Indian Spices For Beginners: The Top Five Spices And Tips On How To Use Them

02/04/2016 2:46 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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indian spices

Do you love eating fragrant, spiced Indian dishes but have no idea how to use spices yourself? Or maybe you’ve tried to make a complex curry but the balance and flavour have just been, well, off.

Thanks to Anjum Anand, British-Indian food writer and modern Indian chef, learning how to use spices is easy.

“I grew up eating Indian food and that was my home food and my comfort food,” Anand told The Huffington Post Australia. “I always helped my mum in the kitchen but then I properly learned how to cook, and I learned a little about the chemistry of food.”

It was during this time that Anand learned how to modify Indian food to make it more healthy and fresh, which resulted in Anand losing 40kg.

“I was always kind of overweight and at one point, having done all these diets (I always had the discipline but I always put the weight back on) I thought, I need to enjoy eating -- I can’t just eat cottage cheese and grilled chicken,” Anand said.

"So I thought, the way forward is to make Indian food -- the food I love to eat every day -- healthy. And then I would enjoy what I’m eating all the time and not have to switch between diets."

As Anand told HuffPost Australia, Indian cooking is something we can all do at home -- you just have to know where to start.

"For me, it is the spices that bring Indian food together," Anand said. "What’s great about it is -- and what a lot of people don’t think about -- it’s not that every time we cook something we throw a whole lot of spices in, it's about matching the spicing to the ingredients."

eating indian food

For beginners wondering how they can start to include spices in their cooking and create delicious, layered Indian dishes, Anand has five top tips.

Tip One -- Buy a good cookbook

“I always say the first thing to do is get a good cookbook because it’s no point guessing,” Anand said. “Indian cuisine exists and it has developed, and you want the dishes to be delicious and harmonious.”

Tip Two -- Start simple and choose recipes you can relate to

“Then, once you have a good cookbook, I would start with simpler things and choose recipes that look familiar. If you cook a lot of fish, choose a simple spiced fish dish so the only new element to add are the spices,” Anand said.

“You start seeing how spices can transform something you’re quite used to, and then you get to taste the spices better and get an understanding for them. That’s a really great way of getting started.

“If you tackle a big, meaty curry, if you don’t normally cook that way, it can be really daunting. Start quite simple.”

Tip Three -- Accept the challenge (and failures)

Failed miserably at making an Indian dish? Don't give up, it's all part of the process.

“It’s always a slow, gentle learning curve. You almost need to go on it to really understand it,” Anand said.

Tip Four -- Buy spices whole and grind them yourself

“I would always recommend buying whole spices,” Anand told HuffPost Australia. “What happens, once you grind them, is they release their volatile oils so they get more powdery, dry and flavourless.

“Whereas if you keep them whole and just grind them when you need a batch -- it takes about a minute to grind spices if you have a spice grinder, which I really recommend for everyone -- when you use them they are so flavourful and fresh.”


Tip Five -- Cook according to the grind

How and when to cook the spices depend on what you’re cooking.

“Powdered spices are quite delicate, so you never put those in at the beginning because they tend to burn quite quickly,” Anand said.

“For whole spices, if you put cook them first in hot oil it helps release their own essential oils, which mingle with the oil. Through the course of whatever you’re cooking, it immerses itself in all the flavours, so those lovely, rounded spicy flavours are throughout the curry or what you’re cooking -- they’re never harsh.”

After infusing the oil with the spices, Anand then suggests to add the onion (cooking this slowly for at least 10 minutes), followed by ginger and garlic.

“When you add your tomatoes or yoghurt, or just before you add them, you can add your ground spices,” Anand said. “Give the pan a good stir on a low heat so the spices cook for about 10 seconds in warm oil, rather than hot. And then you can add your liquid to cool the whole pan down.

“So you either add the ground spices with your liquid, but make sure you cook it well, or add it just before so they don’t have a chance to burn. This is the way to do it -- it makes such a difference.”

Anjum’s Top Five Spices For Everyone To Have In Their Pantry

“The top five spices would be turmeric, ground coriander, cumin, brown mustard seed and garam masala,” Anand said.

eating indian food

1. Turmeric

“One of the top five spices is turmeric, which is not really for flavour but more for health and colour, a big part of Indian food.

“Turmeric is definitely the king in terms of health benefits. It’s antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antifungal -- it’s a wonder spice.”

2. Coriander seeds

Ground coriander is made from coriander seeds and is a sweeter spice with lemon notes.

“Coriander powder is really zingy and fresh and gives body to your sauce,” Anand said.

3. Cumin

Cumin pairs well with coriander and is warmer and richer in flavour.

“Cumin is delicious for many cuisines, not just Indian food,” Anand said.

4. Brown mustard seed

Brown mustard seed has a pungent flavour which is quickly released when cooked.

“I would also include brown mustard seed, which is really nutty and lovely.”

5. Garam Masala

“I would buy a really good garam masala blend,” Anand said. “You will find garam masala at your supermarkets but if you live near an Indian store, and you see a lot around, I would buy it from there as it’s always fresher and cheaper.”

Want to see Anjum Anand cooking up a storm? Anjum’s Australian Spice Stories airs from Monday, Apr. 4 at 7:30 p.m. on SBS’s Food Network.

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