Jul 23, 2014

A Guide to Indian Spice Mixes

Creating a balanced and flavourful spice mix is an essential skill in Indian cookery. It is said that in order to become an accomplished Indian cook, you must first become a good spice blender (or masalchi).

Used as the basis for so much Indian cuisine, spice mixes are an integral part of the country’s culinary heritage.
The word masala refers to the aromatic composition of a dish, but also the mixture of spices used. In Indian cooking there are literally hundreds of masalas, varying across regions, foods, and the tastes of the individual preparing them.  In fact, if you were to ask an Indian person for their family’s masala recipe, you would be likely to get a slightly different answer every time!

Traditionally, spice blends were prepared as and when they were required. However, this is perhaps an unrealistic expectation for today’s average cook – so thankfully, they can also be kept in a jar for 3-4 months. 

Garam Masala - One of the most widely known spice blends, it originated in the north of the country and is now used across the globe by cooks wishingto add an authentic Indian flavour to their cooking. This pungent mix typically contains cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds; cinnamon sticks; cloves; bay leaves; black peppercorns and ground mace. The spices are usually dry roasted to add an extra depth of flavour. This blend is often used with onion-based sauces for meat dishes, and is also added to pilau and biryani dishes.

Sambhar Powder – Sambhar is quite a hot powder, popular in southern vegetarian cooking. It is used to liven up pulses and stewed vegetables, and even contains pulses in itself - such aschanna dal (yellow split peas) or toordahl (split pigeon peas) - which act as thickening agents and impart a nutty flavour. Other key ingredients include dried red chillies; coriander, cumin and mustard seeds; fenugreek seeds; ground turmeric and ground asafoetida.

Bengali PanchPhoron – Originating from Bengal in the east of the country, this is used in a similar way to sambhar. It is also added to hot oil before adding other ingredients, or can be used to flavour ghee before being poured over lentil dishes. Perhaps the simplest mix to prepare, it contains equal quantities of cumin, fennel, mustard, nigella and fenugreek seeds.

Madras Curry Powder – A fragrant, moderately hot powder combining red chillies; coriander, cumin and mustard seeds; black peppercorns; curry leaves; ground ginger and ground turmeric. This works well with either lamb or pork dishes.       

Chat Masala – An unusual mixture with a sweet-and-sour taste, this is used in the cooking of fast food, as well as insalads and sprinkled on fruit - it can even be added to drinks. The blend contains amchoor (dried mango powder) for sweetness, as well as cumin seeds; black peppercorns; ajowan seeds; black salt; ground ginger; ground asafoetida and chilli powder.

An expertly-blended spice mix can make a world of difference to a dish. If you want to experience the taste for yourself, it is worth paying a visit to some of London’s best fine dining Indian restaurants. The chefs of these establishments make their spice mixes and masalas from scratch, offering the diner an impressive and memorable experience of real Indian food.

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