. The secret of the Indian curries is that though we use a number of spices in one dish, they are added in a manner that their individual flavour remains intact. In other words when you taste the dish you should be able to taste the presence of each spice individually and also collectively.

Besides the whole spices mentioned above, the other spices that are typical of Indian cooking are asafoetida, caraway seeds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds and turmeric powder. Then again there is another set of spices that are termed as khada garam masala and the spices that come under this category are bay leaves, black cardamoms, black peppercorns, cloves, green cardamom, mace, nutmeg and star anise. And yes how can one forget saffron – the most expensive spice? All you need is a few strands of this magical spice which not only adds a wonderful flavour but also a beautiful yellow colour to the dish it is added to.

Spices do not add just flavour to a dish but also certain nutrients. All the spices provide us with some essential nutrients that help us lead a healthy life. So now let us see what they can do for our bodies and digestive system. 

Indian spices

Asafoetida: Asafoetida contains resin, gum, volatile oil and ash. Its mineral and vitamin contents include substantial amounts of calcium besides phosphorous, iron, carotene, riboflavin and niacin. Widely used in minute quantities in Indian vegetarian cooking and as a delicate flavour in fresh and salted fish dishes. It is also used in chutneys, pickles and sauces but in very small quantities. Asafoetida is used effectively in the medicines for all type of disorders.

Bay leaves: Bay leaves signified glory in ancient Rome and now it glorifies most of our pulaos and biryanis. It is the oil in these leaves that imparts an exotic flavour to food once the leaf is heated. The flavour and aroma of bay leaves is due to the presence of the essential oil eugenol.

Black cardamoms: The seeds of the black cardamom seeds contain a volatile acid which is a principle constituent and is responsible for providing typical characteristic odour. It is one of the spices used in making garam masala powder and also as a flavouring in various Indian dishes. Black cardamom seeds are good for the heart and are used as a tonic and aphrodisiac.

Black peppercorns: Pepper is one of the oldest and best-known spices in the world. Starch is found to be the predominant constituent of pepper. Black pepper is used as a culinary spice and condiment throughout the world. Black pepper is easy to assimilate; it is a stimulant and diuretic.

Caraway seeds: History says it is one of the oldest cultivated spices. These seeds have a warm, sweet and slightly peppery aroma when squeezed between fingers. If you want to enjoy its flavour in full then grind it just before using it so that its aroma is completely intact. In the western cuisines it is used to flavour a number of breads, cakes, biscuits and also cheese. Caraway seeds are rich source of dietary fiber and as such help in preventing constipation. In fact the gastro-intestinal transit time of food is greatly reduced.

Carom seeds: Native to southern India, carom seed is closely related to caraway and cumin and has a flavor similar to thyme. It is used in many Indian masala preparations as a flavouring. Often used in many Punjabi dishes like fish Amritsari and various Indian breads like kulchas, paranthas and naans. It is a stimulant and used in many appetizers to stimulate the appetite. Carom water works as a stimulant, tonic, carminative and is therefore useful in the treatment of stomach ache, diarrhoea, dysentery, dyspepsia, flatulence and indigestion.

Cloves: Clove oil has been used to treat toothache for aeons. It is a natural analgesic and antiseptic used primarily in dentistry for its main ingredient eugenol. It forms an essential ingredient of many Ayurvedic massages. It is also known to be a good digestive aid. Clove oil used in ‘oil’ painting. The anti-oxidant effects of the clove oil delays the oxidation of the drying oils (linseed, safflower, poppy, walnut) in the paint on the palette. Clove forms an integral part of the garam masala – both khada masala and the powder.

Coriander seeds: The small brown seeds from the cilantro plant are, along with cumin seeds and cardamoms, an important component of Indian cuisine. Ground cilantro has a lovely aromatic flavour, with a slight citrus touch. Ground coriander is used in curries, meat, poultry and vegetable dishes whereas whole coriander seeds are used in pickles and chutneys.

The seeds are excellent source of minerals like iron, copper, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc and magnesium. They also have B-vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. They are used as carminative and digestive agents.

