To us, the best way to get to know a culture is through its food. And while unique ingredients can help shape individual dishes, it’s really the different combinations of spices and flavors that give a cuisine its distinct character–especially when they’re freshly roasted, ground, and delivered.
Today, we bring you the flavors of India. Indian food is incredibly unique, influenced by the nation’s many years as a trade hub between Europe, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. The flavors are not necessarily fiery hot, but are almost always warm and complex, the result of a multitude of spices sprinkled into each dish. Many of us have grown to covet this spiciness in favorites like Chicken Tikka Masala, but which spices are really responsible for crafting these flavors?
We describe some of the most common Indian spices here, to bring you the essential flavors of one of our favorite types of cuisine.
**Essential Flavors of India**
Asafoetida has a unique acrid quality that softens into a mellower garlic flavor when cooked. Certain groups in India who avoid onion and garlic for religious reasons will use the spice to replicate those flavors in their cooking; more generally, though, asafoetida is used in vegetarian dishes, like this North Indian potato dish, to add depth and balance to other flavors.
The coriander plant provides two essential flavors in Indian cooking: the first comes from the seeds, which have a warm, citrusy sweetness often found in curries; the second comes from the coriander leaves, more commonly known as cilantro. That’s right – love it or hate it, cilantro is actually the leaf of the coriander plant, used in many Indian dishes for freshness. When dried and ground, even cilantro haters might not recognize the spice, especially when mixed with other spices and used to season our cucumber salad.
As it turns out, curry leaves have nothing to do with curry powder – the glossy leaves come from the curry tree and have a fragrant, citrusy flavor delicious in dishes like Dal Bhat. (Curry powder is actually a blend of spices created by the British in the 1700s.) The leaves themselves are edible, and are generally sizzled in oil with the other aromatics before the remaining ingredients are added.
Indian cuisine typically uses the dark black variety of mustard seed, which has a more intense flavor than its white and yellow counterparts. Like curry leaves, mustard seeds are generally fried in oil (you’ll also see this technique in Dal Bhat) to release their nutty, pungent flavor before being added to curries, lentils, or other vegetable dishes.
Garam masala is actually a mixture (or “masala”) of spices, rather than a single spice. The word “garam” translates to “heat” in English, referring not to the spiciness of the blend, but to the intensity of the spices. We use the mixture in many of our south Asian and Indian recipes – the combination of cloves, cardamom, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and black pepper gives a warmth we love to dishes like Palak Paneer.
Turmeric belongs to the ginger family, which explains its warm, almost peppery flavor. Beside adding a deep golden color to curries, the spice is also used as a dye in many commercial products, including yellow mustard. That means be careful when seasoning with turmeric: it will stain your cutting boards or light-colored counters! Unlike its color, turmeric’s flavor is actually pretty mild, which means it’s best used as part of a spice mixture rather than on its own.
Tamarind is the long, bean-shaped fruit from the tamarind tree, often pressed into a thick, sticky paste. It has a similar flavor to a date, though less sweet and more sour. Tamarind is often used to brighten curries and chutneys, but also pairs well with meat and fish, as in this tamarind sauce for flounder. Or, try it in a cocktail – the earthiness of the fruit pairs perfectly with tequila!