Tuesday, 28 October 2014

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Lesser-Known Spices In Indian Cuisine

Open up someone’s spice cupboard and you never know what you might find. In the kitchen of a seasoned cook it will probably be packed full of jars, boxes and packets of herbs and spices. In the kitchen of someone who relies more on takeaways than home-cooked meals, then salt, pepper and some chilli flakes might be the extent of what is on offer. Regardless of how well-stocked your larder may be there will always be a few spices that you are far less familiar with than others. Here are a few of the lesser-known spices used in Indian cuisine that you don’t see every day:

Ajowan: Native to southern India, ajowan is related to cumin and caraway but is very different in taste. In Indian recipes ajowan is also called lovage, ajwain or carom. Ajowan seeds are often found in Indian households as they are thought to help relieve indigestion and flatulence (the spice is also often cooked with beans and pulses for the same reason). When ground to a powder,ajowan can taste hot and bitter, but when cooked it produces a subdued flavour similar to thyme.

Spices In Indian Cuisine

Amchoor (mango powder): Mangoes are native to India.They are referred to as the ‘king of fruit’ and are the national fruit of the country. As well as being used to make chutneys and pickles, mango is also used to make amchoor. Unripe, tart mangoes are sliced, sun-dried and ground to a powder to make the spice. It is most commonly used in north Indian vegetarian cooking and gives a tangy sour taste to dishes.

Asafoetida: In its powdered form, asafoetida has a strong, rather unpleasant smell. The taste is bitter and pretty unpalatable when eaten alone. Fried in hot oil, however, the foulness vanishes and the spice tastes more like onions. The spice is harvested from the ferula plant and the entire plant gives off asafoetida’s ‘distinctive’ smell.

Fagara (Sichuan pepper): This spice is not related to (and should not be confused with) black pepper. Fagarahas been used in cooking and medicine in India for centuries. Fagara is produced from the dried berries of the prickly ash tree and is commonly used in cooking in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Goa. The berries have a woody, spicy aroma and taste quite bitter.

Mace: You will probably have heard of nutmeg, but perhaps not mace. This is the lacy coat (called the aril) that covers the seed. Mace is mainly found in Moghul dishes in Indian cuisine. In taste, mace is a more refined version of the rich, warm aromatic flavour of nutmeg. When ground, mace tends to retain its flavour longer than other ground spices.

Zedoary: Native to India and related to turmeric, zedoary is often paired with chicken or lamb in Indian dishes. It is highly aromatic and has a musky, pungent flavour. Similar in many ways to ginger, zedoary is bitter to taste. The spice comes from the large fleshy underground root of the zedoary plantand is almost unknown in the West and is generally replaced by ginger.
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Why Garam Masala Symbolises Indian Cuisine

If there is one element that is unequivocally linked with Indian food, what would you say that is? For many – albeit largely those in the West – it would be garam masala. Luckily, our knowledge and understanding of Indian cuisine has progressed enough to know that curry powder doesn’t exactly scream authentic Indian culinary tradition, although these things take time...

Unlike curry powder, garam masala has its roots placed firmly in India. A fairly standard ingredient in many store cupboards, we dutifully add it to dishes when the recipe calls for it and most people will have used it at some point in their lives. But what do we really know about it other thanit can transform any dish into an Indian taste sensation?

One stumbling block comes in the composition of garam masala. We know it is Indian in flavour, so that must mean it is spicy, right? Well, no. Chillies are generally what provides heat in a dish and garam masala is chilli‐free. Instead, it contains a blend of spices that can vary, but nearly always include black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Together, this combination creates a pungent flavour and aroma without a spicy kick.

And sticking with the fiery theme, a bit of investigation reveals that garam translates to mean ‘hot’ (masala, incidentally means ‘blend of spices’). So what does this heat refer to? In ancient Ayurvedic teaching these spices are believed to ‘heat’ the body by raising its metabolism. This is also a reason why garam masala is so closely linked with northern India rather than the South. By eating food flavoured with these ‘warming’ spices they work to keep you warm in a colder climate. Chillies, on the other hand, cause you to perspire, thus
meaning your body temperature drops (far better for hotter climates).

This North‐South divide is further highlighted with the fact that garam masala is virtually unused (and almost unheard of) in the southern states of the Indian subcontinent. There are a number of theories about why this is the case; one focuses on the fact that garam masala uses the more expensive spices during years ofardent spice trading. The inclusion of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom rather than the locally grown coriander, cumin and ginger would suggest that garam masala was used in the kitchens of the nobility, not in everyday
homes.

Very rarely does garam masala feature as the main ingredient within a recipe. Rather than taking a star role in a dish alongside the staples of ginger, garlic and turmeric, it is generally added towards the end of the cooking process and just prior to serving. But as a flavour enhancer, it does its job extremely well, and for that we don’t what we would do without it. For a meal that symbolises all that is great about Indian cuisine, London’s oldest fine dining Indian restaurant has it all.It is refined, opulent and serves authentic Indian dishes with a modern approach – it is guaranteed to give you an experience you’ll never forget.
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