Creating your Indian pantry and personal Spice Box

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Spices are the first thing that come up when we talk about Indian food. In my teaching experience, it is one of the most intimidating aspects of India cooking. Often I am asked how to build an Indian pantry, how to use various esoteric spices, how to store them and where to buy them.


As the conversation starts, walks in the omnipresent spice box. Its versatility and practicality is what attracts most. Even though Indian food is regionally very varied, the spice box is a constant, regardless of region. The contents of the spice box, however, change as per the region and even across individual households within a region. For instance, a typical southern household will have mustard seeds in their box which might not be an essential spice in a north Indian home.


The purpose of the spice box is to house everything that one uses most often, in one place. The most common spice box is round, deep, stainless steel and sometimes a precious heirloom handed down across generations. The stainless steel makes it indestructible, easy to clean and all the marks and stains are prized wounds of war from the years of use. The thought is to have it next to you with all your basics when you cook an Indian meal. I have a spice box fetish among other kitchen fetishes so I have collected quite a few along with the standard round stainless steel one. You can buy a basic spice box online, which will have 7 compartments, a glass or opaque stainless-steel lid, with a tiny metallic spoon.


Once you have decided on the box, you then need to pick the spices to put in the box. As mentioned earlier, each box is customized to one's needs and so the spices need to reflect your preferences and frequency of use. My spice box has whole cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, coriander powder, turmeric powder, chili powder, carom seeds (ajwain) and amchur (mango powder). These are the 7 that I use most often.

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Cumin Seeds

There is a difference between whole and ground cumin and they are not interchangeable. Even though they are exactly the same ingredient, once processed or ground it has a completely different flavor profile. It is a staple ingredient in most Indian households regardless of region. It is used extensively both whole and ground and many a times as a part of spice blends. Generally, cumin is toasted before grinding. The whole spice is used as a base for a lot of vegetable dishes and as a tarka (blooming of spices in oil) in dal. Cumin also has a lot of health benefits such weight loss and IBS. Often cumin is confused with caraway. Even though they look similar cumin seeds are larger and darker and each has a distinct flavor.


Fun fact- 63% of the worlds cumin is consumed by India.

Turmeric Powder

This is the most trending spice. There is so much awareness about it that I feel I don’t need to say much. Its biggest claim to fame is its role as an anti inflammatory agent, but it is also an antiseptic and antibacterial. This is the reason you see it in face packs and beauty products. In India when you get married there is an entire ceremony that is called “haldi” (hindi name for turmeric) where friends and relatives smear turmeric on the bride and groom a few days before the wedding. The turmeric paste is considered auspicious and adds a glow to the skin. Turmeric does stain, however, so keep it away from fabric. In the olden days it was used to dye the robes of the priests.


Fun fact: it does not get absorbed unless used with black pepper or cayenne which increases the absorption by 2000%!

Coriander Powder

Coriander comes from a plant, which is also known as cilantro. Every part of this plant is edible; seeds, roots and leaves. The seeds are what is ground up to make coriander powder. It is used a lot in Indian food both in the north and the south and as a key ingredient in spice mixes. Toasting the seed, heightens the flavors.


In India, cilantro is called coriander leaves. So any time a recipe asks to garnish with coriander, it is referring to the leaves. The seeds and the leaves have very different flavors and cannot be used interchangeably.


Fun Fact: 4-14% of people think that cilantro tastes like soap water because of a gene present.

Fun Fact: When freshly ground it smells like froot loops/earl grey. It is listed as one of the original ingredients in the secret recipe for Coca- Cola.

Carom Seeds (Ajwain)

Carom seed or ajwain is also known as bishop's weed. It has a strong flavor that reminds people of oregano. It smells like thyme because it contains a common phenol called thymol, however, it cannot be substituted for thyme. It is often used with ingredients / recipes that are deep fried such as pakoras and samosas since ajwain helps with digestion. In fact, it is a common ingredient in many Ayurvedic herbal medicines that help with indigestion and bloating.