Cumin seeds: Cumin is one of the earliest known union spices used by mankind. The seeds are largely used as condiments in the form of an essential ingredient in all mixed spices and in curry powder for flavouring vegetables, pickles, soups, sausages, cheese, other culinary preparations. Cumin is also used as a seasoning in breads, cakes and biscuits. The aromatic oil of cumin seeds is also used for flavouring curries, liquor, and cordials and has great use in perfuming industries. Cumin seeds are called cold in action and light, dry and slightly hot in nature. Being hot in nature they also act as rejuvenators.

Fennel seeds: It would come as a surprise to you that fennel is not a seed but a fruit. The greener it is better is its quality. Fennel seeds are used to flavour many a dish. According to Ayurveda, fennel seeds are cooling and soothing and are an excellent remedy for stomach upsets. Fennel seeds are widely used in traditional medicines and are known to help in the production of breast milk, ease pain during delivery and improve digestion so recommended to pregnant and lactating women. They also help in curing bronchitis, constipation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, head lice, coughs and gas.

Fenugreek seeds: Out of all the spices fenugreek seeds are perhaps the most scarcely used. They are considered very healthy and used as a remedy for many ailments - sore throats, rashes, pains, diabetes etc. being some of them. For diabetics especially, it has been found that proper doses given regularly can help reduce hyperclycaemia. It is also considered good for lactating women as it has been found that regular consumption of fenugreek seeds by the woman increases milk production. Bitter they may be but they can be unexpectedly turned into some delicious things, like for example Methi Laddoo. These are made during the winter months as they are considered to be beneficial during the cold weather.

Green cardamoms: Green cardamom constitutes the second important national spice of India and is popularly known as ‘Queen of Spices’. Cardamom is one of the most popular spices used in Indian cooking and is also the world’s most expensive spice, after saffron. The major use of cardamom in India is for seasoning and flavouring of various foodstuffs. Powdered seeds of cardamom boiled with tea water imparts a very pleasant aroma to the tea. The essential oil of cardamom is used for flavouring certain liquors and also in the manufacture of perfumes. In almost all Ayurvedic medicines that are orally ingested, cardamom is generally added to make the remedy more palatable. As per the well-known Ayurvedic texts, green cardamom cure problems of urination, coughs, tuberculosis, and hemorrhoids. They also cure vomiting and serve as an expectorant, diuretic and aphrodisiac.

Nutmeg: One flavour that always stands out is the flavour of nutmeg. This little nut like spice comes ensconced in a lacy red covering that is just as flavourful and warm (though a little more pungent than nutmeg). I have always known that nutmeg has a slight sedative effect. The principal uses are in the sausage, baking, soft drinks and pharmaceutical industries, but they are also used as condiments in confectionery, soups, sauces and entree products. Nutmeg butter can also be derived from nutmeg but its use is mostly as an industrial lubricant.

Mace: Mace is one of the many flavouring spices used extensively in Indian cuisine. Mace is the waxy red and lacy growth that surrounds the nutmeg seed. As mace dries, it turns orange in colour and the high quality spice retains this colour. In India it is used mainly in Mughlai dishes whereas in Italy it is used in the fillings for pastas, Arabs add it to mutton and in Europe it is used to flavour sweet as well as savoury dishes. This spice is believed to aid digestion and relieve nausea. But here is a word of caution, it also contains hallucinogens and in large doses can be fatally toxic. In small quantities it is considered safe. Its oil lends its characteristic spicy scent to aftershave and perfumes for men.

Mustard seeds: Mustard seed is as acceptable in western, eastern and southern Indian homes as salt! Mustard is as effective as chillies in stimulating the appetite, the digestion and in clearing the sinuses. And the western mustard sauce is a blend that provides a full range of sensations both on the tongue and in the eyes! If there is anything keen and hot, then it is mustard sauce that can enliven a sandwich or a salad. Interestingly, in earlier times, mustard seeds were chewed, possibly to disguise the flavour of decaying meat. The characteristic quality of mustard is its sharp, bright heat, an element that can be released simply by chewing the raw seed.

