Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Spice of Life

I grew up unlike the average Indian girl of my generation- my parents never encouraged me to enter the kitchen- even to pour myself a glass of water. Therefore, about 5 years ago, when I actually got into cooking, it was a bit of a surprise to everyone all around. I am a self-taught home cook- when a dish strikes my fancy, I research different ways of preparing it until I figure out one of my own, which normally involves few/no powdered masalas and less oil (my foremost criteria).

Which brings me to the title of this blog: I have a strong aversion to packaged "curry powder". Its essentially a screwed up form of garam masala, put together by the British during colonial rule in India. It doesn't taste like any Indian food I have ever eaten :)

For that matter, I am not a big proponent of powdered spices (masalas). I just dont fare well w/ them, though I always keep some red chillie, coriander (dhania), turmeric (haldi) and garam masala powders at hand, for when I need to add a quick kick to whatever may be cooking. After you open a box of powdered spice, the freshness goes away in a matter of days, and there is no way you can finish a entire box of red chillie powder in a day. So I try to substitute: I prefer fresh green chillies, plucked from the little plant I keep, or store bought jalapenos. Dhania and haldi are hard to replace, period. As for garam masala, I simply use its main ingredients in whole spice form: large black cardamoms, small green cardamoms, anise, bay, pepper, cumin, cinammon sticks. This actually adds texture to the food as well, and if you dont like biting into a bay leaf, either discard when your cooking is done, or have your guests LOOK at what they are eating. This may make it a bit difficult for the kids, in which case you can go the bouquet garni way: simply tie all your spices together in a thin mesh cotton cloth, and add to the dish, to be removed when done- I am personally not a big fan of this- when I have kids- they'd better like their spices :D You could also choose to grind your own spices, but honestly, who has time for that?

Spice cooking: Most Indian cooks will throw in a splash of oil in a hot pan before adding spices- this prevents the spices from burning. But you don't have to do this. You can start with your spices already in the pan, and then put it on low heat. This way, the pan and spices warm together, and the spices get gently roasted without oil.

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