Fun Fact: After child birth women in India are only allowed to drink water that has been boiled with ajwain for 40 days. It is supposed to help with water retention.

Amchur (Mango Powder)

Amchoor is quite literally the powder of green, unripe mangoes thus lending to it the sour taste. Raw, unripe mangoes are peeled and dried till all the moisture is removed and then ground up. You can buy just dried mango pieces as well. It is primarily used in the north but has made its way to some southern dishes.  It is used in dishes where acidity is required but not the moisture. Having said that, I have used lemons on occasion as a substitute.

Fun Fact: Amchoor is made only in India.

Chili powder

Chili powder in an Indian kitchen is one of the most confusing spices. Indian chili powder is ground-up dried chillies mostly of the cayenne variety but can vary quite a bit with the region. It is an umbrella term for different chillies which can vary in heat and size. Even though you might find a range of Indian chili powders from mild to very hot, they are never blended together or with any other spice. A non-spicy varietal is the Kashmiri powder or degi mirch. It is made from Kashmiri chilies which are small and less spicy, but add a bright red color to dishes.

Mexican chili powder is a mix of cayenne, cumin, coriander and oregano. It has a lot more flavor and not just heat. So please do not use this interchangeably with Indian chili powder.

Fun Fact: Chilis did not originate in India. They were brought to India by the Portuguese. Before the introduction of chilies, black pepper was used to add heat and spiciness to Indian dishes.

Fun Fact: Red chilies help cool the body down and thin the blood which is why they are eaten more in the hottest parts of the country like Rajasthan.

Fenugreek Seed

This spice is used extensively in India both the leaves and the seed. The leaves can be used fresh or dried, and the seeds are used as is or sometimes as sprouts and microgreens. It has an array of therapeutic qualities and is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine. It is given to women when they are nursing to help with their milk supply.

In terms of flavor, it has a bitter taste. Once toasted the bitterness is reduced. The fresh leaves taste very different from the seeds and cannot be substituted.

Fun Fact: Fenugreek seeds is supposed to smell like maple syrup and is used as flavoring in imitation maple syrup.


Diwali 2018


Diwali – the festival of lights, one of the key festivals for Indians and an excuse to indulge by way of food, drinks, gambling and gifts – go figure. It’s party time for weeks on end. In India there is a festive mood, open houses, food galore, fire crackers and beautifully lit up houses.


What I especially love is the fact that people from all income levels go all out and light up their houses with diyas (tea light candles made with clay). I feel nostalgic just reminiscing, and the aroma of the smoke from all the lights makes me so happy.


Here in San Francisco I have a party every year and I cook copious amounts of food and really get into the décor.  There are usually 50 people in my not so large house. I am always complaining as I plan, swearing that it will be my last time doing this but in the end it’s all so worth it and nothing makes me happier.


Planning of the party is always difficult as I try to recreate memories from my childhood in India. I spend countless hours on Pinterest, Etsy and different stores trying to find props that will fit with my vision. As we get closer the stress and the excitement builds. One of must-have decorations is Rangoli which is an art form in which patterns are created on the floor with colored powder, flowers, and rice. It is done during festivals and supposed to bring good luck.  I usually make Rangoli with colored powder but this time I used a combination of flowers and lentils. I was quite happy with the end result and it became the center piece for my dining table.

