Most of the charm of Indian cooking lies in its heavy use of spices – they are the soul of the Indian kitchen
Cumin, basil, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, shallots, rosemary, coriander, chillies, turmeric, paanch phoran, garam masala…Indeed what would the world of Indian cooking be without spices? Pretty lacklustre, one would imagine. Fresh, fragrant herbs and freshly-ground spices are wonderful, their aroma inspiring. They have the power to elevate the simplest of dishes to a gourmet level.
Many chefs sing paeans to their favourite spice. They feel spices also appeal to the most innate of human emotions. The spice could be reminiscent of their mother’s cooking years ago, an heirloom recipe that won them plaudits or their own inventive mix that garnered compliments from friends or guests.
Award-winning Chef Tejas Sovani of The Oberoi Gurugram still remembers the first time he became acquainted with the world of spices. “It was when my mother tempered khichadi. The aroma wafted through to my room and I just fell in love with the spice she’d used, which was cumin. Ever since, cumin continues to play a stellar role in my kitchen and remains my favourite spice. When I use cumin in my dishes, I’m assured that its smoky aroma will amplify the flavour of my cooking.”
Cumin’s global appeal cuts a swathe across nationalities and borders. It is popularly used not only in Indian food, but also in Eastern, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Portuguese and Spanish cuisines. The spice is also mentioned in the Bible as a seasoning for soup and bread! It’s interesting to note that cumin also symbolises love. Women gave it to their husbands when sending them off to war, baked in a loaf of bread! A versatile spice, cumin is a great aphrodisiac, a flavouring agent and teems with medicinal properties too.
Interestingly, such is the clout of spices in the culinary world that some top hotels have even named their restaurants after them. The Trident Hotel in Gurugram is one such example. It has named two of its most popular eateries eponymously after spices – Cilantro and Saffron!
“None of our dishes go out to the tables unless I bring out their soul with cilantro’s green and tender leaves. The moment it hits the surface of hot food, the magic begins and the aroma teases your senses. The herb also has health benefits, is an antioxidant and a rich source of dietary fibre. Saffron, similarly, is used to treat a variety of ailments as mentioned in ancient scripts,” explains Sovani.
Being in the culinary arts for over two decades, Sandeep Kalra, Executive Chef, Hotel Trident, Gurugram, elaborates, “What began my romance with the herbs are my roots, my childhood, where the final touch was added to home-cooked food by my mother and my granny with these star ingredients – herbs.”
Chef Anil Khurana, Corporate Indian Chef, Hyatt Regency Delhi, is similarly enchanted with the colours and aromas of spices. “What’s most appealing to me about herbs and condiments is their aroma. The fragrance of freshly ground spices has the power to take any dish to another level. My favourite spice is pepper masala. I make it on my own and use it in mutton and other Indian curries. Its heat and spiciness gives dishes an intense flavour, making them supremely delicious.”
The award-winning chef recalls that as a child, he grew up seeing pepper masala being used extensively by his mom in her mutton curry. “I’ve fond memories of me spending hours in the kitchen with my mother. The family’s favourite pepper-infused mutton curry was polished off within minutes of my mother laying it on the table,” he adds.
Another special quality about Indian spices, adds the chef, is that they take on different hues and avatars across the length and breadth of this unique country. “During childhood, I remember our South Indian neighbours also using pepper masala with curry leaves for cooking,” adds Khurana. “This is what makes Indian cuisines so distinctive. They’re all so unique yet so similar in their roots. And every part of the country, every state, has its own variations of the same spice mixtures that characterise the cuisine of that particular region.”
Many chefs also love to get inventive with their favourite spices, mixing them up with those from other parts of the world to create unique flavours. Head Chef Nilesh Dey, Crowne Plaza Gurugram, whose favourite spice is kababchini (also known as cubebs or allspice), recounts an incident of how he made kababchini to impress a senior politician.
“I remember once when I was preparing food for an eminent American politician, he requested me to refrain from using spices liberally in the food. This put me in a dilemma. So I got thinking and prepared chicken in Jamaican style using kebabchini. I seared it, grilled it and served it on a charcoal grill. The gentleman was so thrilled with the dish that he even sent me a letter of appreciation the next day. Ever since, I continue to experiment with this amazing spice, which has never disappointed me in my kitchen.”
For Executive Chef Rajesh Wadhwa of Taj Palace, New Delhi, the singular most appealing thing about spices is their universality. While they are a staple in most Indian cuisines, spices are also used extensively in Middle Eastern and North African fare, he explains. “As a culinarian, spices are very close to my heart. They lend an identity to food. From tempering a humble lentil preparation to a topping over a raita or lending body to a flavour-charged gravy, nothing is possible without spices. Garam masala, panch-phoran, curry powder…. Can you imagine food without their nutty, peppery aroma?” he asks passionately.