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A quick guide to Indian spices

A quick guide to Indian Spices - Le Cordon Bleu London

One of the first things that comes to mind when we think about Indian cuisine is the beautiful variety of spices. South Asian cuisine is renowned for creating food that is vibrant both in colour and flavour, which is largely down to the diverse range of spices that are used. So in light of our popular short course, Taste of Asia – India, and with the help of our expert lecturer Nitin Radhakrishnan, Le Cordon Bleu London have compiled this quick guide to the commonly used spices that lay at the heart of Indian cuisine.

Basic spices

There are three different ways to identify spices and one of those classifications is basic. Nitin, who teaches our wine and culinary management courses, says that basic spices are the most commonly used in Indian cuisine, as they are used in everyday cooking, with this usually being in powder form. Three of the most popular basic spices include:

India is currently the largest producer of chillies which were introduced to India and South-eastern Asia by the Portuguese in the 16th century. The main varieties of chillies available in India are Kashmiri, Guntur and Byadagi chillies, with of each of them providing different levels of heat and colour.

Medicinal value – Chilli contains capsaicin which is considered to be effective as a topical pain relief. Chillies are also a good source of vitamin c and an effective appetite stimulant.

Coriander is native to India and Morocco, with the seeds and the leaves used extensively in curries. The seeds have a sweet, heady aroma with a subtle undertone of pine and pepper, which is completely different to the qualities of the leaves, which are more commonly used as a garnish or in chutneys.

Medicinal value – Coriander seeds are very cooling and help to reduce fever, lower cholesterol and relive flatulence. It also makes an excellent eye wash amongst many other health benefits.

India is the largest producer of turmeric which is a member of the ginger family, and the heart and soul of any Indian curry. It has got a musky, dry taste and possesses the quality of enhancing the flavour and colour of a dish. The spice also holds a scared value amongst Hindus who use it for anointing deities.

Medicinal value – Turmeric paste is used as an antiseptic for wounds and burns. It is also used extensively in cosmetics and is known for cleansing the blood.

Intermediate spices

Next we arrive at intermediate spices, which are usually used whole as opposed to crushed or powdered. Nitin explains that these spices are used only occasionally in Indian cooking to add more depth and flavour to a dish. Three of the most commonly used intermediate spices are as follows:

Clove is an unopened flower bud which is commonly grown in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia. It is quite fragrant when dry roasted and is used in smoking and tempering. This spice is also an important flavouring agent in garam masala and is commonly used in meat preparation.

Medicinal value – Clove and its oils are an excellent remedy for toothaches.

Cardamom is the world’s third most expensive spice and mainly grows in the Malabar region of India. It is very aromatic and can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. There are three varieties of the spice which are green, white and black, with the green variety being more widely used.

Medicinal value – Green cardamom is used to loosen mucus and as a mouth freshener whilst black cardamom is used to treat stomach disorders and malaria.

Sri Lanka is the largest producer of cinnamon, which is made from the dried inner bark of the cinnamon tree. The bark is rolled by hand to form curls and is used to flavour rice, curries and desserts.

Medicinal value – It is believed that cinnamon infused in warm water is effective in curing the common cold, preventing stress and stimulating digestion. Cinnamon oil is also believed to cure rheumatic pains.

Premium spices

The last classification to add is the premium spices which are only used when you want to add a touch of luxury to a dish, as they are the most expensive and the rarest. Three examples of premium Indian spiced include:

India is the largest producer of Fenugreek which can be used as a herb (dried or fresh leaves), a spice (seeds), or a vegetable (fresh leaves, sprouts, and microgreens). The seeds have a pleasant aroma but they need to be toasted to reduce the bitterness. The seeds are usually used whole in tempering or as a powder.

Medicinal value – Fenugreek increases the production of urine, lowers blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol. A paste made from the seeds can also be applied to the head to reduce fever.

Both the fruits (often mistakenly called seeds) and the leaves of carom are commonly used in Indian dishes. It has a bitter and pungent taste and a smell that is almost identical to thyme. It is also very aromatic so even a small number of fruits can dominate the flavour of a dish.

Medicinal value – Carom is used to relieve involuntary muscle spasms and also to treat stomach disorders.

Saffron is the most expensive of all of the spices, with Iran being the largest producer followed by countries like India, where it grows in the Kashmir valley. The spice enhances the flavour of savoury as well as sweet dishes and is used In Indian dishes such as Mughlai curries, kebabs and biriyanis. A few strands of saffron soaked in warm milk or water and added to a dish along with the liquid, adds fragrance and colour.

Medicinal value – Saffron is used in cosmetics and is also said to be an aphrodisiac. The spice is also used to treat depression.

All spices should be stored in airtight containers away from direct sunlight. Whole spices can last for around six months, whereas powdered spices start to lose their flavour after only a few weeks. Also spices should ideally be toasted or dry roasted before being crushed or ground as it brings about the essential oils in them.

If you would like more information about ‘Taste of Asia – India’ or any of our other gourmet short courses, please visit the Le Cordon Bleu London website.

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