Spices represent the heart of the kitchen, giving life to the blank canvas that begins each new recipe. Spices also play an important role in maintaining health. For example, ginger and cumin aid digestion; turmeric acts as one of nature’s most powerful cleansers. I have often made my own spices by simply dry-roasting cumin seeds and pounding them in my well-worn stone mortar-and-pestle until it becomes fragrant cumin powder.
I fondly remember watching the early morning masala being made in the Indian households I visited. The mixture of spices was an aromatic blend: fresh ginger, whole turmeric root, seeds of both cumin and coriander, green chilies, a bit of water—all deftly pounded into a potent paste. The aroma, even now, sends me into an Indian time-warp. A few weeks ago, I realized how making a spice mixture can be very helpful. Recently, while some long-time acquaintances visited us from India, I made a unique dish that required a special spice mixture. Usually, I bought this (Sambar) powder at an Indian grocery store. However, our guests did not eat anything with chilies! So I had to make my own, using the same ratio of spices but without the chillies. This was my first time making Sambar powder from scratch.
I often make my own garam masala because I prefer less cinnamon and black pepper, and more cardamom. Spice mixtures are simple to prepare and are like perfume to the senses. Listed below are three spice mixtures you can experiment with. There are four important rules to remember when making spice mixes:
1. Use only the freshest spices possible.
2. If you roast the spices, make sure that they cool down completely before grinding them into a powder and covering them up.
3. Use an airtight jar and label it. Different spices can often look alike.
4. Date the jar. Spice mixtures loose their punch after a while (Make enough for about four to six months).
The origin of the word curry is the stuff of legends, but most pundits believe it is derived from the Tamil word kari, which means “spiced sauce.” The word kari also refers to an aromatic herb called karipalai, which is used to flavor foods in the Southern and Western parts of India. Originally, the spice blend kari podi, or curry powder, contained only the curry leaf and a few spices, such as black pepper and ground gram beans known as urad dal. In time, the spice blend evolved to include various other spices and developed its deeply complex and rich flavor.
2/3 C coriander seeds
1½ T cumin seeds
1 T yellow mustard seeds
1 T fenugreek seeds
1 t white or black peppercorns
24 whole green cardamom pods, hull them (Make sure the seeds are very fresh; if they are not a robust black but a dry grey, discard them; hulled, the measurement is about 1 T.)
1-9 dried whole red chillies, broken into bits. This controls the intensity of the curry, which can be mild to atomic.
1 t fennel seeds
2 T turmeric
2 t ground ginger powder
½ T paprika, for a depth of color (optional)
32 dried curry leaves (highly recommended, though not easy to locate, they are available in Indian spice stores) or mint leaves (optional)
1. Combine coriander, cumin, mustard, fenugreek, peppercorn, cardamom, chili, and fennel seeds in an unseasoned frying pan.
2. Roast the spices over medium-high heat, stirring until they are lightly colored, about 5 minutes.
3. Remove and cool spice-mixture before grinding into a powder in a coffee grinder.
4. Add the rest of the ground spices.
5. Transfer the curry powder into a jar, cover tightly, and store in a cool dark place.
Mexican Spice Mix Recipe
This is a general Mexican spice mix, I use 1 red pepper, but it’s all a personal preference.
2 T cumin seeds, dry roast for five minutes
1-4 dried whole red peppers (depending on preference)
2 t dried oregano leaves
½ C chilli powder
¼ C paprika, use Spanish smoked paprika if you can get it
1 t garlic powder
1 t salt
1. Grind cumin seeds, red peppers and oregano in a spice mill.
2. Mix with the rest of the ingredients until well blended. Store in an air tight jar.
Potato/Cauliflower and Chic Pea curry are two of many dishes that use this wonderful blend. Garam Masala may be stored at room temperature in an airtight container, and will retain its full flavor for five months.
5 cinnamon sticks in 3-inch pieces
1 C whole cardamom pods, preferably green
½ C whole cloves
½ C whole cumin seeds
¼ C whole coriander seeds
¼ C whole black peppercorns
Preheat oven to 200 degrees
1. Spread the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, coriander, and peppercorns in one layer in a large shallow roasting pan.
2. Roast on the bottom shelf of the oven for 30 minutes, stirring and turning the mixture 2 or 3 times with a large wooden spoon. Do not let the spices brown.
3. Break open the cardamom pods between your fingers or place them one at time on a flat surface and press down on the pod with the ball of your thumb to snap open. Pull the pod away from the seeds inside and discard it. Set the seeds aside. Place the roasted cinnamon sticks in a plastic bag and pound them with a rolling pin or a kitchen mallet until they are finely crushed.
4. Combine the cardamom seeds, crushed cinnamon, cloves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and peppercorns in a small pan or bowl and stir them together until they are well-mixed. Grind the spices a cup or so at a time by pouring them into the jar of an electric blender and blending at high speed for 2 or 3 minutes. Blend until they are completely pulverized and become a smooth powder. Transfer the powder to a jar or bottle with a tightly fitting lid.