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The whole house had lights all over and the backyard had fairy lights. We had marigolds, which is the official flower for Diwali, decorating the entrance. It was very festive and warm and reminded me of home!     The most important aspect, as you would have guessed, was the food. Typically, I spend hours debating the menu with my husband. He being a foodie himself has his own vision and somehow we have to come up with a plan that fits both our visions. The food needs to be authentic, yet different and mostly pre made which is a big challenge because some of the tastiest Indian foods are made hot right there and then. This year was especially difficult because we were embarking on an all vegetarian menu which had to wow all. The day of the party happened to fall on a religious day where we don’t eat meat. After a lot of back and forth we decided on the final menu      Appetizers   Aloo Chop: a Bihari (region of India) potato slider which is spicy and fairly complex to make  Matar ki chaat: a street food, made using dried yellow peas and slowly cooked with mild spices      Mains   Khoya Makhana Matar: fox nut (makhana) and green peas (matar) cooked with reduced milk in a tomato curry.  Dal Makhani: rich, creamy lentil dish  Kurkuri Bhindi: deep fried crispy okra cooked with ajwain (carom seed)  Paneer Adraki: an amazing paneer (cheese) dish made with lots of ginger and various spices      Sides   Dahi Vada: lentil fritters topped with yogurt and tamarind chutney  Bharwa Mirch: serrano peppers stuffed with mango powder and then lightly sautéed  Mirch Ajwain Paratha: bread flavored red chili powder with carom seeds  Pudina Paratha: bread stuffed with dried mint      Dessert   Mal Pua: deep fried crunchy fennel pancakes topped with warm sugar syrup  Rabri: thickened/reduced milk with pistachios, saffron and cardamom      A lot of my friends were initially skeptical of a pure vegetarian menu, especially since most of them crave my non-vegetarian dishes. So, I was definitely surprised and happy to hear them say that this was one of the most interesting and delicious meals they have ever had. Well, I guess the hard work paid off. Specifically, I had make a lot of the ingredients from scratch in order to make the dishes. Freshly made paneer, ghee, khoya, parathas and dahi vadas. These are things I could easily buy pre-made but there is a huge difference in flavor when they are made at home. In fact, the most popular dish of the evening was the paneer and I attribute it mainly to the fact that the paneer was homemade, which lent the dish an incredibly tender/silky texture.     Mal pua was also a big hit. It’s not a dessert you see in the US. Very simply described it’s like a crispy pancake dipped in sugar syrup. It’s typically crunchy, warm and sweet. It’s got hints of fennel seeds, cardamom, saffron, raisins and almonds. It perfectly satisfies your sugar craving on a cold rainy day but for me any day.     Overall, it was another perfect Diwali with loved ones, good food, gambling till 3am (I lost unfortunately) and fire crackers too.

The whole house had lights all over and the backyard had fairy lights. We had marigolds, which is the official flower for Diwali, decorating the entrance. It was very festive and warm and reminded me of home!


The most important aspect, as you would have guessed, was the food. Typically, I spend hours debating the menu with my husband. He being a foodie himself has his own vision and somehow we have to come up with a plan that fits both our visions. The food needs to be authentic, yet different and mostly pre made which is a big challenge because some of the tastiest Indian foods are made hot right there and then. This year was especially difficult because we were embarking on an all vegetarian menu which had to wow all. The day of the party happened to fall on a religious day where we don’t eat meat. After a lot of back and forth we decided on the final menu


Appetizers

Aloo Chop: a Bihari (region of India) potato slider which is spicy and fairly complex to make

Matar ki chaat: a street food, made using dried yellow peas and slowly cooked with mild spices


Mains

Khoya Makhana Matar: fox nut (makhana) and green peas (matar) cooked with reduced milk in a tomato curry.

Dal Makhani: rich, creamy lentil dish

Kurkuri Bhindi: deep fried crispy okra cooked with ajwain (carom seed)

Paneer Adraki: an amazing paneer (cheese) dish made with lots of ginger and various spices


