Homemade spice blends are so much better, fresher and fragrant than store-bought, and this is especially true of Indian spice mixes like Garam Masala and Curry Powder. We're constantly working with spices at Demuths, and have taken a deep dive into their history with our
exploration of the spice route. Here is a taste of what we've learned, plus recipes for homemade garam masala and homemade curry powder that will take your Indian recipes to a whole new level.
Almost every manufactured food contains added spices. What’s a hot cross bun without a dash of cinnamon? a curry sauce without turmeric? a dollop of Branston pickle without – wait for it – mustard, coriander, garlic, cinnamon, pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cayenne! But we often take spices for granted and rarely think about why they are used or where they come from.
Whether you have a loaded rack with 20 or more jars, or a single out-of-date mixed spice packet bought for a long-forgotten recipe, everyone has a spice of some kind at home. Using tiny amounts can make dramatic changes to the flavour of food, but behind every kitchen spice is a medicinal history that goes back thousands of years.
The original uses of nearly all spices were for healing purposes. Pepper and saffron were important ingredients in Arabian medicine, while ginger was used in Chinese remedies. Famous ancient Greco-Roman herbalists like Dioscorides used coriander, anise, and pepper in their spice-based medicines.
Venice was the hub of the spice trade before the Portuguese sent Marco Polo to China to do trade deals with the Chinese and undercut the Venetians. In Europe, the importers and distributers of these medicinal treasures were the Apothecaries, who were known as Spicers. The spices were often used in the same powdered form as in the kitchen, but they were also used as whole spices (seeds, bark, dried fruits), extracted in alcohol to take as a medicine, or made into tablets, capsules, salves, compresses or distilled oils.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said: “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”. Aromatic spices such as fennel, coriander, and anise all help reduce indigestion and colic. Hot spices like chilli, pepper, ginger are warming and stimulate circulation. Ginger has been shown to prevent travel sickness as well as chilblains! So, next time you add spice to your cooking, think about how they can enhance your life, not only the enjoyment of your food.
For Indian cooking you need a savoury and a sweet spice mix. The savoury spice mix is commonly known as curry powder, which is a British corruption of the Tamil word for sauce, “kari”, and is best used for empire-style dishes such as kedgeree. The sweet spice tends to be added at the end of cooking, and is known as Garam Masala in northern India and Bese Bel in the south.
To make Indian spice mixes, the three most important ingredients are coriander, cumin and mustard seeds. Always buy your spices whole, because the moment you grind a spice it begins to lose its pungency and aroma. To release the flavour, the whole spices need to be lightly dry-fried before crushing to a powder.
Place the seeds in a small frying pan over a medium heat and stir until the seeds begin to pop and give off their fragrant aroma. Take off the heat and immediately decant onto a plate, as they will continue to cook in a hot frying pan and will easily burn. Always dry fry coriander and cumin separately as cumin fries much quicker than coriander.
Mustard seeds will also go into your savoury spice mix and are added during tempering. This is when you add spices to hot oil and cook until the mustard seeds jump and pop, releasing their wonderful heat and flavour into the oil.
An essential ingredient for vegetarian kedgeree and numerous other Indian recipes.
Learn more about how to use spices at one of our Indian cookery courses at Demuths Cookery School. Our traditional stainless steel Indian Spice boxes complete with spices also make great presents! As does our traditional Japanese Suribachi pestle and mortar.
Delicious food photography by Rob Wicks of Eat Pictures.
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