Onion seeds: Better known as kalonji, these little seeds pack in a punch that spreads its aroma through the house when it is added to hot oil.  But why are they called onion seeds, since they have nothing to do with onions. With antihistamine properties, they can be used to good benefit to treat allergies. Also being an anti-oxidant, they help clean the body of harmful toxins. They are used primarily in confectionery and liquors. They may be added to any curry or stew or even to dal. They are one of the spices used in paanch phoron which is a mix of five spices. The other four being cumin seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds. Paanch phoron is extensively used in Bengali cuisine.

Poppy seeds: Poppy seed is basically an oilseed obtained from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Khuskhus as it is popularly called in India, has been used, whole or ground, as a spice, condiment, a garnish, a thickener and sometime even as a main ingredient. They are used both in savoury dishes and desserts. Poppy seeds used to thicken the gravy have to be soaked first before grinding them. They are very nutritious and a potential source of anti-cancer drugs. They are rich in thiamine, riboflavin and nicotinic acid but do not have carotene. Traces of minerals such as iodine, manganese, copper, magnesium and zinc are found. The seeds also contain oxalic acid, lecithin, and traces of narcotine. Poppy seeds are high in protein. However there is a word of caution, it should be given with proper precautions and should not be given to infants, children, pregnant ladies and people suffering from kidney diseases.

Saffron: Saffron is known to be the most precious and most expensive spice in the world. It is used both for its bright orange-yellow colour and its strong, intense flavour and aroma. But as the colouring power is strong and the flavour is intense, the spice should be used sparingly. Saffron is available both in filaments and powder, though the long, deep red filaments are usually preferred to the powder as the latter can be easily adulterated. It is an excellent antispasmodic, helps digestion and increases appetite. It also relieves renal colic, reduces stomach aches and eases tension. Of late it has also been used as a drug for flu-like infections, depression and as a sedative for its essential oils. There is a long list of foods where saffron is added including a number of Indian sweets, cheese preparations, soups, chicken and meat, various spirits, pasta and rice. It is also used in speciality breads, cakes, confectionaries and Moghlai dishes.

Sesame seeds: Sesame is thought to be one of the oldest spices known to man and is likely the first crop grown for its edible oil. Babylonians used the oil to make sesame cakes, wine, brandy, and toiletries. From as early as 1500 B.C, Egyptians believed sesame to have medicinal powers. Rich in calcium, vitamins B and E, iron and zinc, sesame is high in protein and contains no cholesterol. Sesame oil, on the other hand, is remarkably stable and will keep for years without turning rancid, even in hot climates. It is most popular in Asia, including Tamil Nadu, where it is widely used. It is excellent for salads and pickles and is used by the Japanese for cooking fish.

Star anise: Known as phool chakri or badiyan in India, Star Anise is a star-shaped spice whose flavour closely resembles that of aniseeds. Star anise is usually used whole, valued for its beautiful form as well as its flavour. It is a fruit of a small evergreen tree native to China. The tree that bears a height of eight meters does not bear fruit until six years. But once the fruits come it can continue to bear fruit up to one century. Its yellow flowers are followed by brown fruit, which open, when ripe into star shapes. Each point of the star contains a shiny brown seed, which is less aromatic than the pod. Star anise is one of the ingredients of Chinese five-spice powder.

Turmeric powder: The origins of turmeric or haldi, as it is called in India, is not known, it goes back to ancient times and it has always been considered as a sacred spice. Popularly known as Indian Saffron, it lends its natural colour to our daily dal or sabzi, khichdi or chicken curry. They say it is curcumin in haldi that does all the work. This same curcumin lends its warm colours with Annatto in cheeses, dry mixes, salad dressings, butter and margarine. Haldi is one of the least expensive spices and all that is needed is a pinch or two. India is proud of its haldi for about eighty per-cent of world production happens in our country. Turmeric is known for its antiseptic properties and often used to stop bleeding.

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MasterChef Sanjeev Kapoor

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. He is Chef extraordinaire, runs a successful TV Channel FoodFood, hosted Khana Khazana cookery show on television for more than 17 years, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurateur and winner of several culinary awards. He is living his dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering women through power of cooking to become self sufficient. His recipe portal www.sanjeevkapoor.com is a complete cookery manual with a compendium of more than 10,000 tried & tested recipes, videos, articles, tips & trivia and a wealth of information on the art and craft of cooking in both English and Hindi.