Sides

Dahi Vada: lentil fritters topped with yogurt and tamarind chutney

Bharwa Mirch: serrano peppers stuffed with mango powder and then lightly sautéed

Mirch Ajwain Paratha: bread flavored red chili powder with carom seeds

Pudina Paratha: bread stuffed with dried mint


Dessert

Mal Pua: deep fried crunchy fennel pancakes topped with warm sugar syrup

Rabri: thickened/reduced milk with pistachios, saffron and cardamom



A lot of my friends were initially skeptical of a pure vegetarian menu, especially since most of them crave my non-vegetarian dishes. So, I was definitely surprised and happy to hear them say that this was one of the most interesting and delicious meals they have ever had. Well, I guess the hard work paid off. Specifically, I had make a lot of the ingredients from scratch in order to make the dishes. Freshly made paneer, ghee, khoya, parathas and dahi vadas. These are things I could easily buy pre-made but there is a huge difference in flavor when they are made at home. In fact, the most popular dish of the evening was the paneer and I attribute it mainly to the fact that the paneer was homemade, which lent the dish an incredibly tender/silky texture.


Mal pua was also a big hit. It’s not a dessert you see in the US. Very simply described it’s like a crispy pancake dipped in sugar syrup. It’s typically crunchy, warm and sweet. It’s got hints of fennel seeds, cardamom, saffron, raisins and almonds. It perfectly satisfies your sugar craving on a cold rainy day but for me any day.


Overall, it was another perfect Diwali with loved ones, good food, gambling till 3am (I lost unfortunately) and fire crackers too.



Getting back to blogging and my process for making a basic grain bowl…...

I haven’t written in a long time. I keep wanting to, but I have a strange inertia when it comes to writing/blogging. It is almost a feeling of anxiety. I feel I am not a good writer and I wouldn’t have interesting things to say. A lot of food bloggers have continually encouraged me to write and I am giving it another try. Hopefully, if I do it for a while it might not seem so daunting and come to me easier. I am hoping I can write one new blog post every week. But we will see how that goes

Recently I have been cooking up a storm with the kids at home and always wanting food. It’s been hard juggling work, cooking, classes and fun activities with the kids. We have been trying to eat healthier as a family. Cutting out processed food and reducing grains in our diet. To make sure we don’t cheat I have to constantly keep the food interesting and flavorful. I have been making a lot of grain bowls with different themes. My most recent one was the morocco inspired bowl with harissa chicken, chickpeas, mushrooms, cauliflower rice, tzatziki, lemony cucumbers, sunflower seeds. The kids gobbled it up and asked me to make it again. That was a big win. I have realized if I add enough texture color and different flavors any bowl can taste good.

My Bowl fundamentals:

1.     Start with the base

(bulk of the bowl- grains, cauliflower rice, quinoa, zoodles, greens)

2.     Pick a theme

(moroccon, korean, thai, Greek, Indian and the list goes on)

3.     Your protein should be usually as per the theme

(harissa for moroccan, some thai curry paste for thai, some spice for Indian etc.)

4.     Supporting vegetables

(bulk it up with complimentary vegetables and sides, cucumbers for the moroccan bowl, kimchi and mushrooms for korean, sprouts for thai ….)

5.     Add texture

(nuts, seeds, crispy munchies add texture, nutrition, flavor and healthy fats)

6.     Round it up with a sauce if needed or a garnish

(if you think it needs more flavor or heat you can add a drizzle of hot sauce or some oil or vinegar or a dressing)

 

This is just the way I think of a bowl, but I am sure there are many ways of doing it but it’s nice to have a process. Here are some of the bowls I made recently. Let me know if you make any interesting bowls.

 

Turmeric, the miracle spice - fashionable or true?

Turmeric is trending right now is an understatement. People are trying to consume it in any and every form, dry, fresh, juiced or pickled. Is this just something that’s popular at the moment or there is truth in it.

As long as I can remember turmeric has been a staple in my diet growing up in an Indian household. Just like so many other spices I treated it very matter of fact as another masala (spice) that is widely prevalent in Indian curries without giving it much thought.

Until the last couple of years wherein there has be an explosion in its popularity and an aggressive enthusiasm to include it ones diet. That’s when I started taking note of it but still with some skepticism. Just like fashion trends food has its cycles too and I wondered if this is the next spice on the block that will fade in some time. But as it turns out that it has been pretty resilient and continues to pop up on several nutritionists blogs that I follow and Ayurvedic medicine papers. This got me to studying it a little to uncloak the myths and understand the reality.

It is a perennial plant of the ginger family which is native to India. You can use it fresh or dried, ground up in a powder form as is commonly used. It is available fresh in Indian grocery stores, Mexican stores and Whole Foods too. It is used in Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Persian,  Thai,Vietnamese, Cambodian and Nepali food to name a few. In fact a lot of Persian dishes use turmeric as a starter to caramelize onions with oil. It initially was used as a dyeing agent and robes of Hindu monks would be colored using this root. Not a very fast dye but it works. It stains! So careful on your granite counters and fabric.

The active ingredient which makes it good for you is curcumic. It is anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and an anti-oxidant. Wow that’s a lot. But a small overlooked fact is that curcumin is not well absorbed into the blood stream unless you consume it with black pepper which has a natural substance called piperine that enhances its absorption by 2000%!!! It is also fat soluble so would be much better if consumed with some sort of fat. Other than that it actually passes through your digestive tract almost completely.

It is supposed to help with arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s, acne etc. (it’s a pretty long list)

Growing up every time I had the flu I was given turmeric milk which I didn’t think of as anything special, except it worked. But oh man it does really work and can be tasty with honey, black pepper, cardamom, milk and turmeric.

I have seen people apply turmeric to open wounds and scars. Because of its antiseptic properties it is widely used in face packs as well. In fact in India there is a ceremony called Haldi (the Hindi name for turmeric) which is performed 2 days before the wedding. The guests smear a turmeric paste on the couple and it is supposed to give the newlyweds a glow and is auspicious.

Fun Facts:

Car mechanics in India will add a few teaspoons of turmeric in the radiator to temporarily block a leak.

If you sprinkle turmeric on a leech apparently it will remove itself.

 

That’s a lot of good karma it has going for itself. So trend or here to stay- I think its not going anywhere. Do you have any turmeric stories?

Is rubbing cucumbers an old wives tale?

I grew up in India and every time we cut cucumbers we had to cut off the ends and sprinkle it with salt and rub it. It brought out a white sticky sap. You are supposed to cut that off and rinse the cucumber. Voila the bitterness is gone!

Like many other things I attributed this to an old wives tale, until in 2 separate classes, 2 different students mentioned doing the same in Mexico. It got me wondering that it would be highly coincidental to have completely unrelated cultures follow the same practice. Of course on asking them I got the expected response that they were following what their grandmother did without knowing the reason.

I started doing some research, and lo and behold there is a reason. Cucumbers are members of the gourd family which produces a particular class of compounds called CUCURBITACINS which are bitter. These compounds are produced as a self-defense mechanism to protect themselves from being eaten. The compound tends to be concentrated at the ends. Hence you rub the ends, sprinkling the salt helps in extracting the white milky fluid that contains the cucurbitacins. By cutting off the ends of the cucumber you reduce the likelihood of getting the cucurbitacins to spread to the rest of the cucumber. Some say if you don’t cut off the end the bitterness gets rubbed back in.

Next question that came to mind was why some cucumbers are bitter and some not?

A couple of things determine the amount of bitterness in a cucumber. Another enzyme called elaterase hydrolyses to non-bitter compounds. Depending on environmental conditions the enzyme will vary with different varieties. Also if the cucumber grows with less water it tends to be more bitter. The bitter compounds are much less prevalent in the bred varieties compared to wild cucumbers. This makes sense because my cucumbers in the US are almost never bitter when bought at stores, but I have experienced bitterness in cucumbers from the farmers market.

Are cucurbitacins safe to eat and nontoxic?

Yes just not very appetizing.

This makes me wonder about all the different traditions that we follow and pass it off as superstition or habit. I am sure there is a science to most.

Does your culture have any?